“Everything Is Ready Now” – Towards Living

Because Lent leads us to think about the Last Four Things, it is a good preparation for life as it is for death.  A little more than a year ago, Richard John Neuhaus died, Jan. 8, 2009.  On that day First Things reprinted an article he published in 2000, Born Toward Dying.(Read here) It recounted his near death experience, which became for him as much a confirmation of life as it was a preparation for death.

Neuhaus recalls the children’s nighttime prayer  “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take.”

“Death is the most everyday of everyday things. It is not simply that thousands of people die every day, that thousands will die this day, although that too is true. Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are…..Every going to sleep is a little death, a rehearsal for the real thing.

Neuhaus surveys our way with death from reticence and silence to “processing”, even to commercial exploitation. Whether your own or a loved one, he writes:

“The worst thing is not the sorrow or the loss or the heartbreak. Worse is to be encountered by death and not to be changed by the encounter.”

Neuhaus writes of his own encounter(summarized):

The days in the intensive care unit was an experience familiar to anyone who has ever been there. I had never been there before, except to visit others, and that is nothing like being there. I was struck by my disposition of utter passivity. There was absolutely nothing I could do or wanted to do, except to lie there and let them do whatever they do in such a place. Indifferent to time, I neither knew nor cared whether it was night or day. I recall counting sixteen different tubes and other things plugged into my body before I stopped counting….

Astonishment and passivity were strangely mixed. I confess to having thought of myself as a person very much in charge. Friends, meaning, I trust, no unkindness, had sometimes described me as a control freak. Now there was nothing to be done, nothing that I could do, except be there. Here comes a most curious part of the story, and readers may make of it what they will. Much has been written on “near death” experiences. I had always been skeptical of such tales. I am much less so now. I am inclined to think of it as a “near life” experience, and it happened this way.

It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining rooms moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple, and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two “presences.” I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences—one or both of them, I do not know—spoke. This I heard clearly. Not in an ordinary way, for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: “Everything is ready now.”

That was it. They waited for a while, maybe for a minute. Whether they were waiting for a response or just waiting to see whether I had received the message, I don’t know. “Everything is ready now.” It was not in the form of a command, nor was it an invitation to do anything. They were just letting me know. Then they were gone, and I was again flat on my back with my mind racing wildly. I had an iron resolve to determine right then and there what had happened. Had I been dreaming? In no way. I was then and was now as lucid and wide awake as I had ever been in my life.

Tell me that I was dreaming and you might as well tell me that I was dreaming that I wrote the sentence before this one. Testing my awareness, I pinched myself hard, and ran through the multiplication tables, and recalled the birth dates of my seven brothers and sisters, and my wits were vibrantly about me. The whole thing had lasted three or four minutes, maybe less. I resolved at that moment that I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what had happened. Knowing myself, I expected I would later be inclined to doubt it. It was an experience as real, as powerfully confirmed by the senses, as anything I have ever known. That was some seven years ago. Since then I have not had a moment in which I was seriously tempted to think it did not happen. It happened—as surely, as simply, as undeniably as it happened that I tied my shoelaces this morning. I could as well deny the one as deny the other, and were I to deny either I would surely be mad.

“Everything is ready now.” I would be thinking about that incessantly during the months of convalescence. My theological mind would immediately go to work on it. They were angels, of course. Angelos simply means “messenger.” There were no white robes or wings or anything of that sort. As I said, I did not see them in any ordinary sense. But there was a message; therefore there were messengers. Clearly, the message was that I could go somewhere with them. Not that I must go or should go, but simply that they were ready if I was. Go where? To God, or so it seemed. I understood that they were ready to get me ready to see God. It was obvious enough to me that I was not prepared, in my present physical and spiritual condition, for the beatific vision, for seeing God face to face. They were ready to get me ready. This comports with the doctrine of purgatory, that there is a process of purging and preparation to get us ready to meet God. I should say that their presence was entirely friendly. There was nothing sweet or cloying, and there was no urgency about it. It was as though they just wanted to let me know. The decision was mine as to when or whether I would take them up on the offer…………………………

Tentatively, I say, I began to think that I might live. It was not a particularly joyful prospect. Everything was shrouded by the thought of death, that I had almost died, that I may still die, that everyone and everything is dying. As much as I was grateful for all the calls and letters, I harbored a secret resentment. These friends who said they were thinking about me and praying for me all the time, I knew they also went shopping and visited their children and tended to their businesses, and there were long times when they were not thinking about me at all. More important, they were forgetting the primordial, overwhelming, indomitable fact: we are dying! Why weren’t they as crushingly impressed by that fact as I was?

