“Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”
Lent begins today with this reminder: Momento mori – “Remember, you must die.” The imposition of ashes that we receive on our forehead on Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder of this reality. The gift of life is almost always shorter than one expects. One of my classmates from grad school, Sr. Bernadette, turned heads when she told us goodbye at graduation, “Have a good life and a happy death.” Death is a reality that makes us uncomfortable.
And understandably so. Muriel Spark’s novel Momento Mori demonstrates the great degree to which people are put off by the reminder of the brevity of life. Different characters in Spark’s book receive mysterious phone calls from an anonymous person who simply tells each of them: “Remember, you must die.” The characters have varying actions, but most of them are simply not ready to receive such a message. They are ill-prepared for death because they have not been truly living as they should.
Lent is a period of preparation to give us perspective and refocus on the centrality of the Christian faith through prayer, penance, and acts of charity. We are called to embrace the life of Christ during this spiritual quarantine so we can be prepared for the time, which may be at any moment, when death comes for us.
The reality is that many members of the Body of Christ have fallen away from the regular practice of the faith. This Year of Faith, so declared by Pope Benedict XVI, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the friends or family members who have forgotten or maybe have never experienced the beauty of the Christian life.
So many have forgotten that when life does come to an end each of us will be held accountable and judged by our love (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 597). One of the most charitable acts that we can do during this Lent season is to pray not only for our own needs and deeper conversion, but for an increased faith among our loved ones.
In Capernaum, a large crowd gathered to be with Jesus. The house was so crowded that a group of four friends could not enter the room to bring their paralyzed friend before the Lord. They lifted off part of the roof so they could lower their friend in front of Jesus. According to the Scriptures, “when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5; emphasis added). What is always striking to me about this passage is that Jesus healed the paralytic man because of the faith of his friends.
We cannot underestimate the power of our own faith for those that may be spiritually paralyzed. In the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, we have a recent example of the effect of prayer on even the most hardened of hearts. As a young girl, St. Therese read about a murderer named Pranzini, who was sentenced to death for murdering two women and a young girl. She prayed and offered sacrifices for Pranzini’s conversion daily. Through this spiritual bouquet, Therese was able to merit grace for Pranzini’s change of heart. In her own words:
Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance!
Prayer can make miraculous difference in the lives of obstinate sinners. Fr. Benedict Groeschel has said on more than one occasion that he prays for Madonna’s conversion. There are a number of athletes, politicians, actors, models, or half-time show performers that we might want to spiritually adopt. At the same time, we may mind that we do not need to look very far to find people to pray for.
Last year, a Vietnam Veteran passed away after a long struggle with kidney failure and a brief battle with cancer. Having served in the Vietnam War as a United States Marine from the age of 17, the violence he witnessed and participated in left the cold icy wound from the horrors of war deep in his soul. Following the war he struggled with drinking, drugs, infidelity, and gambling – trying to cope as a walking casualty of the war. Following his diagnosis of tonsil cancer, he went to confession for the first time since the war. Family members and friends prayed for him over the years, but seemingly he made little if any progress in the life of faith.
During the last two weeks of life, he was able to receive the Last Rites three times. On one occasion, he looked at the priest and said “Thank you for coming Father.” On the morning of November 27 (the first Sunday of Advent), he took a rosary out of his son’s hands and kissed the crucifix and made the sign of the cross — reminiscent of Pranzini. That same evening, his son and daughter-in-law, seeing him struggle especially hard, prayed the St. Michael prayer for him. As they finished their prayer, it was evident that he had passed away.
By the grace of God, I am thankful that through the power of prayer, I was blessed to be able to see the man that I knew and loved repent and draw close to Christ. The former Marine was my father.
There are many people in our lives who try not to remember death, but Ash Wednesday always reminds us of the reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return. As the Great Lent begins let us not hesitate to pray for all of our family and friends that they might have life – and have it abundantly (cf. John 10:10).