The End is Near!
It’s not possible to go on a journey unless you know where you are going. A journey is not the same thing as aimless wandering – it implies a beginning and an end, and a distance between them that must be traversed somehow, whether by a direct or indirect route. And whatever the route, there needs to be a big picture or big map that shows each step going toward or away from the destination.
Life has often been compared to a journey, but in recent years I have heard this metaphor less frequently. Perhaps because there has been ever increasing social pressure to avoid discomfort, and even the implication that life has a definite beginning and end beyond our control makes people uncomfortable. But life is like a journey, and not the same – in life, there is no option to stay home or go elsewhere or sit on the sidelines. The choices we make shape who we are, and choices to wait passively shape us no less than others.
Life in this world comes to an end, but that’s not the same as life ending. “Passing away” is a common euphemism for death, but Christians can only use it in a very restricted sense of “passing from this world,” because the human person does not pass away. We have a spiritual (immaterial) soul that is evidenced by intellect and will, our abilities to know and to love, and an immaterial soul cannot be destroyed by anything material. The immortality of the human soul is why it is so important to understand that life is somewhat like a journey, and that the destination matters.
Every year as we reach the end of the liturgical year, the Church invites us to reflect on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Meditation on death is an ancient tradition that goes back to the very beginning of Christian spirituality, and it is a practice that anyone can profit from. It is something that is not commonly proposed these days, perhaps again because of a desire to sidestep the unsettling reality of death, but meditation on death is not the same as morbid preoccupation with it.
For one thing, none of us knows when or how we will reach the end of this life. I can imagine reaching old age and a final illness that allows time to reflect on my life and repent of my sins, but there is no guarantee that I will have that time. With no knowledge or control about where, when, and how, the remaining question is who: who do I want to be at the hour of my death? Do I want to be just like I am now? How do I want to be different? How will that change happen?
This is where a big picture or map is helpful. Looking at the big picture to see who I want to be at the end of my journey reveals what the next step should be. A helpful tool for this in Ignatian spirituality is the Examen prayer, or Examen of consciousness. It is different from an examination of conscience that is meant to evaluate moral choices; it looks at the ‘big picture’ of my life today – where did I perceive God, or fail to perceive him, or receive or reject his help, or take a good step or misstep? I appreciate God’s gifts and thank him, I repent of sins and seek God’s help, I look forward to the next day and the gifts, challenges, and opportunities that await. Without imagining what the scene of my death could look like, it is also preparation for death, because the only time that I have is today and the choices that I make now determine who I will be at the end of the journey.
For more information on the Examen prayer, you can visit https://www.omvusa.org/lanteri-center/parish-retreats/examen-prayer/. See alsoThe Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today by Fr. Timothy Gallagher.