While many complex factors contribute to the fluctuation of death rates around the calendar year, it is clear that as winter’s darkness descends, mortality rises. Certainly the sustained cold is difficult for those whose strength is waning, but perceptive souls can intuit that discouragement and loneliness also play their part. In particular, the arrival of the holidays rattles many who might otherwise weather the spiritual chills, for at such times the palpable lack of family warmth becomes more painful — even overwhelming for some.
This year, such a drama played itself out nearby in a poignant way, highlighting the need for vigilance on the part of every Christian. In this case, a woman who had suffered from a long bout with cancer was discharged to die in peace — not in the sterile atmosphere of an institution, but within the familiar comforts of a caring family.
And yet one comfort was missing — the embrace of Holy Mother Church, which was long held at arms’ length for the sake of an angry husband. The why’s and wherefore’s are unknown. Admittedly, there is much to cause consternation at present — years of spiritual neglect in some parishes, generations of shoddy catechesis in others, still more who have allowed irregularities to creep into the liturgy, not to mention the larger crisis that has shocked the wider world.
With this in mind, Benedict recently quoted the words of Hildegard of Bingen, who in the year 1170 was given a vision of the Church: “Her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened.” Surely, the current straights have provided another dark chapter in the Church’s history, despite the myriad saints who live in every generation.
We must keep in mind, though, that despite the failings of some priests, even where the Church’s ministers have held firmly to the standard of love — which requires self-control and sacrifice — there are those lay members who refuse to be constrained by duty, who will not consider the needs of neighbors above their own. Ultimately, between the defects of clergy and the short-comings of the laity, it is natural that our path to holiness is at times a torturous journey.
With this in mind, this lovely Christmas story of a holy death is a welcome reminder of the size and shape of our vocation. Here, an attentive neighbor who cared for this individual soul intervened after months of prayer and prudent conversations with family members. She chose a trusted friend to talk lovingly but firmly with the husband, encouraged the dying woman and brought in the local priest who had ardently hoped for an invitation. It ended very, very well.
Whether the light is ebbing and flowing in any given year — or in the culture at large — is much beyond our powers. So, too, are all the events that have flowed past in the lives of our loved ones. What matters is that we bear a torch in our immediate circle so that the light of the world might be known beyond the torn skirts and dirty face that may have been otherwise manifest.