Sunday, November 12, 2017

Live Like You Were Dying

"St. Francis in Prayer" by Caravaggio (1571-1610)

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 12, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 25: 1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday 2017]

“Live Like You Were Dying” is a song by country music singer Tim McGraw, that came out back in 2004.  It eventually went to number 1 and won the Grammy Award that year for the Best Country Song.  It tells the story of a man, in his early 40s, who gets diagnosed with a terminal illness.  When the man is later asked about what he did in response to hearing this bad news about his physical health, he answers first by listing three things he did that were obviously on his “bucket list”.  He says, “I went skydiving; I went Rocky Mountain climbing; I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.”

But then he says these things, which are far more important:

“And I loved deeper; and I spoke sweeter; and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying. …I was finally the husband that most of the time I wasn’t, and I became a friend a friend would like to have. …I finally read the Good Book, and I took a good, long, hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again.”

And he ends it all with the classic line: “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

Live like you were dying.

That’s exactly what I believe the Lord is telling us today in this gospel parable from Matthew 25: Make sure you live like you were dying.  In other words, make sure you’re living your life with an awareness that someday it will end, and that you’ll then be called upon to (as the Bible says) “render an account” for what you did—and for what you didn’t do—during your time on planet earth. 

Notice that all ten virgins in this story were invited to the wedding feast—just like all the people of the world are invited to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb of God in heaven.  But only five had oil in their lamps; only five were ready to meet the bridegroom when he arrived.  The “oil” there can be seen as a symbol of “sanctifying grace”: the grace that Jesus won for us by his passion, death and resurrection; the grace that makes us pleasing to God; the grace we need in our souls in order to pass through the pearly gates of heaven!

And the analogy holds given the fact that in the story the oil was not transferrable!  That’s a very important detail.  The wise virgins were not able to share their oil with the foolish ones.  Each of them was personally responsible for the condition of her own lamp.

And so it is with us and our souls.  As Professor William Barclay put it in his commentary on Matthew, “There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others.”

This is why confession is so important.  We receive sanctifying grace into our soul through baptism, but we can lose it through mortal sin.  The ordinary way to get it back is through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

When was the last time you went?

Now what I really like about Tim McGraw’s song is that it indicates that the main character—the man in his 40s with the terminal illness—has lived a better and a more fulfilled life since his diagnosis.  That’s why he says, “Someday I hope you [too] get the chance to live like you were dying.”

He’s not wishing evil on us there; what he’s doing is expressing his hope for us!  He’s expressing the hope that we will experience the same kind of transformation in our lives that he’s experienced in his.  From all that he says in the song, it’s clear that he’s been transformed in his relationships with other people (“And I loved deeper; and I spoke sweeter; and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying. …I was finally the husband that most of the time I wasn’t, and I became a friend a friend would like to have.”); he’s been transformed in his relationship with God (“I finally read the Good Book”); he’s even been transformed with respect to his sins and failings (“I took a good, long, hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again.”)

The implication is that he would do some things differently.

His terminal disease has made him aware of his own mortality—and that’s a good thing (as I hopefully have already made clear in this homily)!  It’s a good thing because it’s reality!  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we do not have on this earth a lasting city.  That’s a fact.  Life is short.  And if you don’t believe me, just ask an elderly person.  (“Father Ray I celebrated my 95th birthday last week.  Where did the years go?”—I’ve heard elderly people say that kind of thing lots of times over the years) 

But we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we do have a lasting city here—and that way of thinking can lead us to ignore God, and delay our repentance, and have the wrong set of priorities in life.

Like the man in this song did before his diagnosis.

The great saints, praise God, never fell into the trap.  They avoided it.  They avoided it because of how they looked at things.

In this regard, there’s a wonderful painting of St. Francis of Assisi by Caravaggio, the Italian artist of the late 16th century.  Perhaps some of you have seen it.  The title of the painting is, “St. Francis in Prayer,” and it shows the saint kneeling prayerfully, with his attention riveted on the object that he’s holding in his hands.

And what is the object he’s holding?

A cross?  No. 

A Bible?  No.

It’s a skull!  A human skull!

St. Francis is holding a human skull gently—you might even say “lovingly”—in his hands as he prays and meditates.  Which isn’t surprising, because apparently he had a skull in his possession and would sometimes bring it with him to the breakfast table so that his fellow friars could meditate on it too!

And St. Francis was not unusual among the great saints of the Church.  Many of them, believe it or not, kept skulls in their bedrooms or on their desks, which is why you will often see them in the portraits of canonized saints.

So why did they do this?  Were they obsessed with death?

No!  Quite oppositely, they were obsessed with life—eternal life—the eternal life that Jesus had died on the cross to give them.  They did not want to miss out on that life for anything; they didn’t want to be like the five foolish virgins in this parable!  So they kept this symbol of death around: a human skull.  They kept it around to remind them that they needed to be ready for that moment of death always, since, as Jesus says here, none of us knows the day or the hour when the Lord will come for us. 

And, in the process of doing this, these holy men and women lived fulfilled and joyful—albeit sometimes difficult—lives.

They lived like they were dying—even when they were in good physical health—and because of that they now live forever in a place where there is no death.

A place where we will also be someday, if we follow their example.