Recently, I had the third medical scare within a six-months period. I had to notice the increase in frequency. After all, it had become embarrassing to ask my friends to pray for me so often. “Is God trying to tell you something?” asked a friend after the last scare.
Well, maybe. Or—as my doctor said when I received the “all clear” after the last alarm, “When we get older, we get the serious scares more frequently because we’re preparing for….” Somehow, I didn’t find the explanation comforting.
But whether there’s a message intended for me, as my friend thinks, or whether there’s a mathematical statistic at work, as my doctor thinks, I don’t believe this increase in frequency is personal to me. We’re fond of quoting the maxim: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” but the truth is that only death is certain. It’s the single experience common to every human being. Nothing else is certain—only death. There’s no way to avoid it. There’s no diet, no fitness regimen, no “lifestyle,” no herbal supplement—nothing will protect us from the single absolute certainty that every one of us will die.
During the Middle Ages, philosophers, alchemists, those given to pondering the mysteries of God and the meaning of life, kept a human skull on their writing desks. We see renditions in woodcuts, sometimes comic-macabre, with the skull in use as a candleholder. This gruesome bit of décor had a serious purpose: Thinkers should be reminded continually of their mortality. These days, we call such a point of view “morbid,” “depressing,” or that universally popular condemnation, “negative.”
But is it? Dying is the only unifying human experience. It is the only event of which we can all be dead certain. (Sorry.) If we didn’t regard it as untouchable, it could bring us together. And of course, it is the great leveler: Naked we came into the world, and naked we shall leave it; You can’t take it with you—etc.
Lent is the time for such thoughts. The other day, our priest put ashes on our foreheads and said, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Nothing wrong with that, but is it a truly potent admonition? Lent is a time for prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, but there is no mention of the really heavy stuff. I can remember receiving ashes with the recitation of “Remember, O Man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Very negative, that was.
For the desert to be a real desert, we would have to know, far more deeply and more certainly, our helplessness before God, the kind of knowledge briefly gained as we wait for the outcome of medical tests, and the kind lost almost immediately afterwards when we get good news and return to our little illusions of power. While we wait for what is beyond our control, we have to depend utterly on him, but what is undertaken of our own volition knows no such humility, and has no way to teach us that necessary desert virtue.
A deacon friend told me that he’d visited a lady in the hospital who declared that her broken hip was God’s punishment for not attending Mass. That might make us smile, until we realize that she thinks the way all of us think when we choose to give up this or that. What we must (and will) someday surrender is the choosing. I don’t mean to diminish our Lenten practices, but perhaps we’d do well to risk being a little “negative” and imagine the skull hidden from us inside our bodies, and the mortality we’re too positive to think about very much.