Surprising to me, and to others, I did what had to be done with my work. I read manuscripts, wrote my columns, made editorial decisions, but all listlessly. It didn’t really matter. After some time, I could shuffle the few blocks to the church and say Mass. At the altar, I cried a lot, and hoped the people didn’t notice. To think that I’m really here after all, I thought, at the altar, at the axis mundi, the center of life. And of death. I would be helped back to the house, and days beyond numbering I would simply lie on the sofa looking out at the back yard. That birch tree, which every winter looked as dead as dead could be, was budding again. Would I be here to see it in full leaf, to see its leaves fall in the autumn? Never mind. It doesn’t matter.

It took a long time after the surgeries, almost two years, before the day came when I suddenly realized that the controlling thought that day had not been the thought of death. And now, in writing this little essay, it all comes back. I remember where I have been, and where I will be again, and where we will all be.

God bless you Richard John Neuhaus for being a part of my living and laying the ground work for my dying. No doubt we’ll meet someday and know each other in our depths of being;simply a glance will unleash a new joy and speak volumes of God’s mercies and designs.


Dangerous Duty

IEDs a fact of daily life and a threat to life and limb:

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=military+weapons+in+iraq&iid=7297577″ src=”1/9/2/d/Iraqi_Freedom_4ac6.jpg?adImageId=10763563&imageId=7297577″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]

Threat to Charitable Mission of the Church

It’s Friday in the first week of Lent, a time for prayer, fasting and alms-giving. It is also a time for reflection.

Alexis de Tocqueville:

“I do not know whether all [American citizens] have faith in their religions—for who can read the bottom of men’s hearts? But I am certain that they believe religion to be necessary for the preservation of republican institutions. This is not the opinion of one class of citizens or one party but of the nation as a whole. One encounters it among people of every rank.”

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writing in First Things , “A Charitable Endeavor” shares some new and disturbing experiences and observations of “a new and belligerent kind of secularism” which flies in the face of American cultural tradition.

Historically, Americans have been—and remain—a religious people. They have found it quite normal for religious charities, including Catholic ones, to make use of public monies in serving the poor, the homeless, and other needy populations. This arrangement has worked well for everybody. Government gets skilled, cost-effective, and compassionate help in meeting social needs. The Church gets funds for her works of love demanded by faith in Jesus Christ.

But Americans have always known that the Church’s charitable purposes are religiously inspired, not merely humanitarian. They’ve also understood that the Church is an independent partner in helping the government to meet its charitable goals. She is not an arm of the government. She is not a private contractor on the state payroll. The tax exemptions offered by the state to religious charities to help their work are not a gift or a display of kindness by civil authority. They are nakedly practical. Religious charities typically do better social-service work than government agencies and at lower cost.

Chaput notes in an interview with Dr.R.R.Reno of Spirit Catholic Radio out of Omaha Nebraska, that in the tradition of our country the has been a friendly cooperation between Church and State in matters of charitable works and giving. This “new hostility toward religious identity is a symptom of bigotry on the part of secularists (who) want to keep us from being who we are, if were going to share the work of the State.”

The United States is an historical oddity. Unlike the nations of modern Europe, America was not founded on the basis of territorial, cultural, ethnic, or confessional concerns. America is what the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray called “a proposition country,” built on a set of moral claims about God, the human person, the meaning of life, and the purpose of society. These propositions, in turn, emerged from the Judeo–Christian values and vocabulary of America’s first settlers and founders.

America’s founding documents are thus a mix of commonsense realism and transcendent idealism. God is named as “Creator” and “Supreme Judge” over individuals and governments. The human person is said to be endowed with God-given, and therefore inalienable, rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The purpose of government is clearly defined and sharply limited: to help secure and defend these basic rights for its citizens.

The American proposition envisions the self-rule of a free people living under a limited government. Civil authority governs with the people’s consent and in accord with the natural law and natural rights established by “Nature’s God.” The people’s freedom is not a moral license. Rather, it is the liberty and duty to pursue the good. The American ideal resembles Lord Acton’s famous definition of freedom: “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

Chaput describes the intrusions he experiences in his ministry as Archbishop of Denver, CO. State law-makers have given difficulty to the Church in such areas as adoption, on the issue of the meaning of marriage and legislatures have tried to tailor legislation to dictate the hiring protocol of leaders to such organizations as Catholic Charities and other like organizations.

Consider two recent cases. The first comes from direct pastoral experience. Recently, the Colorado state assembly proposed a bill that would have forced every charitable group receiving state money to comply with a set of “antidiscrimination” laws. That may sound harmless. It may even seem reasonable. But in practice the law would have stripped the Church of any control over the people she hires. Because the proposed law banned “discrimination” on the basis of religion, the Church could easily have been forced to hire non-Catholics or people who publicly reject Catholic teaching—even for key leadership positions.

