Chaplain's thought for the week
Lessons from death about life
There is an old story of a Jester who sometimes had very wise things to say. One day he said something so foolish that the king, handing him his staff, said to him: “Take this, and keep it till you find a bigger fool than yourself.”
Some years later, the king was very ill and lay on his deathbed. His courtiers were called; his family and his servants also stood round his bedside. The king, addressing them, said: “I am about to leave you. I am going on a very long journey, and I shall not return again to this place, so I have called you all to say goodbye.”
Then his Jester stepped forward and, addressing the king, said, “Your majesty may I ask you a question? When you journeyed abroad visiting your people, staying with your neighbours, or paying diplomatic visits to other courts, your heralds and servants always went before you, making preparations for you. May I ask you what preparations your majesty has made for this long journey he is about to take?”
“Alas!” said the king, “I have made no preparations.”
“Then,” said the Jester, “take this staff with you, for now I have found a bigger fool than myself.”
No matter how much we might like to escape it, the fact is that each and every one of us is going to die one day. We are all mortal. And so, one of the most important parts of our lives as human beings is living them in such a way that prepares us for our dying.
What can I mortality teach us about life?
Before I came to work at Exeter School, I was a parish priest. Alongside conducting church services, baptisms and weddings, one of my roles was to take funerals of those who had died in my parish. That might sounds like a particularly unpleasant task. It might sound miserable and bit depressing. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was one of the most rewarding parts of my role. One reason for that was because you are able to care for a family at a particularly difficult time. You also got to hear some wonderful stories about the person who died and the things they had done. But most of all, it taught me just how precious our lives are, how special each moment we have is, and how important our relationships are.
Every single day of our lives we take these things for granted. But each time I took a funeral, it stopped me in my tracks: it taught me a little bit about how to live; it taught me that life doesn’t go on forever; it taught me to cherish life and not to take it for granted.
In contrast, when we ignore the fact of our mortality, we miss out on truly living. We end up living too much in the future, we can think of life as being round the corner, when all along life is right in front of us and needs to be grasped with both hands today.
In the Parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus tells the story of a man who does really well for himself when his land produces abundant crops. He thinks to himself: “I’ll build some nice big barns for these crops and store them up so that I can have plenty of good things in the years to come. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” But unfortunately for him that was the night on which died and he couldn’t enjoy any of those things he looked to enjoy in the future.
Today is the day for living.
The psychologist James Hollis writes this: “One thing I have observed directly and many, many times as an analyst is that those who feel that they have taken risks, who, generally speaking, have lived their lives, have a much better time with their dying… it is clear that those who fail to risk being who they are, who shun diving into the journey, are the most fear-ridden, regretful, and recriminating.”
In the last century, a tourist from the United States visited the famous Polish Rabbi, Hofetz Chaim. He was astonished to see that the Rabbi’s home was only a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench.
“Rabbi, where is your furniture?”
“Where is yours?” said Hofetz.
“Mine? But I’m passing through. I’m only a visitor here.”
“So am I.”