23 November, Monday — End of Life Directive

Nov 23 – Memorial for St. Clement I, pope, martyr; Memorial for St. Columban, abbot

St. Clement (d. 101) was the fourth pope, and an apostolic Father. The Basilica of St. Clement in Rome is one of the earliest parish churches in the city, and is probably built on the site of Clement’s home. He is the author of the ‘Epistle to the Corinthians’. His name occurs in the Canon of the Mass. Origen and St. Jerome identify him as working with St. Paul the Apostle.

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St. Columban (543–615) was well-born, handsome, and educated. He was torn between a desire for God and easy access to the pleasures of the world. Acting on advice of a holy anchoress, he decided to withdraw from the world. His family opposed the choice, his mother going so far as to block the door. He became a monk at Lough Erne. He studied Scripture extensively, and wrote a commentary on the Psalms. He became a monk at Bangor under abbot St. Comgall.

At middle age, Columban felt a calling to missionary life. With 12 companions, he travelled to Scotland, England, and then to France in 585. The area, though nominally Christian, had fallen far from the faith, but were ready for missionaries, and they had some success. They were warmly greeted at the court of Gontram, and the king of Burgundy invited the band to stay. They chose the half-ruined Roman fortress of Annegray in the Vosges Mountains for their new home, with Columban as their abbot.

The simple lives and obvious holiness of the group drew disciples to join them, and the sick to be healed by their prayers. Columban, to find solitude for prayer, often lived for long periods in a cave seven miles from the monastery, using a messenger to stay in touch with his brothers. When the number of new monks overcrowded the old fortress, King Gontram gave them the old castle of Luxeuil to found a new house in 590. Soon after, a third house was founded at Fontaines. Columban served as master of them all, and wrote a Rule for them; it incorporated many Celtic practices, and was approved by the Council of Macon in 627, but was superseded by the Benedictine.

Problems arose early in the 7th century. Many Frankish bishops objected to a foreign missionary with so much influence, to the Celtic practices he brought, especially those related to Easter, and his independence from them. In 602, he was summoned to appear before them for judgment; instead of appearing, he sent a letter advising them to hold more synods, and to concern themselves with more important things than which rite he used to celebrate Easter. The dispute over Easter continued for years, with Columban appealing to multiple popes for help, but was only settled when Columban abandoned the Celtic calendar when he moved to Italy.

In addition to his problems with the bishops, Columban spoke out against vice and corruption in the royal household and court, which was in the midst of a series of complex power grabs. Brunehault stirred up the bishops and nobility against the abbot; Thierry ordered him to conform to the local ways, and shut up. Columban refused, and was briefly imprisoned at Besancon, but he escaped and returned to Luxeuil. Thierry and Brunehault sent an armed force to force him and his foreign monks back to Ireland. As soon as his ship set sail, a storm drove them back to shore; the captain took it as a sign, and set the monks free.

They made their way to King Clothaire at Soissons, Neustria and then the court of King Theodebert of Austrasia in 611. He travelled to Metz, France, then Mainz, Germany, Suevi, Alamanni, and finally Lake Zurich. Their evangelisation work there was unsuccessful, and the group passed on to Arbon, then Bregenz, and then Lake Constance. St. Gall, who knew the local language best, took the lead in this region; many were converted to the faith, and the group founded a new monastery as their home and base.

However, a year later, political upheaval caused Columban to cross the Alps into Italy, arriving in Milan in 612. The Christian royal family treated him well, and he preached and wrote against Arianism and Nestorianism. In gratitude, the Lombard king gave him a tract of land call Bobbio between Milan and Genoa in Italy. There, he rebuilt a half-ruined church of St. Peter and around it, he founded an abbey that was to be the source for evangelisation throughout northern Italy for centuries to come.

Columban always enjoyed being in the forests and caves, and as he walked through the woods, birds and squirrels would ride on his shoulders. Toward the end of his life came word that his old enemies were dead, and his brothers wanted him to come back north, but he declined. Knowing that his time was almost done, he retired to a cave for solitude, and died as he had predicted. His influence continued for centuries as those he converted handed on the faith, the brothers he taught evangelised untold numbers more, and his brother monks founded over one hundred monasteries to protect learning and spread the faith.

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Apo 14:1-5
Lk 21:1-4

Even if you have to die, says the Lord, keep faithful, and I will give you the crown of life. ~ Gospel Acclamation (Rev 2:10)

How often do we think about death and dying in this life? More specifically, do we contemplate what would happen at the end of our life, and how would we want to leave the ones we love when we go?

The year 2020, and the year before, has summarily been filled with the confrontation of death and dying of my loved ones… and then there is COVID-19. The life-threatening and critical illnesses of my husband and subsequently my mother, one in each year, has shaken me at the very core. I do not like to admit that I am still reeling from the beating that my naïve faith has suffered. Why did this have to happen to the ones I love? Why do they have to suffer? Why them? Why choose me to walk this trying path with them?

Why these constant detours and this persistent restlessness, grief, in my heart? Why make things better in some ways, and why let them go downhill in other ways? Of course, I am aware that this sickness is not about me. Yet I am very, very much involved and suffering too.

Jesus had also said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it” (John 11:4). Yet, this pain is bespoke, and it is mine.

On the good days, I can avert the ‘Why’ train that would otherwise derail all of my best laid plans. If like me, you are going through some version of despair in this very, very difficult year – remember that we are really preparing our souls for heaven. And if the physical ailments or earthly sufferings you endure is just beyond understanding, hold fast to the vision that John saw – our Lord, the Lamb, standing in holy righteousness on Mount Zion. Even if that vision seems disparate from your current circumstances, you and I must believe. As with the Apocalypse scriptures today, let us be one of the hundred and forty-four thousand people who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes; [who] have been redeemed from amongst men to be the first-fruits for God and for the Lamb” (Apocalypse 14: 4).

In a way, the task we have been given is so enormous, and yet so simple – “keep faithful”. God’s ‘End of Life Directive’ to you and I is to stay the course. That is, whatever it is that helps you to keep faithful, do that. Do that one littlest, and simplest, uncomplicated task of faithfulness.

If it is just making the sign of the cross today, do it. If it is just saying a feeble ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer, do that. If it is kindness you give another person today despite the turmoil you feel inside, God sees it. For me today, it is the effort of sitting down, breathing slowly, and writing this reflection.

Even if you have to die, says the Lord,
keep faithful, and I will give you
the crown of life. (Revelations 2:10)

Stay awake and stand ready,
because you do not know the hour
when the Son of Man is coming. (Matthew 24:42-44)

In what state would our souls be at the hour when He calls? I know from experience that temptation to give in to despair is so very real. But, as Christians, we need to humbly learn and accept that on this side of Heaven, there is simply no ‘perfection’. It is Christ alone who can perfect us by His blood and His sacrifice. Faith is a road that is daunting, yet filled with beauty and hope. We don’t need all the answers in order to take the next littlest step.

What would you tell a tiny child just learning to take that first step? “Come, don’t be afraid, I am always here to hold you.” The enormously simple act of this little step is what you and I need to make in order to stay the course and keep faithful until the very end. Because, there really is a crown of life hereafter. We don’t know when and how, but Christ has shown us that it is.

(Today’s OXYGEN by Debbie RL)

Prayer: Lord, I am breathing today, and I am trying my best.

Thanksgiving:
But it is morning. Within my hands is
another day. Another day to listen and love
and walk and glory. I am here for another day… I think of those who aren’t. (Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself: My Struggle to Become a Person)

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