"...forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
Jubilee Year Ash Wednesday, on February 10th, is fast approaching. On that day, as our foreheads are signed with ash-crosses, some of us will be invited to change our lives and believe in the Gospel. Others of us will be reminded that we are dust, and into dust we will return. No matter how many Ash Wednesday’s I’ve lived through, there always is something very sobering about those dust-related words. Someday, a day that only God knows, I will die, hopefully a holy natural death, and into dust I will return. Guaranteed.
There are many different ways of looking at natural death. In the context of this article, natural death is being viewed as the final detachment—willing or not!--from all Earthly material possessions, including our own bodies.
At the time of our natural death, detachment from Earthly material things becomes a non-negotiable option. We can take nothing material with us when we die. Nothing.
Meanwhile, every day that we live, we die in some way—some ways by our choices, some ways not so. We die corporeally because our body becomes older and shows its limits. Every day, too, we have the option of choosing a positive spiritual death to our sins, our defects, our negativities.
At the same time that we are dying, every day, inasmuch as the Lord’s mercies are new every morning (Cf. Lamentations 3:22-23), we take new life in Christ. That is the mystery of the Paschal Mystery, the Death and Resurrection of Christ that gives meaning to our life and actions, in joy or in suffering and hard moments. Our Christian hope teaches us that Jesus is there for us always.
As St. Paul consoles us, he is convinced “…that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, not future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
In a paradox, we need to separate from this life—what we call “death”—(in the state of grace) in order to live forever with Jesus. That being said, natural death—the final, absolute detachment from all Earthly material things-- is a lot easier and much more salvific if we accept the detachment in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God, the Good News of Salvation, the living Gospel.
Without the Grace of God, accepting our natural death is challenging—if not impossible. When God created Adam and Eve, God did not create them to die. Natural death is a punishment for original sin, and when Jesus comes a Second time, it will be forever destroyed, for “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15: 20-26).
Lent offers us a time of self-discipline, of denial, and that “penance,” that detachment, it seems to me, can actually prepare us so that the final detachment called for at the time of natural death will be easier. Through the discipline of Lent, we can develop and create capacities in our spiritual life to face those dying moments, that passage from this material world to the spiritual world in Jesus, where, please, God!, we will be with Him in the Heavenly home He has prepared for us.
Also, inasmuch as Lent calls us to perform corporal and spiritual works of mercy, these works of charity also prepare us for an everlasting life filled with love for God and neighbor. Acts of mercy done in this life help to prepare us to serenely respond to the after-death judgment concerning how we have lived the Lord’s Beatitudes.
As best we can, it is good, with the help of God’s Grace, to prepare for the emotional detachment that is required by dying, because detaching is not easy. I say that based on an exercise I have never forgotten taking; an exercise that was part of the Hospice volunteer training I received. The purpose of the exercise was to help us gain empathy for the detachment-work needed to be accomplished by the dying individuals we would serve as hospice volunteers.
Apart from its original role within hospice volunteer training, I believe that doing the detachment simulation exercise provides each one of us with a good way to gain compassion for the detachment process that dying relatives and friends are facing.
Additionally, I believe the detachment simulation exercise provides, too, in the context of our own Ash Wednesday realizations, a practical wake-up call to motivate us perhaps to practice a spirit of detachment all year long, even throughout our entire lives, and particularly when the time for our natural death becomes predictably closer.
Although I admit that I might not remember the particulars precisely, here, then, is the detachment simulation exercise. I warn you; if you are anything like me, this exercise is not emotionally easy! But it is eye-opening! And I do believe it can help us build empathy for the dying and stamina to become more healthily detached, in the spirit of the Gospel message, from people, places, and things, in preparation for our own dying.
Before you begin the exercise, please have paper and pencil, and please, for maximum impact, do the exercise step by step as you read it. No jumping ahead, or reading the whole thing first.
First, list these five categories in one vertical column:
talent or ability-
Now, next to each category, write the name of whatever means the most to you.
Review your list. Make sure that what you have written in each category is the most important thing—the most important person, place, body part, talent or ability, and inanimate object.
(Okay. If you’re like me, you’re feeling really good, probably even smiling, and thinking about those five things. You might be wondering what this exercise has to do with hospice training. Buckle your seat belt. Here we go.)
You just found out you are dying. Give up one thing—from anywhere on your list. Erase or cross it off your list.
Take time to think about how you feel.
(Are you beginning to feel the grief? Which one did you choose? Why, do you think, did you choose that one?....Feeling safe? Grateful you get to keep the other four more meaningful things? …)
Your condition has worsened. Give up another thing. Take it off your list.
Pause to take in how you feel.
(Getting the picture?)
Your health continues deteriorating. Eliminate another thing.
Take time to know what you are feeling.
Death is getting closer. Remove something else from your list.
Take time again; get in touch with your feelings.
There is one more thing on your list. Think about that.
Now erase or cross off from your list that one last thing. You have died. There is nothing material from this life that is left for you to possess or to lose.
…From a Catholic point of view—now that all material things are lost, your soul is fully free--there is everything to gain. You have met Jesus! …For the sake of this detachment exercise, let’s put that best-news aside so that we can focus on the detachments we had to make….
At the end of the exercise during hospice training, we were encouraged to share our thoughts and insights.
Most of us were too speechless to say anything. The intent of the exercise was to help us gain empathy for the dying persons we would be volunteering to serve—to realize, albeit vicariously, how gut-wrenching it is to lose the things you most value and love.
Having fully entered into the exercise, the result was a sense of our own Earthly mortality and the pain of the progressive loss we will feel--unless we experience a sudden death.
I don’t know about you, but that exercise was a most powerful one, both to teach me what I hold as the priorities in my life—those most important things in each category, as well as the relative importance of the categories, themselves, as I chose the progression in which to let go of each person, place, body part, talent or ability, and inanimate object that was important to me.
And despite the pain of dying, I look forward, when nothing in this life is left, to trading in the entire list of things I possessed in this life for being totally, eternally possessed by the Lord Himself in the next.
Meanwhile, I know what I best do: detach, detach, detach; renounce all possessions, as the Lord instructs…in little things and little ways, every day…Hopefully each little detachment, each renouncement makes the final ultimate detachments—over which I likely will have no control or choice--easier to accept with the Lord's Grace.
I’m wondering, what insights about yourself—your life, and your readiness for dying--did you gain from this detachment simulation exercise? Please share your insights in the “Comment” field, or please write an article for us.
May this Jubilee Year of Mercy bring us more healthy detachment from Earthly things and more holy attachment to our Merciful Lord Jesus! God bless you!