The implications for Catholics were obvious. The right to define our mission as a Church and to select the people who can best transmit Catholic beliefs and values is at the heart of our religious freedom. No Catholic ministry can ensure its identity if its leaders and staffers cannot be required to be Catholic. Colorado Catholics argued this case forcefully in the state legislature, and the bill was tabled. It never came to a vote. But the issue is by no means dead. And this bad legislation reflected a trend we now see elsewhere. Public officials increasingly push social agendas hostile to religious faith, even at the cost of denying rights historically guaranteed to religious groups.

Here’s a second case. In Boston, the local archdiocese ran one of the nation’s oldest, most respected adoption agencies. Nonetheless, the Church was forced to shut down her adoption ministry. Why? Because the state demanded that the Church begin placing orphans for adoption with homosexual couples—a demand that violates Catholic moral beliefs that children have the right to grow up in a stable family with a married mother and father. Boston’s archbishop, Seán Cardinal O’Malley, sought a conscience clause to exempt the Church from the requirement. State lawmakers refused. The result was the end of more than a century of excellent child-adoption services to the general public.

This case embodied the “grave inconsistency” that Benedict XVI writes about in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. A small social subgroup—for example, active homosexuals and supporters of homosexual-related issues—demands that the government defend their right to a controversial lifestyle, a right that is “alleged, . . . arbitrary, and nonessential in nature,” as Benedict puts it. To meet this demand and promote this ambiguous right, public officials attack the “elementary and basic rights” of defenseless children without parents.

Archbishop Chaput poignantly points out

“Government cannot love. It has no soul and no heart. The greatest danger of the modern secularist state is this: In the name of humanity, under the banner of serving human needs and easing human suffering, it ultimately, ironically—and too often tragically— lacks humanity. As Benedict foresees in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:”

The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a state that regulates and controls everything, but a state that, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: She is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something that often is even more necessary than material support.”

Finally Chaput states that it really is a small group of people relentlessly pursuing these changes and the Archbishop laments that we in the Church have allowed the marketplace to be taken by these forces. We need to harness the same energy for doing good and building society in response to Christ as they for a God-free society.

In the face of modern critics who would crowd out the Church’s ministry of love, American Catholics must reclaim the vision Benedict speaks of here. We need to insist on the guarantees promised by the founders at the beginning of the American proposition: autonomy and noninterference from civil authorities.

But a more important task also remains. Catholics must come to a new zeal for that proposition, a new faithfulness to their own Catholic identity as they live their citizenship, and a new dedication to renewing the great public philosophy implicit in America’s founding documents.

Mirror of Love

From the Mirror of Love by Saint Aelred, abbot

Christ, the model of brotherly love

The perfection of brotherly love lies in the love of one’s enemies. We can find no greater inspiration for this than grateful remembrance of the wonderful patience of Christ. He who is more fair than all the sons of men offered his fair face to be spat upon by sinful men; he allowed those eyes that rule the universe to be blindfolded by wicked men; he bared his back to the scourges; he submitted that head which strikes terror in principalities and powers to the sharpness of the thorns; he gave himself up to be mocked and reviled, and at the end endured the cross, the nails, the lance, the gall, the vinegar, remaining always gentle, meek and full of peace.

In short, he was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb before the shearers he kept silent, and did not open his mouth.

Who could listen to that wonderful prayer, so full of warmth, of love, of unshakeable serenity”Father, forgive them” and hesitate to embrace his enemies with overflowing love? Father, he says, forgive them. Is any gentleness, any love, lacking in this prayer?

Yet he put into it something more. It was not enough to pray for them: he wanted also to make excuses for them. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. They are great sinners, yes, but they have little judgment; therefore, Father, forgive them. They are nailing me to the cross, but they do not know who it is that they are nailing to the cross: if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; therefore, Father, forgive them. They think it is a lawbreaker, an impostor claiming to be God, a seducer of the people. I have hidden my face from them, and they do not recognize my glory; therefore, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

If someone wishes to love himself he must not allow himself to be corrupted by indulging his sinful nature. If he wishes to resist the promptings of his sinful nature he must enlarge the whole horizon of his love to contemplate the loving gentleness of the humanity of the Lord. Further, if he wishes to savor the joy of brotherly love with greater perfection and delight, he must extend even to his enemies the embrace of true love.

But if he wishes to prevent this fire of divine love from growing cold because of injuries received, let him keep the eyes of his soul always fixed on the serene patience of his beloved Lord and Savior.