My wife and I were in a bad car accident a few weeks ago. We were on our way to Sunday Mass at our old parish. At the corner of our old street, I pulled out after the light changed (as I’ve done thousands of times). A young woman – who later confessed she “wasn’t paying attention” – ran full speed through a red light. Though she hit me square on the driver’s side, I was relatively unhurt. My wife, sitting on the opposite side, oddly, got serious bruises and, as we later learned, a slight concussion. But I’m grateful. It could have been worse. Much worse.
It’s taken me this long to write about it because I’m still trying to grapple with where and how the whole experience “fits.” We’re constantly reminded: Memento mori, remember that you will die – and therefore be prepared. That’s very good advice, not only because it puts other things about life and death in the proper perspective, but because it’s literally true that any day may be your, my, anybody’s last.
I’ve heard that some saints begin to pray spontaneously in sudden crises – St. John Paul II when Mehmet Ali Agca shot him and St. Jose Maria Escrivà when he too was in a car accident. Some people, far from saintly, change their ways drastically. Still others see their whole lives pass in front of their eyes. Given fallen human nature, I expect the view isn’t always pretty.
You also hear people say, for instance, that time slows down and your life speeds up at such moments. That happened to us. I watched with (I would swear) near emotionless detachment as the side of the car bent in. But once I saw that these highly safe modern cars, even hit at high speed, don’t really crumple more than a few inches, I said to myself (absurdly in retrospect), “Okay, that’s no problem.”
So I turned to see how my wife was. We have some recollection of asking each other, “Are you okay?” And could see that neither of us was badly hurt. All this seemed (to both of us) to take about 15 seconds; it couldn’t really have been more than two, and none of those words could possibly have been spoken – in my mind or between us – in so little time.
My sometime EWTN colleague Fr. Roger Landry tells me that his mother and father were in a similar accident years ago. And that they continued on, limping over to Mass, because it was Sunday morning after all, and they could. (Which also explains a lot about the padre’s virtues.)
We went to the hospital because my son-in-law, an ex-Marine, insisted that you never know what’s happened to your insides after a massive impact. Doctors later told my wife that she had the adult equivalent of shaken baby syndrome. I felt like my organs had been scrambled. I played football in my younger days and took some hard hits from big guys. But I couldn’t begin to describe the weird sense of being there with no injury and, at the same time, not what I was just seconds before.
When you reach a certain age, you start to reflect on the end, but something like this makes it real. You not only don’t have a young person’s sense of invulnerability any longer, but you know in the most concrete terms that the end will come – and that you have to prepare for how to meet it. This is not solely a Christian concern, by the way. Classical scholars have come to realize how much several schools of ancient philosophy were really something like spiritual direction. In the Phaedo, Plato reports Socrates as saying “those who do philosophy right are preparing to die.”
Among the many things we’ve lost in the meltdown of Catholic culture in the last half-century is attention to the most important end-of-life-question: how to die. It’s much more than a decision whether to treat or not to treat. One of my patron saints, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), after a life of intense intellectual activity – combating Protestant errors, trying to mediate in the Galileo case, and writing serious theological works including a highly influential Catechism – towards the end of his life “now free from public business,” composed The Art of Dying Well.
In the modern world, we’re supposed to know that thinking about death is morbid. Bellarmine, the heir to both pagan and Christian wisdom, knew differently: “what folly can be imagined greater than to neglect that Art, on which depend our highest and eternal interests; whilst on the other hand we learn with great labor, and practice with no less ardor, other almost innumerable arts, in order either to preserve or to increase perishable things?”
There’s probably no clearer indication of the distance between traditional wisdom and our age than this:
Now everyone will admit, that the “Art of dying Well” is the most important of all sciences; at least everyone who seriously reflects, how after death we shall have to give an account to God of everything we did, spoke, or thought of, during our whole life, even of every idle word; and that the devil being our accuser, our conscience a witness, and God the Judge, a sentence of happiness or misery everlasting awaits us.
I was a bit surprised yesterday morning before Mass when I read the Gospel for the Feast of Christ the King. At first, I thought someone had put in the wrong passage for the day. But then I realized: yes Mercy, yes the Love that was willing to die on the Cross for us, but also the King’s just judgment and the separation of the sheep from the goats, as he has explicitly warned us – or the effort and sacrifices and trials of the Christian life make no sense.