A couple of years ago, on the 10th anniversary of my high school graduation I was asked to return to my high school to speak at a mother-son brunch. I’ve had the privilege of speak at a fair number of mother-son or mother-daughter Masses, brunches, etc. And when I do, I always have one goal and that’s to make mom cry. Trust me you’ve never seen someone more uncomfortable than a son or daughter sitting next to their crying mother. As I was thinking about what to say I found myself asking if I could go back and tell my high school self-something what would it be. What piece of advice would I have for to give my high-school self 10 years after I graduated? Much to my own surprise two words come immediately to mind: Memento Mori, the Latin phrase which means “remember that you will die” or in the words of St. Benedict “keep death daily before your eyes.” (Rule 4.47).
Now I’m sure many of you are thinking well that’s kind of morbid for a mother-son brunch and perhaps it is. But you see as I look back on my life from high school until now, I have begun to realize that’s the greatest lesson I have ever learned. In high school I thought I was invincible. In high school nothing could harm me; life was good. But as I’ve grown up and especially in my life as a priest who specializes in biomedical ethics, I see death almost every day. And death not just in people we would expect to die. Pretty quickly as a priest, and I’m sure with many other professions, that we don’t know the day or the time or the hour, but there is one thing that’s certain; death will come. I’ve been in rooms with the smartest physicians in the world and they couldn’t prevent a death. I’ve been in trauma rooms where they have tried everything you can possibly imagine to save a young life and it hasn’t worked.
Perhaps this focus may seem morbid, but it shouldn’t be if you are really a person of faith. You see if you truly believe that we are pilgrims on this life going to eternal life then death is sad but death is never the end. Death is but a transition from this life to the place that God has prepared for each and every one of us.
While no death is routine, and one never adjusts to death, I’m grateful it’s a part of my daily life because it has changed my entire perspective on life. I’m afraid many of us begin to take our lives for granted. We do one thing and then the next, and the next, and we go on and on. As I was trying to write that talk. I wanted to get that phrase momento mori out of my head and find something else to speak on, but I couldn’t because I began to realize that at that if other are anything like me, we are so caught up in the present we never stop to ponder what comes next. We are so wrapped up in this world that we easily forget our actions now determine our eternal destiny. We work so hard to make sure we aren’t taking anything for granted that we fail to realize we are taking heaven for granted. We don’t want to leave anything to chance, but we are actually leaving the most import thing, our eternal salvation for granted. We can get so caught up in setting ourselves up for the future that we fail to realize there may be no future because our life could end today.
Ultimately, if we don’t stop for a moment and ponder the future, we will never get to where we want to go. Just think about it for a moment, if you are going to run a race don’t you think you better know where the finish line is and if you are going to build a bench don’t you think you better know what the bench looks like before you start to build it? Why should it be any different with our lives?
Friends, you and I know what the end is supposed to look like. It’s the kingdom of heaven. But we have to keep that in front of us if we are going to arrive at that goal. I think sometimes then it’s important for us to step back for a moment and I think today’s Gospel invites us to do just that. Today’s Gospel invites us to step back for a moment and remember that we will die. God willing, years from now, but at some point death will come for all of us. Next we have to recognize that we become what we repeatedly do. So if we want to be saints when we die we have to be a saint now. Day in and day out our actions have to such that we are formed into saints. You see I’m afraid, our problem today isn’t that our aim is too high and we miss it, I’m afraid that we set we set the bar too low and we actually achieve it. Part of the challenge for us is to recognize that we are called not just to enjoy this life, but that we are called to be saints and that means hard work. That means the bar has been set extremely high.
In today’s busy, even for those of us in the church today who want to live out our faith, there can be a tendency a tendency for us to fall into the trap of seeing our faith as just one more thing on our to do list. But our faith isn’t just one more thing on our to-do list, it is the lens, the reasons for which we do everything on our list. We are not called to do Catholicism, we are called to be Catholic.
Today’s gospel is a stark reminder for each and every one of us. It’s a sigh of hope that heaven awaits, but it’s also a reminder that it’s too important to forget about. Death will come and this life moves way too quickly for us to ever forget about our death or lose our focus on heaven. Last week I challenged each and every one of us to ask ourselves, if I died today would I go to heaven. Today I challenge you to memento mori and recall that you are called to be a saint.