April 9, 2022 Essay: Peace I Leave With You
My cousin Billy died at the age of 82 in October 2019. Though his death was sudden, he had made some careful plans and chosen thoughtful words for that inevitable moment. These included instructions that a note he had written be displayed next to his casket at the wake service before his funeral Mass—“Enjoy and be happy; life is for the living. So move on and relish what you still have. I love you all. Bill/Grandpa/Uncle Bill.” Though I was sad that Billy was gone, I left the church feeling grateful and comforted. My dear cousin’s gesture was caring and compassionate; a final gift to those he loved and left behind.
The Gospel stories that we encounter during Holy Week invite us to ask a spiritual question that Bill, in his own way, had tended – “How might I give my death away as my final gift to my loved ones and the world?” My cousin made choices that created the opportunity for his death to be a source of blessing and consolation. I have also witnessed—as I am sure you have—the heartbreaking reality that a death can unleash a spirit of bitterness, frustration, and resentment because there is much-unfinished business.
Henri Nouwen, near the end of his life, wrote about the spiritual task of making the way we encounter our deaths a gift. He said, “When we are near death what we say to those who are close to us, whether in spoken or in written words, is very important.” Jesus role models how in word and deed we can make our dying a gift of peace, forgiveness, and love. Recall his soulful, beautiful words and actions from those fateful, final days—“Peace I leave with you.” “Do this in memory of me.” “I call you friends.” “Do not weep for me.” “Father forgive them.” “Into your hands I commend my spirit”.
We cannot choose the circumstances of our deaths. God willing, the moment will be peaceful, and we will be surrounded by loving friends and family. But this might not be the case. We might be caught by surprise. Death sometimes arrives with violence. Like Jesus, we might first be led through intense, humiliating suffering. No matter how we meet our end, we can make choices now about the way we live that will determine whether or not our death brings light and peace, or sucks the air out of the room. And like my cousin, we can make plans about what we want to happen after we’re gone that can ease the burden and bring consolation to our loved ones.
A few weeks before Billy died, I was privileged to spend some time with him at a family wedding. We reminisced and shared some happy memories of people we loved who are long gone. It was a pure gift to have shared this moment together. As I left him that evening, I gave Bill a kiss on the cheek. “I’m so happy we could talk, Billy,” I said as we parted. I recognize now that life gave me an opportunity to walk a few steps with my cousin at the end of his journey.
This week we will walk with Jesus to Calvary. As we accompany him to and through his death, let us be gently attentive to his words, choices, and gestures. He is teaching us in these moments how to die well. We can learn from him how the time of our ultimate parting can be made abundantly fruitful.
— Brian Pinter