Today is All Souls Day, when we pray for our departed and peacefully remember the eternity that awaits us. In this context, I would like to share with you this powerful experience that I had a few years ago on my first hospital visit with a priest.
We were in the Dutchess County Hospital, passing rooms with silent, withered occupants. We came to Room 349 and entered quietly. He was lying in bed, dressed in a hospital gown. His arms were painfully thin and his eyes sunk deeply into his skull. He was all alone. No daughter, no son, no wife, no brother, no sister, no nephew, no cousin, no distant relative, no friend, no power of attorney: he was dying alone.
After introductions and gentle shaking of his weak hand, he looked up from his bed and rasped, “It’s all over!” The words struck deep, “It’s all over.” What can you say to a man on death’s door?
The priest knew exactly what to say. With a smile that lit up the room, he responded “No! Everything is just about to begin!”
The dying man’s grave, pained expression lightened a little, “Well, I guess you’re right.”
Glancing around his room, I noticed a muted TV set, connected to the wall on a metal arm. The first game of the World Series would take place that night. One of the coaches was speaking in the pre-game press conference.
The priest tried to converse with him. Each attempt was met with a brief reply and a distant gaze. I thought about talking with the man about the World Series. Opening my mouth to ask whom he thought would have the better chance at the pennant, I stopped myself. What would he care? This man is about to die. He is about to leave the world. He doesn’t give a darn about its World Series.
In this room where death was so close, the World Series was nothing more than background noise and images on a screen. Beyond this room, people were glued to the TV, treating the result of the World Series as a matter of life or death. Inside Room 349, death approached and everything else was fading away.
As the priest prayed over the man and gave him communion, I began to experience an emotion that I did not expect on a visit to a dying man. I was actually happy for him. He had received the Anointing of the Sick. He was clean; he was about to see God. I was excited for him. This man was on the verge of making it. He was almost out of the valley of tears. Just on the other side of death his eternal reward awaited. In a few hours, he would be free of his suffering and within the embrace of the Father.
True, this man was close to death, but he was also close to Heaven.
It became apparent that the man was heavily sedated with painkillers, so our conversation did not last long. But the experience of the dying man impacted me deeply. God spoke to me through him. I left with a yearning for what the man was about to get. I realized just how close heaven is, and I realized how much I wanted it. It awakened in me the desire to renew my effort and to keep striving for heaven. God used the visit to the dying man to remind me that heaven is closer than I think.
Speaking with and watching him slowly let go of life, I experienced death vicariously. I saw what will one day happen to me. I saw things from the perspective of a dying man. For us, daily life seems so immediate, so real; things like the World Series seem like events of tremendous importance. But in Room 349, death was approaching; life was becoming more like a dream, something fragile, something less than reality that disappears as soon as the sun rises.
God brought me close to death to refocus me on what really matters. Compared to the reality and eternity of heaven, life is just a fleeting dream. Death is not a sunset, but a dawn. When we die, we wake up to the beautiful reality for which we were made.