I Don’t Want to Die
We’ve heard it countless times: “The safety of our [fill in the blanks] is our highest priority.” So various safety programs are put into place, with policies, procedures, and protocols—mostly burdening everyone except the perpetrators.
A fire drill, in contrast, is a reasonable and worthy safety exercise, to direct our attention, preparing us to make a smart and expeditious exit during an emergency. During my college years, a dormitory fire drill took place rather inconveniently on a Friday night. We all dutifully followed the instructions of the resident advisor and headed for the stairwells. As we proceeded down the stairs in an orderly fashion, we could hear a lone piercing voice: “I don’t want to die!” The absurdity of it was truly comical. A ripple of laughter trickled down the stairs. Despite the passage of time, I still remember that high-pitched voice with a chuckle. But the man had point.
Most of us are not keen on dying except under very specific circumstances: to bring an end to intense suffering. In this respect, Saint Ambrose teaches that while suffering and death are the results of Original Sin and our personal sins, death is a real gift because death limits suffering. But even as we suffer, we probably are more inclined to temper any bravado about death with Woody Allen’s quip: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
We spend a good deal of time avoiding suffering and death and in the main, that’s a good idea (as long as we do not lose sight of the salvific value of unavoidable suffering with Christ and the penitential merits of self-denial). A doctor friend pointed out that due to the miracle of pharmaceutical—such as drugs that control high blood pressure—we are living much longer today than the wealthiest of kings and queens in history. Since the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, we have an obligation before God to take care of it in a reasonable way. And doctors and the entire medical profession help us.
But like most things in life, attentiveness to one’s health can give way to unhealthy obsessions. Many people seem to think that the medical profession can heal every infirmity when, after a certain age, most diseases can only be managed. (One doctor joked, after age 50, doctors help us manage and prolong life’s downward spiral.)
Unfortunately, the line dividing a healthy attention to one’s well-being from neurotic obsession may not be as easy to see. One man’s hypochondria is another man’s cry for help. Search the Internet for the clever tombstone engraving, “I told you I was sick.”
After World War II the average life span zoomed to 78 years from the pre-war 68. Ironically, life-saving medical advances resulted from treating numerous war casualties. So according to present actuarial tables, I have only 15 years to live. assuming I continue to take my blood-pressure pills. Regardless, someday I’m going to die. I’m not fond of the prospect.
The Lord doesn’t want us to suffer and die either. “For God did not make Death, he takes no pleasure in destroying the living” (Wis. 1:13). Jesus cured the sick and wept at the tomb of Lazarus, definitively revealing God’s view of suffering and death. But we’re stuck with suffering and death because of the terrible mystery of sin. After the Fall of Adam and as a consequence of sin, suffering in this life is a sign of an eternity of punishment for unrepented sin.
Hence, along with the obligation to care for the health of our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit, we have an even greater obligation to care for the health of our souls. If there is no escaping death, Christ has given us the means to escape the “second death” (cf. Rev. 2:11): “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25). So my job as a priest is first and foremost to provide my people with the means, by God’s grace, to live forever.
Here’s the deal. When we commit sins, there is absolutely nothing we can do to repair the damage without Christ. Nothing! When we deliberately miss Mass without a good reason (and there are many valid reasons to miss Mass—illness and dangerous weather among them), we commit a mortal sin and kill our souls. When we despise another person with a murderous hate, we commit a mortal sin. When we engage in Internet porn and impurity, we commit a mortal sin. Check out the Ten Commandments and refer to a good examination of conscience. There are many other mortal sins to fear. The same Jesus who tenderly reveals Himself as the “resurrection and the life” sternly warns: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
It would be cruel to suggest there is no way out. This is why the Sacrament of Penance where we encounter Christ is crucial. With a good Confession, the guilt of mortal sins—the sins that kill the soul—is removed with certainty and the penalty of hell is lifted. (God works outside the sacramental system under certain conditions—as Saint Thomas teaches—but why take the chance?)
Some day each and every one of us will undergo a life-ending emergency and we’ll be there when it happens. Prepared or not, we will all head for that emergency exit. It’s my job as a priest, under pain of sin, to warn you of the demonic wolves that are hungry to devour our souls along the way. So prepare well with spiritual fire drills while you can. Don’t forget to check the Confession schedule.
There is no melodrama and no comedic hyperbole when I insist, I do not want to die in my sins. If so, the safety of your souls by God’s mandate has to be my highest priority.
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