The title of this column is reminiscent of Father James V. Schall, S.J. – so many of our very dear, late contributor’s columns having begun with “On . . .”
Fr. Schall’s last column here was titled, “Who Are You?”, in which he wrote: “The history of the world records the judgments, wise and unwise, made by the human persons who live in this world for however brief or long a time.”
For however brief or long a time . . .
Readers of TCT may recall a couple of columns I wrote last year about having cancer, being treated for the disease, and then coming through it with no cancer detected anywhere in my body.
The principal test used to detect cancer is the PET scan (Positron-Emission Tomography), and I had another one at the end of this past August, and it was completely clear. But . . . there are places a PET can’t “see.”
Without going into details here, an MRI just last week indicates I may have cancer in one of those hidden places. An upcoming biopsy will confirm, but on a scale of 1 to 5, I’m apparently a 4.
One thing we know: if it is cancer, it’s not a recurrence of the type I was treated for in 2018.
So why write now, ahead of the biopsy? Because it’s what I do. Because, whether I have cancer again or not, I’m forced to once again face my mortality and my immortality.
As Schall might write to me were we still exchanging frequent emails: All men are mortal; Miner is a man; therefore, Miner is mortal.
Just my luck.
I’ll soon have my seventy-second birthday, making me older than both my parents when they died. Except for a couple of sports-related, minor surgeries, I was never in a hospital until I had a partial knee replacement (legacy of sports) at 64. Since then . . . Well, let’s just say that, if you live long enough, the body offers ample reminders that it is not immortal. The doctors start shaking their heads and taking things out or putting things in.
I’m strong and my body can take it, and I’ll endure more cancer treatment if that’s necessary. What I’m really tired of, though, is the seemingly constant refrain of “one more test . . .” Okay, I’ll do it. I will cooperate with the protocols.
But this morning, after I got the news about this latest diagnosis over the phone from one of my many doctors, my first thought was once again: memento mori (remember you will die). I used to have that little bit of sage Latin in my electronic calendar, and I guess I ought to put it back. (I had replaced it with, “It’s always Easter.” I think I’ll keep that too.)
All of this may be, as Mrs. Miner sometimes says, “T.M.I.” Too Much Information. Still, as I said, this is what I do: write to sort things out.
And it is a paradox for Christians, isn’t? We are called to life. God spoke to Jeremiah, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you. (1:5)
I’m convinced this call applies to all of us, even if we aren’t prophets.
But we are also, you might say, called to death. It’s always Ash Wednesday.
A proper Catholic ought not to fear death. It’s easy to write that, and, as I did, our Lord’s words to His tired followers in Gethsemane came to mind: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40)
I’ve “brought” Christ with me into the various claustrophobic tests and treatments that have been my lot, sustained by Paul’s statement to the Church in Corinth that, feeling God’s presence in “fear and trembling” and demonstrating “spirit and power,” he brought them the truth “so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2-5)
To live is to die, but to live joyously, fully is not to dwell on “doom,” on death. And yet, how could there be true joy if at the end of it all we imagine only. . .nothing. Of course, I can write those words, but nobody can really imagine nothing. When I was a 4-year-old, I sat on the fire escape of our apartment and thought: “What if there were nothing?” (I’m sure I didn’t use the subjunctive then.) And then: “I’m here.” I stared into the slate-gray sky and knew or sensed that “nothing” is the one thing that cannot be.
St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote (Preparation for Death): “It is folly not to think of death. It is greater folly to think of it, and not prepare for it.
Through all the claustrophobia of last year, I prayed, although not for myself. And I recollected my coming death: whenever and under whatever circumstances.
And another, blessed paradox: the clearer the recollection, the happier I was. And it seemed the good news would keep on coming: cancer-free, cancer-free.
And what do you suppose? When I was told I needed an MRI, I realized that I’d stopped recollecting death, and I was suddenly angry, impatient, and O, so tired of it all. How quickly we can forget to remember!
But learning that I may have to go through it yet again, I’m suddenly at peace again. I don’t want to die; I may live to be 100. All this is not what I was born for – not for this life or this death.
I was born (or, rather, born again) for heaven:
All the nations of the world seek for these [earthly] things, and your Father knows that you need them.
Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides.
Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. (LK 12: 29-32)
*Image: Black Jug and Skull by Pablo Picasso, 1946 [Tate, London], a classic memento mori.