The Tools of Good Works
(38) Not to be slothful.
(39) Not to be a grumbler.
(40) Not to be a detractor.
(41) To put your trust in God.
(42) To refer what good you see in yourself, not to yourself but to God.
(43) But as to any evil in yourself, be convinced that it is your own and hold yourself responsible.
(44) To fear the day of judgment.
(45) To be in dread of hell.
(46) To desire eternal life with all spiritual longing.
(47) To keep death daily before your eyes.
Do you know why monks wear black?
To remind us of our death.
Kind of morbid, eh? Or maybe not. “The chief characteristic of the Christian,” wrote Saint Augustine “is to watch daily and hourly, standing prepared in a state of total responsiveness pleasing to God, knowing that the Lord will come at an hour that he does not expect.” This is the mark of a Christian. And yet, I’ll bet that very few of us, when we wake up in the morning, seriously consider the possibility that the world might end today. But I know a group of people who do. And they aren’t cultists or crazy people. They live together at the Clarkson Home for the Elderly. I say mass out there once month, and these folks at the Clarkson Home consider it a real possibility that their world will come to a sudden and immediate end.
Since most of them sleep through my homilies anyway, I like to really do the whole hellfire and brimstone thing when I preach. In fact, the louder and more animated I get, the more they seem to enjoy it. So I really sock it to them. And for their part, they tend to take what I say with a sizeable grain of salt. So I was on a real rampage one Sunday. I was preaching on the book of Ecclesiastes, and I shouted, “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity! Who knows? Any one of you could be dead tomorrow!”
Madeline, who sits in the front row, woke up just long enough to say, “Heck, I expected to be dead three weeks ago!”
I thought to myself, now I understand why Jesus had such a soft spot for the poor. Because, they get it. They are that much closer to death than the rest of us—and they realize, whether they like it or not, that each day is a gift of God. And because they know that, they have no trouble seeing the urgency of Christ’s message.
Now, it happens that I had an experience a few summers ago, where I too came face-to-face with the reality of my own death. I spend a few weeks every summer in Ocean County, New Jersey where my parents live, and I found, to my delight that the surf at Seaside Heights was really up. I also found, to my distress, that a fourteen foot great white shark had been frequenting my favorite spot.
I went surfing anyway, because I grew up surfing, and when you’ve only got three weeks to catch a year’s worth of surf, you just have take what you’re given. And really, what are the odds of getting eaten by a shark, right? Well…they are very, very slim. Unless you are surfing close to a hungry shark, in which case, the odds increase exponentially. So there were maybe five guys out at the pier when I arrived, and they didn’t look worried—or eaten—and the surf was four foot and glassy, so I waxed up my board and paddled out..
To make a long story short, I wasn’t out more than five minutes when I heard the words that every surfer hopes he will never hear. Someone on the beach yelled ‘Shark!” and when I looked up, I saw, about ten yards to my left, a great grey fin sliding toward me through the surf. Laughing, crying, screaming hysterically, the six of us paddled as fast as we could for the shore.
Obviously I made it back in one piece. I still have all my fingers and toes, and so do the other five guys I was with…but I had two great moments of clarity during that short, frantic paddle back to the beach: first, I learned that you can’t paddle a surf board if you’re too scared to put your hands in the water; and second, that while the world as a whole may not end any time soon, my own particular world could end at any moment. And many of the things that worry and distract me about this present life, are of no consequence to the next.
Which brings me to a final paradox, namely, that if we set our sights on the next world, we will get this world thrown in. If we set our sights on this world, we’ll end up with nothing at all. John Cardinal Newman wrote, “What Christ asks of you is not sinlessness, but diligence. Every day you live longer, more will be required. You cannot be profitable to him even with the longest life; you can show faith and love in an hour.”