I recently found out about something called end-of-life doulas. Doulas are not healthcare professions, but a ‘trained companion’ who supports another person through a significant health-related experience. They seem to be part of a growing trend of doulas, life coaches, psychologists, and other similar emotional support caregivers. It’s fascinating that the secular world continues to find they need the same kind of support that people of faith have had for literally thousands of years.
In a recent Vox article, Rachel Friedman talks about what an end-of-life doula does. She walks readers through the process of loss that a person with a terminal illness goes through. She then talks about the re-focus of her daily life this created for herself, the value of active listening, and then focus on legacy projects you wish to leave behind.
What’s fascinating is that these exact topics and dealing with these realities are the lived Christian/Catholic experience that have been in countless writings and famous artworks for hundreds of years. Let’s take a look.
“Memento mori” is the Latin phrase for “Remember, you must die”. This is not a morbid wallowing that many religious pundits love to use to discount Christianity. Instead, it is a statement of fact. In fact, many modern folks embody this idea in such phrases like YOLO (You Only Live Once) and ‘carpe diem’ (Seize the Day). Dead Poet’s Society has a great scene on this very notion from the 1648 poem by Robert Herrick:
Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time – Robert Herrick 1648
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.
Both the secular and religious world see this as a need to remember that our time is short so we do not waste our lives. Many people are driven to achieve great things in business, sports, and personal achievement. We should live our life knowing that our time is finite – so we must make the most of it.
So what is the Catholic view? For hundreds of years, many Catholic artists showed monks and saints with or contemplating a skull. Some orders would sometimes put the skull of a previous monk in each monk’s cell. By contemplating the skull of a predecessor, we are reminded that we too will die, be buried just like they were, and all our efforts will come to an end. Some new person in just a few decades will then look back on our skull the same way as we look at them now. Talk about putting things in perspective!
If that was all there was, it might lead one to despair, wonder at the point of it all, or even turn to looking at life as just what I can get out of it for for myself. For Christians there is much more than this. Contemplating our death reminds us not only of the urgency of our lives, but also Christ’s victory over death, a victory in which we are invited to share by uniting our lives with His, and finally that this world is not our permanent home (Heb. 13:14).
This hits upon 2 major themes Friedman mentions. First, is that we should have a healthy sense of our own mortality so we can focus our living and make the most of it. At the core of many of Jesus’ parables and teaching was the most profound urgency. Don’t put off for tomorrow what can be done today. Don’t wait for ‘some day’ to start changing and living as you ought. We only have so much time to address those things that need to be addressed. No one knows the day or hour of their own death or His returning. Learning to love is a difficult process and takes us much time. Learning how to fall in love and build a relationship with our creator is not something we do overnight. This is urgent because we only have this time on earth to become friends and lovers of Christ. When that time comes, Jesus tells us many will come, even those that preached in his name, and he will tell them to depart and that he never knew them at all.
Friedman’s second major point is that we need to realize that everything we love, achieve, and accumulate will be left behind. For the secular world, loss and death can bring about existential dread. In reality, Friedman says that even non-believers will go through these very same realizations that everything we have will be lost at our death. For the Christian, however, it can also be a motivating and freeing force that puts our lives in perspective – when it’s done in relationship with God who lives with us and awaits us on the other side of death.
Many of Jesus’ parables tell us that we are temporary stewards – but the quality of our stewardship is what carries over. Christians know we are all graced with some amount of life, money, career, family, and possessions. All of these temporal things are simply a means to find salvation by daily conversion to the teachings of Christ. At our death Jesus will appear to us and take accounting of our stewardship. Our temporal gifts are used to help us learn how to love our neighbor and God. This is why the poor are sometimes greater in love than the rich – since they often give all they have.
Active Listening and Confession
Active listening is a skill that any of us can develop and increasingly recognized as a key element of emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is recently recognized as a set of skills critical to a successful career and relationships. Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. The listener must holding back their own stories, comments, and feelings. They don’t tell a person what to do. They don’t try to fix the situation. They ask open-ended questions and seek to understand while letting the person go through the process themselves. The idea is that the person must find their own way through the experience and the listener simply helps them speak what they are experience to make their own choices.
Would you be surprised that Christians have a very similar practice since the earliest times of the Church? We call it confession. In confession, the penitent can speak their deepest self in complete acceptance and safety. Part of confession is spending time doing a solid examination of conscience in which we use Christ’s teachings to really take stock of ourselves. When done prayerfully with Christ, we see ourselves as Christ sees us. The priest, acting in persona Christi, listens quietly just as if one were sitting with Jesus himself. The priest only interrupts to ask clarifying questions to understand better. This alone, as Friedman says, is tremendously powerful. This is, however, where active listening ends. The best it can offer is to ask ‘What do you think that means?” or “What do you think you need to do?”. It does not offer any meaning or answers.
Confession, however, has an even more powerful element – forgiveness – if it is sought. A key element of Jesus’ ministry was speaking the Truth. Many of us know the Truth in our lives as many active listeners would agree. However, without any external guide, the Truth of ourselves often becomes simply our truth for today. It doesn’t hold nearly the meaning as something that has been proven true over millenium.
In confession, we can see that real Truth and then can be freed of failings, hurt, and guilt and hear the words of forgiveness that Jesus would speak to us. Even at the late hours of our life we can re-start and try loving rightly again. We still must go out in the world and deal with the temporal effects of our sins, but Christians believe in the promise that Jesus gave that he would use his ministers to give forgiveness if it is sought. It’s the first step towards healing. Something listening alone cannot do.
As mentioned earlier, embracing our mortality gives us the motivation and focus to really make a difference even after we are gone. This is something both secular and religious would agree with. In both cases, it means creating something that will live on beyond us. For many, this is setting up their children or families to be safe and cared for after we are gone. For others, it is setting up legacy foundations, trusts, and financial vehicles to affect the world after we are gone.
This is no different for believers – but with a few additions. One only needs to look at the huge cathedrals in Europe to see this in play. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is a great example. Construction started in 1163 and was first completed in 1260. Over the next 800 years, it went through numerous expansions, revamping, destruction, re-building, and additions. The front towers were built separately over decades, the roof revamped numerous times, the windows added, etc. Many of these additions took well over a person’s lifetime. Expansions were started by one whole set of architects and workers only to be finished by completely different ones.
All the while it was funded by the contributions of money and work by believers. Churches should not be looked at as a one-time construction, but the work of generations of believers – rich and poor – over hundreds of years. Believers that contributed both in large and small ways. Even today, modern churches often have indications of which parts were contributed at different times and different people. It’s a reminder that we often start building things we never will see finished.
In more modern times, we do this kind of legacy building by setting up foundations, trusts, and groups that help particular societal needs. Religious orders have done this for centuries. Dominicans are dedicated to teaching, Franciscans and Carmelites are known for their work with the poor. If you look into the hundreds and hundreds of religious orders over the millennium, you’ll find that we owe modern free education and healthcare to countless generations of religious. That’s why many hospitals still hold Christian names. They were the original non-profit organizations of the world.
To wrap up
It’s interesting that the modern secular world is re-discovering the same things that Christians have known and practiced for thousands of years. That Jesus teachings are still as relevant and correct as ever. Perhaps we need to re-engage the modern world (which has become ever more disillusioned and discounting of religious knowledge) with these concepts – but in a way they can understand more clearly. And it turns out that we started that all the way back in the 1980’s under John Paul II. It’s a reminder of our mission.