There once was a woman who made a deal with Death: she told Death, “Don’t come to get me unless you first give me a warning.” Give me a warning before you take me. Death accepted her demand and the woman lived life without fear of death. She took courage from the thought that she could attain salvation by repenting like the Good Thief, at the last moment by making a good confession after she got her warning. One day, after many years, Death suddenly came for the woman, but she objected furiously, “This isn’t right! She said. You promised me that you’d warn me before you came!” “And since you haven’t warned me about your arrival, I’m not ready for death.”
But Death calmly answered, “Dear sister, I don’t do you any injustice. God has given you warnings about my arrival for many years now. How long has it been since your hair starting turning grey? Didn’t you notice the signs of aging the gradual reduction in the glow of your skin and the wrinkles? These were signs that the time to leave your physical body was approaching. You didn’t take these signs seriously. You wasted your time and now there’s no time left. You have to come with me.” Helpless and sad the woman followed Death.
Now there was a young man in college enjoying his youth. Believing he had lots of time before Death would arrive, so he lived without cares or worries, not thinking much about the future. However, Death came for him too. The young man shouted angrily, “I won’t come with you! I have not received any warnings like you gave to the old woman who died. My hair hasn’t turned grey and I have no wrinkles. This isn’t fair! I want to keep living!” Death answered the young man saying, “Dear brother, I show you no injustice. Sufficient warnings were given to you too. Don’t you remember the death of your college classmate in the car accident? Don’t you remember the boy in your neighborhood that died from illness? Don’t you read of the deaths of young people in the newspaper every day? All these were your warnings. I come in search of any human, anytime, anywhere. However you discarded the message that you should always be prepared for my arrival.” With great sadness, the young man also followed Death.
One of today’s greatest theologians, Cardinal Schoenborn of Vienna Austria, recently attributed the declining influence of Christianity, in the West, to the decline in our awareness of the bigger picture. The bigger picture of Heaven. He argues that since so many modern Christians don’t take seriously the Four Last Things of the four last things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. And by ignoring these last four things we’ve become less dynamic, less purposeful, and less committed. We are less committed to doing great things for Christ, the Church, and the world. He goes on to say that it’s as if Christians have lost the orientation that for centuries defined the direction of our journey. We’ve forgotten that we are pilgrims and the goal of our pilgrimage is heaven. He says we don’t long or yearn for Heaven the way we used to, we take it for granted that we’ll all get there, but will we? Scripture says no such thing. Without an awareness of the big picture we have no reason not to get swallowed up in earthly self-indulgence and earthly self-centeredness.
One thing we can do to keep the grace of the resurrection and the grace of Heaven in our lives is to keep death in mind, to not forget about it. Our society doesn’t like to think about death and eternal life that may be why we have so many gadgets and entertainments to distract us. The Church has always encouraged us to keep death in mind. Many of the Saints kept skulls as reminders of their own eventual future death. But some might ask, can we keep death in mind without becoming morbid and depressed? Yes, we can.
Our Lord doesn’t want us to mope around. He wants us to live life to the fullest, just as he did and all the saints before us. Those most focused on Heaven do the most good on earth. One easy and effective way we can keep death and Heaven in the mind is to simply pray the Rosary every day. This is going to be an advertisement to pray the rosary. The Rosary keeps the bigger picture in mind in two ways. First, it uses the two beautiful prayers of the Our Father and the Hail Mary. The Our Father directs our hearts to heaven, and even mentions heaven. The Hail Mary reminds us that we don’t live forever by ending with the phrase, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Second, the Rosary combines those prayers with a meditative reflection, in Mary’s presence, on all the events in Christ’s life – from his birth through his resurrection. Praying through the different mysteries of the rosary every week takes us on a complete tour of the bigger picture of Heaven.
As you might expect I have a story about a man whose conversion involved praying the rosary. His name is Bartolo Longo. In 1841 Bartolo was born into a devout Italian Catholic family that prayed the rosary every day. When he was ten Bortolo’s mom died. From that time on he slowly drifted from the faith. When Bartolo entered Law School he became involved with the occult, taking part in séances, orgies, and fortune telling, at one point even practicing as a satanic priest. Unsatisfied with merely practicing his new pagan religion he also felt it was his duty to publicly ridicule Christianity and he did everything within his power to get rid of any Catholic influence in the public life of his town. He even convinced many other Catholics to leave the Church and participate in the occult rites.
Bartolo lived this lifestyle for ten years. He was a lawyer by now living in Pompeii. He was materially successful however; there was no joy in his life. He was depressed, paranoid, confused, and nervous. He lived within a constant storm of anxiety. It was during this time that he would take to the streets at night, just walking about aimlessly, despairing about his life. It was during one of these walks, while coincidentally standing outside of a small dilapidated chapel that he heard the words, “Return to God!” In the silence of the night he heard it again, “Return to God.” In fear he sought out a Catholic professor, who convinced him to leave his satanic practices. This professor also introduced him to a priest who heard his confession. He hadn’t gone to confession in over 15 years. At this early point of his conversion he again would find himself walking the streets at night, still looking for that peace, again he found himself outside that dilapidated chapel, and there in the quiet of the night he heard the words, “If you seek salvation, promulgate the rosary!” “If you seek salvation, promulgate the rosary!” Teach people to pray the rosary.
And that is what he did. After re-learning it himself he taught people to pray the rosary,. He visited every home in that valley, giving everyone a rosary. He formed a confraternity of the rosary; he formed missions to promote the rosary. He even restored that little ramshackle chapel where he first heard that still small voice. Bartolo had found the peace he was seeking. Now Bartolo wasn’t an immediate success but with time many people in that valley came to love and pray the rosary. Bartolo continued promoting the rosary into his old age he would evangelize young people at parties and in the local cafes. He died in 1926, at the age of 75. Pope Saint John Paul II beatified him in 1980 calling him the Apostle of the Rosary. That little ramshackle chapel would eventually be enlarged and re-consecrated as a basilica officially renamed the Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of Pompeii. Many miracles have been reported at this basilica.
To keep our minds focused on the bigger picture of Heaven, of where we want to go, helps us to live each moment of life in God’s light. Again, those most focused on heaven do the most good on earth. Tomorrow, we may not have the chance to love; so we love today. Tomorrow, we may not have the strength and health to work; so we work sincerely today. Can we repent tomorrow? Can we forgive tomorrow? Can we help others tomorrow? We can’t be sure. Today is the day gifted to us by God. Let us live this day in His truth and beauty and goodness, using this day as if it were the last. This is the best way to prepare for eternal life.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley