As Lent progresses through its third week, HNP Today offers a reflection from the chaplain at Siena College.
How often have you been to a wake and heard the comment: “Doesn’t she look good?” Usually, the object of the compliment is not a fashionably dressed fellow mourner, but the deceased. There’s no doubt that a good funeral director can work wonders, and that some people look even better in the coffin than they did in life.
Yet, I’m inclined to agree with Loretta LaRoche, the motivational guru, who thinks it should be otherwise. She says that if you live life to the fullest, if you wake up each morning bound and determined to give it your best shot, if you live each day as if it were your last, then when you die you shouldn’t look good. You should look terrible. You should look all used up. You should look worn out because you haven’t held yourself back. You haven’t kept your time, your gifts, your talents, your treasure to yourself. You have been fully engaged in the demands of living, and have spent the bulk of your time in the business of loving until there’s very little left.
The Example of Matthew Conlin
I think of LaRoche’s sound advice whenever I think of Matthew Conlin, OFM, a friar I’ve had the privilege of living with for the past six years and of knowing for more than 30. Twice a week, in fair and foul weather, Matthew drives the 45-minute trip from the friary to a state penitentiary, where he teaches Bible study to inmates in both English and Spanish. He also counsels them and celebrates the Eucharist. On weekends, he presides at a Spanish-language Mass in a nearby parish.
What makes this schedule remarkable is that Matthew, a Shakespearean scholar and former Siena College president, is 87 years old. He battles skin cancer and has undergone knee and hip replacement surgery. He favors one leg when he walks, and like a lot of older folks, he suffers from insomnia. Yet, none of these ailments stops him from working. None of them keeps him from ministering to the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized.
Matthew takes very seriously and very literally the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” I can assure you that when Matthew dies and is lying in the coffin, there will be plenty of mourners surrounding him, because he has touched so many lives. But I very much doubt that anyone is going to say how good he looks. What they will say is, “He looks terrible,” which is precisely how he ought to look after so many years of self-giving.
The Example of Christ
Nobody who gazed on the crucified Christ on that first Good Friday said: “My, doesn’t he look good!” They probably said, “What a mess. He looks terrible. He looks all used up.” And he was used up — used up by his complete dedication to the work and will of his heavenly Father, and used up by his love for the poor, the lost, the broken, the sinful, for all men and women, even the enemies who killed him.
“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel. If the grain wants to preserve itself, if its No. 1 goal is to remain intact and to look like a perfectly lovely seed, it is of no use to anybody. “But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). If the grain allows itself to be used up, to lose its shape in the service of others, it will give life to the world. Such is the way of Christ; such is the way of the cross.
At the beginning of Lent, you and I receive a smudge of ashes on our forehead — a graphic reminder that we will die someday. The ashes are traced in the form of a cross, but might they also be applied in the form of a question mark? For, they ask what kind of death we will die and, therefore, what kind of life we will live. They ask: Is our ultimate goal in life, to take good care of ourselves, to look out for No. 1, and to look our best at all times? Or is our aim to look terrible by the time we die, all used up, because, like Jesus, like Matt Conlin, our love for God and neighbor, especially the least of our brothers and sisters, has thoroughly consumed us?
— Fr. Bill is the college chaplain at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. An essay by Fr. Bill appears in the Lent 2007 issue of the Province’s Insight & Wisdom, a publication of the Vocation Office.