A common get-to-know-you question is, “What is your greatest fear?”, and there are many common answers for this common question: spiders, snakes, drowning, the loss of a loved one. But there is one that comes up more than the others, one that always makes those who hear this response uncomfortable and reflective.
Many people say that their greatest fear is dying alone.
No one wants to die alone. What a terrifying idea, imagining yourself in a hospital somewhere, nothing but beeps and busy nurses to keep you company as you suffer through the worst and last part of your life. What a comfort it would be to have a lover or a parent or even a pet there to at least be present to you in your pain. And what a tragedy it would be to have no one.
This is one of the greatest promises of Catholicism: You will not die alone.
The Church does not promise this in the sense of, “Oh, don’t worry, you will have Buddy Christ there winking at you when things go poorly, and He’s the best!”
No. The Church does promise that Christ will be there, but this is the Christ present to us as we die.
A Jesus who understands. A Jesus who’s been there. Not a myth or a mind trick or an advertising gimmick to give false hope. A God who became Man. A Man who suffered death. A Man who was forsaken. A Man who lived your greatest fear.
A Man who died alone.
And the Church dares to proclaim that He lives yet, that He is there with you, that His Spirit is present within and around us at all times.
But She goes further.
I remember asking my father-in-law, a former non-denominational Christian, why he converted to Catholicism, and his answer was essentially two words long:
So many struggle to understand the mysterious humility of Jesus, can’t wrap their minds around how The Creator-God could possible deign to exist in the sub-human form of bread and wine, how I-Am-Who-AM wants a personal relationship with real communication and real interaction with each one of us. I struggle with this at times. I struggle to see Jesus or hear Him or feel His presence in my life.
But when I look at my daughter, when I lay with my wife, when I laugh with my friends, when I talk to my students, I know that there is something there greater than any one of us, something more real yet less tangible than anything else I’ve known. I know that there is something in common in each of those interactions, a thread that runs through and weaves together all of those people I know.
There’s a community.
This is what the Church promises: You will not die alone, because the God-Man died first and is with you now, because His Spirit is alive in your heart and in the world around you, AND because the angels, saints, and Catholics around the world are united with you in the mystical body of Christ.
You will not die alone, because who you are is a part of a whole. No, not like Deepak Chopra’s “We’re all connected in the great oneness of the universe”. You are a specific part with a specific function of a real Body that is moving towards a real destination. Your very identity is one of connectedness. Who you are is someone incapable of being alone.
You can no longer be defined as one. You are a member, and you are connected to all the other members of that body by the veins of the Eucharist, by the arteries of your Savior, by the blood and water that He pumps to all the limbs and tips of His body.
Death is terrifying, until you realize that it is not the end. It is scary, until you realize that your brothers and sisters die with you into this new life.
Whatever it is that Christ is calling you to die to, whatever part of your life you have yet to give back to Him, you must always be mindful of the fact that He has called others to do the same.
There’s a reason why addicts meet in groups. There’s a reason why congregations gather on Sundays. There’s a reason why parishes have LifeTeen and mother’s groups and knitting clubs. There’s a reason why even our government establishes places and events for us to gather and engage with one another.
We need each other. We need community.
The kinds of little deaths I talk about in this blog are often just as terrifying as our bodily death, and I have the same fear for them that I do kicking the bucket: I don’t want to do it alone.
And I don’t have to. I simply have to let go of my shame and my pride so that I can tell others what I fear, share with them what is in me that needs to die, and have the humility to ask them to hold my hand as I try.
Christ gave me a wife to be my help-mate, my partner in the little deaths and my con-celebrant in the new life that is born. But He also gave me every other Catholic who has ever lived, and each one of them has something they can offer me in the process of detachment and death, some new insight into the life to come that they can point me towards so that I may continue to hope.
Perfect love casts out all fear, and love is necessarily relational. We must share with those who are in our lives. We must be transparent and humble enough to let them in. We must be accepting and gentle as they let us in. And we must always be walking towards Christ, through the storm of death into the calm of life.
He is the Way, and He lives in His Church. Find Him in Her. Go to your Mother, and find what you’re looking for in your family.