Yearning for the everlasting: An Assumption reflection
At Mass later, we heard the story from Revelation about the great red dragon and the woman clothed with the sun, whose child was saved from the jaws of death and who fled to a place that had been prepared for her. We heard Paul's assurances that we will all be raised. Mary being taken up into heaven, the priest told us, reminds us each of our own eternal destinies.
I thought of these mysteries as I walked to the office after Mass.
Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict, called "The Tools for Good Works," has this wisdom to offer among its other injunctions to feed the poor and bury the dead: "Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God's gaze is upon you, wherever you may be."
So I suppose all this thinking about death and eternity makes me a good Benedictine.
Last month, I participated in a panel discussion about death and dying with some medical students who had visited our monastery and the abbey of Benedictine monks in Atchison, Kan., to experience an alternative perspective of death from what they might see in the medical world. A few students said that in medicine, you often feel that if you can't "fix" a person, if a patient dies, then you've failed.
There were nine students and six of us monks and nuns on the panel. We started by reading what Benedict says about death. We Benedictines then went around the room telling our own experiences. Few of us had encountered death very much before we came to the monastery. Since we've been in, we've all been to a lot of funerals, and we've all seen elderly monks and nuns looking forward to the eternal life for which they have long prepared. Some of the oldest sisters wonder why they are still here: "Has Jesus forgotten about me?"
When it came to my turn, I read them a passage from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians: "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you" (Phil 1: 21-24).
My personal scale tends to tip toward transcendence. So Paul's quote, while reflecting that desire for the world beyond, also tells me that this yearning for eternal glory cannot overtake everything I do to the point that I live an isolated life, ignoring the other people I am with because I am spending so much time thinking of my own future happiness.
On the back of my bedroom door, I have taped up a photocopy of an article that was in The Kansas City Star Aug. 22, 2002. The article by Mark McDonald is called "Flood Takes Artist's Life Work." I keep it there to remind myself that I am not in control. It's one way I "keep death before my eyes."
The article tells a small story of loss that happened during the European flood three years ago. In the 13th-century town of Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, the waters of the swollen Vltava River overflowed into the studio of a 47-year-old sculptor named Miroslav Paral, who had worked in a state factory making beer mugs until the 1989 revolution freed him to work on his personal sculptures. He had won international acclaim for his creations.
Almost everything in Paral's studio -- finished works, works-in-progress -- was ruined by the flood. Upon seeing the devastation of his pieces, the artist had a heart attack. A witness said, "He just stood there sobbing, seeing his life in ruins, his whole life's work."
This article brought me to tears, as well. I am always talking about the momentous things I hope to write one day. My formation directors are always trying to tell me that's great, but even if you don't write them, it doesn't matter. I am the work of art whom God loves.
A lesson I can learn today from Mary, God's highly favored one.
Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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