I’ve had the opportunity to give retreats and parish missions for a number of years. One of my retreat themes is entitled “From Here to Eternity.” This is a series of conferences that follows our journey from birth to death and into eternity. In my opening conference, I give each person a sheet of paper with a straight line drawn horizontally across it. I ask my listeners to put their date of birth at the beginning of the line and the present date at the end of the line and then their “half life” right in the middle.
I ask them to spend some time with this illustration and over the next few days, marking along their “lifeline” moments and events that have been truly significant for them over the years. Invariably, some events have been positive and happy, others have been difficult and sad moments. Successes alternate with failures. People respond quickly to this task. For most, this is the first time they have examined their lives in this way.
Let’s say you are 50 years old. Your “half life” would be 25. Most people smile to themselves as they realize how much more they know at 50 than they did at 25. I’m 76, so my half life is 38. As I look back, I realize how much I didn’t know and how much more I needed to learn—and indeed would learn—about myself over the next 38 years.
We Can Reflect on the Whole Journey
People note the big events—marriages, births of children, sicknesses and death, gains and losses. They are also aware regrets and missed opportunities. It is amazing how many moments come to mind when we take some time to reflect on our past. More than a few moments in our lives have been truly significant and sometimes life changing.
Much wisdom comes with age, but we also recognize that wisdom results from experience, and most experience is gained as a result of our mistakes and failures. Most people look back and realize that growing in wisdom can be painful. The so-called midlife crisis is often the result of decisions from which we cannot turn back.
We will likely regret some decisions and be happy and grateful for others. For example, we may have gotten the education we sought, or perhaps we realize that we could have had more if we had tried harder and made better decisions. Our jobs may or may not be fulfilling for us. Our families and relationships may be a source of great joy and happiness or a source of pain and disappointment.
One thing is sure: In this little exercise of reviewing our lives, we will become conscious of how complex and even mysterious our lives have been.
The Question: What Did We Accomplish?
Almost all people as they age reflect on their journeys and ask a common question: “What did I accomplish? What did I do with the time I had on my journey of 70 (or 80 or 90) years?” It doesn’t matter who you are—lay man or woman, single or married, priest or religious. We take stock of ourselves and begin to see how much time we had and we wonder if we have been a success or a failure. Most people remember their failings and what they did not do. Even people whom we think did marvelous things (e.g., ran hospitals, raised families, even served the Lord in religious life) ask those same questions.
For nearly 20 years, I served the elderly and nursing care residents, both lay and religious, and many wondered about their past. When I talked with them, they would ask, “Could I have done more?” “Could I have been better?” I suspect people have been asking these same questions from the beginning of humanity.
Such questions may come from our fear that we were not good enough, let alone not perfect. But as Christians, we must not forget our Creator in all this. God gave us life and from the beginning two things were true: We were all born weak and wounded by Original Sin; second, and most important, God has loved us each and every moment of our lives. He not only knows us when we are good and bad, but he loves us no matter how we are at any moment in our lives.
We were created to be with God for all eternity; that’s why he gave us life in the first place. He loves us and wants to share his love, his life and eternity with us. God is good! Actually, he is goodness itself.
Remember, Our Journey Was Made With God
We can neither change the past nor relive our lives. We have a choice as we look back on our lives. We can dwell on ourselves, on our mistakes and sins. We can berate ourselves for doing some bad things and forget God’s loving mercy. But we can also realize that in the midst of mistakes, we have tried to do good and to love the Lord, imperfectly though that may have been.
None of us lives perfectly; we don’t even come close. But with whom did Jesus feel the most comfortable? Was it those who thought they were perfect? Just the opposite: He felt most at home with sinners. We have to realize that Jesus is at home with us who fail. And failure is and has been part of our journey. We must never forget that what God loves to do most of all is to forgive. We have all experienced that gift many times.
I know that we cannot see who we really are; only God sees us in complete truth. We think if we could live our lives over, we would do better. But that is only pride. Actually, we would live them very much the same. In the end, to bystanders, the whole ministry of Jesus appeared to be a failure, a colossal flop. He was abandoned by his closest followers, captured and condemned by his own people, executed by the power of Rome. Who stood by him at the foot of the Cross? His mother and a few faithful women, themselves converted sinners. Jesus’ apparent failure was, in fact, the ultimate success, even in his terrible death. You and I and the whole universe were redeemed.
In the end, we can only thank the Lord for the gift of life he has given us, be aware and sorry for our failures, thank him for all he has done in us, with us, and through us for others. In the end, isn’t that what our whole journey has been? A walk of faith and our trust that we belong to God and that Jesus died for us?
Dear Friar Jack: What a timely and beautiful article! I can only imagine that if the sight of pelicans and gulls covered in oil brings tears to my eyes, how it must sadden beloved St. Francis. If we could all somehow understand even a little bit the vision of St. Francis, our world would not have to suffer tragedies such as these. Bless you! Judy
Dear Friar Jack: I remember Jesus saying to the disciples before he ascended (in Mk 16:15): “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to all the creatures.” Would all the creatures mean that all that was created are our sisters and brothers? As followers of Jesus we must share the Good News with all our sisters and brothers. I enjoy all your E-spirations and pass them on to my son. God bless you and thank you for answering God’s call to the priesthood. Cheri
Dear Friar Jack: Thank you, my good brother, for sharing St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures” with us. I can read on and on about this small man. He is amazing. Please continue providing good spiritual food. One can never measure how inspiring your messages are to a lot of us. May God bless and keep you well. Peace and all good! Winnie (Nairobi, Kenya)
Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for taking the time to write and share your column. It is helpful to me because I find answers to questions I have and it helps me move forward in my faith. The canticle is beautiful. I had never read it before in its entirety. One question remains with me though; it is the meaning of “The second death can do them no harm.” What did St. Francis mean by “second death”? Ana Maria
A: Dear Respondents: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for your wonderful array of points and comments. And as to your question, Ana Maria, fortunately I think I have an answer for you. If you go to Revelation 20:1-6, I think you will find the answer. In this passage of Revelation, the visionary John saw thrones in heaven and those who sat on them. These were the souls of those who during their lives had been persecuted because of their witness to Jesus. “They came to life and they reigned with Christ….This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over these.” Thus when St. Francis says, “The second death can do them no harm,” he means that because they have persevered in their witness to Christ they will share in his resurrected life and the second death, exclusion from heaven or from life with God, “can do them no harm.” They are already in glory! Peace and blessings upon you all! Friar Jack