Doctor, Is Death in the Room?

Doctor, Is Death in the Room?

A woman went into a confessional in a distracted state of mind, and instead of reciting the customary formula, she began, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive. . . .” Then, realizing she was saying the “Grace Before Meals,” she paused in awkward silence. The priest chuckled, and said, “If I’d known you were coming for dinner, I would have baked a cake.” Sometimes our absent-minded or unthinking routines can be embarrassing—but our efforts to be prepared can also be amusing. Three men were walking through the desert; one carried a loaf of bread, the next a bottle of wine, and the third a car door. The first man announced, “If I get hungry, I can eat the bread.” The second man added, “If I get thirsty, I can drink the wine.” The third man explained, “If I get hot, I can roll down the window.” There was also a boy who wanted to be prepared for any eventuality. When his father took him to the zoo, he was especially fascinated with the lion. “They call him the king of beasts,” said the dad, “because he’s the most ferocious animal in the jungle, a real man-eater.” “Would he even eat you, Daddy?” asked the boy, and the father responded, “I guess he would—if he got out of this cage.” The child thought for a moment, and then said, “Daddy, if he does get out, what bus should I take home?” (homily notebook, “Preparation”).

It is good to be prepared—though this means different things in various situations. For instance, the Olympics are now underway, and the athletes are not only the best in their competitions, but also the most prepared. Twenty years ago, in the 1996 Summer Olympics, sprinter Michael Johnson set records in the 200 and 400 meter races; what most people didn’t realize is that he had trained for ten years just to cut a mere one or two seconds from his running time. We’re also in the election season—and the great novelist Robert Louis Stevenson once noted, “Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary.” Of course, most voters do very little preparation by way of studying the issues, learning the candidates’ positions, and praying for guidance. Praying is an essential part of preparation. In my second year in the seminary I was very worried about the final exam in my biology course, which wasn’t my area of interest or expertise. I prayed for help, studied hard, and thought I was well prepared, but I wasn’t: the exam was even harder than I expected, and I hoped to at least get a grade of C. When, to my shock, I ended up with an A on the test, I was convinced it wasn’t my studying beforehand that had made the difference, but my praying. Prayer helps us do our best, prepares us for whatever may come, and enables us to fulfill the mission God gives us. The readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time promise us that as long as we’re trying to be faithful servants, we will be ready for our “final exam”: namely, the day when our Master comes to take us home.

Jesus (Lk 12:32-48) uses the example of servants ready for their master’s return late at night from a wedding to illustrate the importance of being prepared. Those who are busy with their duties and ready for the master’s arrival will be greatly rewarded; those who are lazy, or who abuse their authority and misuse the resources entrusted to them, will be severely punished. God wants to bless all His people, but it’s our duty to be ready for His blessing. As the Book of Wisdom (18:6-9) reminds us, when the Israelites were about to be freed from their slavery in Egypt, the angel of death only struck down the first-born of the Egyptians. He passed over the Israelites’ homes, for they had prepared for this decisive moment by marking their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. The Letter to the Hebrews (11:1-2, 8-19) praises Abraham, who was ready and worthy to become the father of a great nation—simply because he trusted in God, and obeyed the Lord in all things. When we too honestly try to live out our faith, we are pleasing to God, and are ready and able to be blessed by Him.

A famous European general was on his deathbed, and he asked the army physician attending him, “Doctor, is death in the room?” The doctor responded, “No, General, death is not yet in the room, but is walking around in the yard outside, waiting to enter.” Hearing this, the general nodded, opened the Bible, and read from the Gospel of John, “Do not let your hearts be troubled; have faith in God and faith in Me. . . . I am going to prepare a place for you, and I will come back again and take you to Myself” (Jn. 14:1,3). Then, setting aside the Bible, the general said, “Now, Doctor, I am ready; you may open the door and tell death to enter.” With that, he closed his eyes, and moments later died peacefully (Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 540).

Smart people spend much of their time thinking about how to succeed and get ahead in the world; wise people spend time reflecting on how they will one day die, and how they can best be prepared for this event. This kind of preparation, of course, doesn’t mean neglecting our duties and going around in a morbid spirit; rather, it means keeping busy with our responsibilities, no matter how humble or routine, while thanking God for the gift of life and appreciating His blessings. This sort of openness and trust allows the Lord to guide us, to use us, and to bless us in ever greater ways. Also, the more we surrender to God, the more we are prepared for whatever life may throw at us. Because of our limited, sinful human nature, it’s impossible for us, on our own, to be ready for every potential problem, challenge, or opportunity—but if we’re sincerely trying to answer the Lord’s call and serve Him in the manner He desires, His grace will make up whatever is lacking in us, and sustain us in all our needs.

Death will come for each one of us, and—if we’ve not already done so—today is the day to begin preparing for this all-important event. In particular, this means praying each day, receiving the sacraments regularly, using God’s grace to work at overcoming our faults, seeking the Lord’s forgiveness of our sins, forgiving those who sin against us, using our talents and abilities for God’s glory, and helping other people in need whenever we have the chance to do so. In all these ways, we will be like faithful servants awaiting their master’s return—and when that moment finally arrives, it will be an occasion of true and lasting joy.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper