Time is short and here’s the damn thing about it
You’re gonna die, gonna die for sure
And you can learn to live with love or without it
But there ain’t no cure
~ John Hiatt
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
~ St. James
Like many parishes, we made the Stations of the Cross on Friday afternoons during Lent, and we used St. Alphonsus Liguori’s meditations as our guide. Elegant and lofty, Liguori’s reflections on Jesus’ death march keep the focus where it should be: The Lord’s suffering and our complicity in it.
But there’s a moment along Liguori’s Via Crucis that has always made me wince, and I recite the saint’s words of devotion at that point with what the Jesuits call a “mental reservation” – a fancy way of saying “with my fingers crossed.”
It’s the Fifth Station – Simon Helps Jesus to Carry the Cross. Here’s how it starts off:
Consider how the Jews, seeing that at each step Jesus from weakness was on the point of expiring…constrained Simon the Cyrenian to carry the Cross behind our Lord.
“Constrained” is OK. It comports with what we read in the Gospel: Simon, a gawker in from the countryside, was “seized” along the way and “compelled” to pick up the Cross.
But then St. Alphonsus continues:
My most sweet Jesus, I will not refuse the Cross, as the Cyrenian did; I accept it; I embrace it.
Note the shift in tone. Ligouri sets up Simon as a pious foil – he refused; I won’t – but, frankly, that’s not what we see in the Scriptures. It’s not even really part of pious tradition.
Instead, the Gospels indicate (and tradition largely affirms) that Simon didn’t have much choice. The Roman soldiers clearly had the upper hand, and once they locked on Simon as the closest available stooge, he was cooked.
In any case, even if he did have a choice at that moment, can we blame him if he demurred? The cross, by all accounts, was a beast, probably weighing hundreds of pounds – daunting, to say the least. And what did the Cyrenian know of Christ? Recall that Simon was an outsider – a passerby, maybe in town just on business – who simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. For all he knew, he was taking up a gruesome load meant for some random nasty criminal.
Seriously, it’s not as if Simon knowingly resisted coming to the aid of the incarnate Logos, the Messiah, the Son of God – as if, that is, the Cyrenian recognized his Savior, and still recoiled from the burden of the cross. It’s no wonder he balked. We would, too, under the circumstances. I know I would.
So I take issue with Liguori characterizing Simon of Cyrene as a faithless slacker, but what comes next in the saint’s Fifth Station meditation is right on the money – for me, for us, and probably even the conscripted cross-bearer himself:
I accept in particular the death Thou hast destined for me; with all the pains that may accompany it.
You see, I have this idea that Simon, very understandably, was both furious and terrified by imposed cross. Carrying it up the hill to Golgotha would’ve been an intolerable task – the weight, the rough wood scraping flesh, guards whipping and yelling and jeering. Impossible.
What’s more, the burden was itself offensive. An instrument of torture and execution, the cross was a stark reminder that death was terribly real. Sure, it was going to be some other guy’s death once the cross was delivered, but death was no doubt emblazoned on Simon’s mind as he trudged along. Still, what could he do? He had no options, and I picture him grim and stoic, resigned to the horror, and yet resolute – perhaps muttering “OK, dammit, let’s get this over with.”
I had patient like that once, way back when I was a new nurse. He was suffering from end-stage COPD or lung cancer or both, I can’t remember. What I do remember is that he had a cocky attitude about his impending death, and it fascinated me.
As a new nurse on an oncology unit, I had a steep learning curve regarding the end of life. So much of nursing education revolves around preserving and restoring health that the inevitability of the end is only acknowledged as a bothersome inconvenience. In fact, in one nursing textbook that I teach from now, death is frequently listed as an unfortunate “complication” of various diseases. I’m not kidding – it’s right there in the text. And it’s always listed last as an afterthought: “Let’s see, this disease process can lead to weakness, fatigue, seizures, and, oh yes, death.”
However, there’s no avoiding death on an oncology floor. It’s a subtle, lingering presence, cagey and lurking, the unspoken query at the end of every patient interaction: Am I next?
Not in that lung patient’s room, though. Gasping and heaving, every breath was a chore. “Air hunger,” we call it, and it’s not always relieved by more oxygen. Positioning helps, as does a bit of morphine, and sometimes an electric fan aimed at the face, but really it’s just a matter of time before the airways close up and no more breathing is possible. Nothing subtle or lurking in a situation like that. Death was raring to go.
And yet my patient had death cowed, and we all knew it. He was a big fellow, a bit rough around the edges – almost a stereotype ex-Marine – and very devout, with scapulars and a bunch of medals around his neck, holy cards and well-worn devotional books at the ready, rosaries, crucifixes, statues – you name it, he had it.
And on a bedside table, his mission: A small pile of Xeroxed prayers. Everyone who came in his room got a copy – nurses and doctors, housekeepers and dietary workers, everybody. It was the Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld – you probably know it. It starts off:
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
The copy he pressed on me hangs in my room to this day. Whenever I look at it, I think of that patient (his name has long escaped me), and I remember how he urged me to take it to heart. “Pray this (gasp) prayer (gasp) every day,” he managed to croak out, fixing his eyes on me, “and (gasp) try to (gasp) live it.”
Now, here was a guy who was dying and could hardly breathe, and yet he was focused on living – and encouraging everyone around him to do the same. To be sure, his suffering was real, and he was not so pious as to pretend that dying wasn’t anything other than hideous. In this, he was in line with what Thomas More wrote about Tobit and Job in his last work, The Sadness of Christ (1535):
Now it is true that both of them bore their calamities bravely and patiently, but neither of them, so far as I know, was exactly jumping with joy or clapping his hands out of happiness.
Instead, my patient – like Tobit and Job, I’m guessing, and Thomas More for that matter – was indignant about having to die. It was a rotten business, yes, but it couldn’t be helped (short of a miracle), and so, in the meantime, he devoted himself – abandoned himself – to an apostolate of prayer and witness.
And what a powerful witness he was, at least to me. As I went on in my work on that oncology floor, and later as a hospice nurse, and now as a nursing instructor, I have always referred back to that man’s example of courage in the face of terminal decline. Without a doubt, he broke “bravely through the hindrances” of “weariness, fear, and anguish,” in the words of More, and seemed to take “heaven by storm.”
St. Thomas wrote those words facing death himself while imprisoned in the Tower of London, and that reminds me of a relevant jail reference. A close friend who knows about such things loves to say that “jail is no joke.” I’ll have to take her word for it with regards to jail, but having witnessed death up close and personal many times, I can assure you that death is no joke either. Consequently, I side with Simon the Cyrene and, frankly, share his reluctance to take on the cross and its death associations – take that, St. Alphonsus!
Given that, there are still lessons to learn from the Fifth Station and Simon of Cyrene. I’d like to suggest the following three-point summary:
- Death sucks – there’s no sugarcoating it.
- We’re all going to die – plan on it, the parousia notwithstanding.
- There’s no better way to stick it to death than to live!
How? Like my patient, we can’t wait around to die, even if we’re dying. Every gasping breath we get is God’s largesse, so lavish it accordingly. Have another baby, for example, or maybe go to jail for some noble cause (like my friend), but it doesn’t even have to be that extreme. I can just decide to be kind to someone who doesn’t like me – or that I don’t like – and pretend that I like him, at least to start. Or that guy who cuts me off on the bypass? I can say a prayer for him, and yield to the next few cars as well. I can pretend that I’m selfless and saintly, even when I’m not.
That’s it, really. Like Simon, if we’re compelled to remember that death awaits us all, we’ll make all our living count for something now – every moment, even when we don’t feel like it. In fact, especially when we don’t feel like it! Live, live, live, we’ll remember. And we’ll remind our friends and family, have them remind us in turn, and then post reminders on the bathroom mirror, in the car, and in the office, cubicle, and work station. Live, live, live! We might be burdened by the cross of our mortality, but we can sure give it a run for its money while we’re yet breathing, dammit!
Besides, isn’t that what Easter is about in the end? Up yours, death. Resurrexit, sicut dixit – alleluia!
A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.