A little meditation on death

We deny its encroachment with gels and creams, dyes and surgery. We give it euphemisms like "passed away" or "gone on." Of course we do. Death is "the great unknown." In fiction and fairy tales, the personification of death is a frightening image. We, as a culture, are scared of death.

In the past month, I've gone to a funeral for a 32-year-old mother of four who died from a ruptured brain aneurism and to the home of a 101-year-old man who died two days later. I also have a dear friend who is losing her maternal and paternal grandmothers at the same time. Another good friend just lost his childhood friend at age 32.

So, not surprisingly, I've thought a lot about death lately. And the more I think about it, the more important I believe it is to look at death more closely and to meditate on it more regularly. Maybe that sounds morbid, but it need not be.

In the Catholic faith, the most powerful image of death - the Crucifixion - is also an image of life, for it anticipates the Resurrection. Yes, we should contemplate that powerful mystery of course, but there's another way that we might link death to life.

If I spend time thinking about the reality - the absolute certainty - of death, it can help me call to mind the ripple effects of my little actions. Not the huge ones, the small ones.

Sarah Harkins, the mother pregnant with her fifth child who died July 28, home-schooled, started a Bible study and made clay rosaries. She even made her own natural toothpaste.

One of the things that stood out to me about Sarah was the care she took in designing and making each rosary bead. An anchor, a rooster, a shamrock, a flower; each piece symbolic and selected for a reason. Sarah's midwife, Parveen Kelly, sent me a photo of the rosary made especially for her. You could sense how loved Parveen felt to have each bead chosen with her in mind, each round and colorful ball molded with care. It was a tangible, lasting gift of the gift of life.

Paul Bachi, who died Aug. 6, had only a third-grade education, but he also made a beautiful life for his family. He made sure all of his six children attended Catholic school, and he was the unofficial handyman at St. Peter Church in Washington, Va.

As his family gathered around the large kitchen table two days before he died, imprints of his spirit were everywhere. At the center of the table was a small shrine, with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Jesus arranged in the center. Although Paul was unconscious in the next room, his spot at the table was left as he set it: a parish bulletin and a copy of the Catholic Herald next to his daily vitamins and the salt and pepper.

Death is so big and so unknown, to contemplate it can feel like looking into a dark bottomless pool. But maybe doing so now and then can help us make those little decisions - our individual versions of bead selection and table arrangements - that together create a tapestry rich and uniquely our own.

"You aspire to great things? Begin with little ones," wrote St. Augustine, whose feast day is Aug. 28.

What are the little things we can do today, before this short life is over, that shape our hearts and leave our own singular imprint on the world?

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014