By Juan L. Mercado
(FILIPINOS REMEMBER their departed relatives and friends on All Soul’s Day on November 2. Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser discusses this topic in the abridged column below.)
Growing up, as part of our family prayer, we’d pray for a happy death. You died cradled in the loving arms of family, friends, and church, fully at peace with God and everyone. That’s a good picture, the ideal.
But not everyone gets to die that way. Randomness, contingency, and accidents often have us die bitter, unforgiving, unforgiven, alienated, even suicide. Too often we die with unfinished business, too much of it. As the old confiteor says: we need forgiveness for what we’ve done and left undone.
Here are examples: I counseled a priest in his 50s, unable to forgive himself. Aa, a frightened boy of 7, he was too afraid to give his dying mother a hug when she asked for it. More than 40 years later, he still nursed guilt. In another case, I blessed the coffin of a man who’d been happily married for 35 years. He had a bitter argument with his wife over some minor thing, rushed out of the house in anger, and was killed in an accident minutes later.
Many of us can empathize with these examples. Who among us doesn’t have unfinished business with someone whom death has taken away? Now it’s too late! Death has separated us. And some painful bitterness now lies irrevocably unresolved. We live with the guilt, wishing we had done something before it was too late.
But it’s not too late.
It’s never too late if we take seriously the Christian doctrine of “the communion of saints.” This doctrine, so central and important that’s enshrined in our creed, asks us to believe: we are still in real community of life and communication with those who have died.
To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that those who have died are still alive. They’re linked to us in such a way that we can continue to talk with them; that our relationship with them can continue to grow: that the reconciliation that wasn’t possible before their deaths can now occur.
Why can this happen now, when it seemed so impossible before?
Because our communication with them is now privileged, death washes some things clean. This is not the stuff of fantasy, but of solid dogma. We know its truth because we experience it.
How often in a family, a friendship or community we experience a tension, misunderstanding, anger, irreconcilable differences, a hurt that can’t be undone. And then everything changes because someone dies. Death brings a peace, clarity, a charity, that were not possible before. Why?
It’s not simply because death took someone out of the family, the office, or the circle of friends, or even, the source of tension. It happens because, as Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross teaches, death washes things clean.
“Today you will be with me in paradise!” Jesus speaks those words to the good thief on the cross. And they’re meant for every one of us who dies without having had time and opportunity to make all the amends and speak all the apologies that we owe.
There is still time after death, on both sides, for reconciliation and healing to happen. Because inside the communion of saints, we have privileged access to each other. And there we can finally speak all of those words that we couldn’t speak before. We can reach across death’s divide.
It is gift to die a happy death, reconciled in the arms of love, with no unfinished business. But, happily, there’s time still after death for this to happen for those of us who aren’t so lucky and who end up dying with some bitterness, anger, wound, and frustration still gnawing away.