Some 40 days ago, I was asked by two people about the meaning of having ashes placed on our foreheads during Ash Wednesday. I said the ashes remind us we are going to die. Our life on earth is temporary. The conversation was short and if circumstances had permitted I would have added that the ashes also symbolize another death, our spiritual death that is fuelled by such things as pride, judging, division, distractions, etc. We are human and often miss the “mark,” which is known more commonly as sin. Anyone who has experienced the loss of peace or suffered through disappointments, broken relationships and friendships, understands this. But, there is hope. New life rises from ashes.
The notion of our life coming to an end is not something pleasant to think about even though it is a natural part of our existence. From the moment we are born our bodies begin a process that ends in the death of the flesh. There is a line in the Rule of St. Benedict that reads: “Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.” This advice sounds harsh, even depressing, and certainly goes against the flow of the world, which celebrates beauty and youth. Death is not a common topic over coffee or a meal. Who wants to talk about death?
The advice, “Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die,” is actually meant to be encouraging. St. Benedict wanted his monks to free themselves from the attachments of the world and remember that there was something beyond this existence. When death approaches, he taught, rejoice that there is more beyond this life. New life emerges after this one ends.
This wisdom of St. Benedict comes to the forefront when I visit people in short- or long-term care facilities. Many seniors, entering their final years of life, struggle in their new environments. They are elderly and it is natural for them to find it difficult to do things they once took for granted. Everyone is being confronted with painful health issues and the difficult reality of having to leave a home full of memories. And they are coping with losing both their independence and privacy. Some are more at peace with their situations in life than others.
The memory of one senior sitting near the entrance to her new care home still reverberates in my mind. She had just moved in and was ready to move out. The new resident said her children made her live there and she wanted out. She waited for them to take her back home. Another, who had already been in the care facility for several years and had no family, never accepted the loss of her former home. One lamented that some of her children never came to visit. There were unresolved issues in her family. These were among a number of people who felt isolated and alone in a world too busy to notice them.
Conversely, there were others who were more at peace. Among them was Adrianna who was generous in offering gratitude for my presence. Anne enjoyed talking about the past and her life on the farm. She was very prayerful and once expressed how the past “seems like a dream.” Laura enjoyed discussing her vocation as a teacher. The roads were trails when she started teaching in one-room schools. She was proud of having been a teacher who rode a horse to school. Alice always reminded me that every day was a blessing. Though, in pain, she was grateful for the gift of life and never forgot to count her blessings. Etta was always gracious to have a visitor and promised her prayers. Fred was in a lot of pain but that was overshadowed by his warm, gentle demeanour. Joe enjoyed telling jokes and laughing.
Christianity is the only religion that began after a man went through a gruelling passion, died and rose from the dead. Everything seemed hopeless for his friends and followers when this man was condemned, crucified and left for dead. He miraculously left his tomb and appeared to those who had given up on him. His enemies thought they had reduced him to ashes, but he disappointed them.
Easter is the most important Christian celebration because it celebrates the most important Christian event — the resurrection of Jesus. If the resurrection had not happened, Christianity would not be here today. The resurrection teaches us that the final stage of life is not the end. There is hope in everything, even the most trying circumstances. When all seems hopeless and loss and death strikes, new life emerges from the tomb. Death is not the end.
Paproski is a Benedictine monk of St. Peter’s Abbey and pastor of St. Peter’s Parish, Muenster, Sask.