A Purposeful Life by Father Timothy Backous O.S.B
Cathy’s note: My Dad attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota and was quite proud of the education he received at that central Minnesota institution. A member of the St. John’s alumni lunch group sent me this beautiful essay that reflects what End in Mind is all about. This is from the Spring 2019 edition of the St. John’s Abbey “Banner” magazine. Many thanks to Father Backous for his sage words.
Mary Oliver, whom a New York Times critic once described as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet,” died in January, and the world is that much more silent. Her poetry seemed impossibly spare, yet full of insight. It was as if the words shouldn’t have been saying what they, in fact, were. A wonderful example is the ending of a poem entitled “When Death Comes” in which she says:
“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” This passage is especially meaningful to Benedictines who are told by our founder “to keep death daily before one’s eyes” (Rule 4.47)—an exercise of discipline that encourages monks to see the treasure of every lived moment.
Ms. Oliver’s poem was on my mind when I visited and anointed a friend who was dying of cancer. Already weak and confused by drugs and cancer cells, he bravely sat on his living room couch, sharing with me that he was down to his last month and wondered why. He asked the impossible: “Help me understand this.” I tried to be as honest as I could and said that no one could make sense of these mysterious and seemingly random twists of fate. Why do people drop dead of heart attacks? Why do babies die in their sleep? Why do some of us live to be one hundred, while others die much younger? The answers seem feeble: genes, lifestyle, bad luck. None of the answers satisfied him.“Help me understand this.” This is where Mary Oliver may provide the most comfort: the question is not “why” I’m dying but rather, “What can I make of my life?” “What have I made of my life?”
Just before visiting my dying friend, I had attended a workshop on aging, during which William Barclay’s insights were shared: “There are two great days in a person’s life: the day we are born, and the day we discover why.” This is the why question most worthy of our attention, and I shared it with a man who had very little time left to answer it. I suggested he answer that question and even write it down for his family and grandchildren to cherish throughout their lives. I was told later that in a subsequent phone call to his son, his voice was filled with a palpable sense of peace. Perhaps he had answered the “why” question and felt the reason his being born had been fulfilled. I hope he realized that his life was not just a visit but the fulfilling of a purpose.
Father Timothy Backous O.S.B