I travelled this past weekend, so I brought a few books to read should I actually have both the patience and focus to do so on the plane or while on vacation. It just so happened that I did crack open one of those books, entitled “Love Is Stronger Than Death” by the Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft. It’s a very topical book for me and for my grief, especially in recollecting the last few encounters with my mother. All she seemed capable of doing in her final days was to cry tears of joy upon seeing anyone who visited her and to whisper in her cracking voice, “I love you.” It was a bittersweet sight as I both knew my mother’s Earthly life was nearing its end, but I also knew her soul seemed prepared for eternity, focused on the love Christ fashioned for all of us, tuned into the love that conquers sin and death. In his third chapter, Kreeft describes death as a friend, and the following passage jumped out at me –
My concocting and writing this book about death has sharpened my appreciation of life also- beyond all my expectations. The thought of death has made my life exactly the opposite of “morbid.” But why passively read about this experience in other people? Why not actively enact it in yourself, right now, this very minute? “Look thy last on all things lovely” now. You have something infinitely better to do than to continue reading this book. Meet your friend. Lay the book down for ten minutes and ask yourself what you would think, feel, say, and do if you knew this was the last ten minutes of your life. And then do it. For the very good reason that it might really be the last ten minutes of your life, and for the equally good reason that some ten minutes certainly will be the last.
My immediate thought was of my wife and child. If this were my last ten minutes on Earth, I would want to spend it somehow in communion with them. I would call, but being on an airplane in a non-emergent state, I couldn’t call within this exercise. So, I looked out the window. I appreciated the clouds hovering above the world speckled with civilization below, a world I would no longer see or enjoy. I appreciated the angular wing as a frame of strength cutting through the delicate beauty of the cottony cloud-filled sky. Then, in following the exercise, I imagined that if it were my last ten minutes, the cause of my death would likely be a plane crash. So, I imagined that sturdy wing breaking, but I did not try to comprehend the panic. After all, this exercise was meant to treat death as a friend, and terror is not a friend, nor is it the state in which I would want to spend my last ten minutes of Earthly life. Instead, I wondered at the power of God’s creation in relation to the mightiest of man’s. This crowning achievement of human knowledge and ingenuity could be rendered as fragile as our confidence when we hear that one snicker behind our backs. As I imagined knowing the plane would soon crash but being unafraid of it, I thought of my friends and family and their shock and mourning upon hearing about my death. I thought of how I would want them to remember me. Who I would want them to think I was. In other words, I wondered who I wanted to be.
Being removed from the terror and willing to accept death as a friend did frame my life and what I want out of it, as Kreeft suggests in his book, but having no family or friend on the plane to “meet” did not discourage me. I wanted to commune with all the people around me in that final ten minutes. I wanted to help them, to calm them, to find a way to save their lives if mine was lost. I wanted to leave Earth in heroic fashion, offering my life for the sake of others. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) That was how I wanted my life to be spent when facing impending death.
But, these people were not my friends. They were strangers, and yet I wanted to offer them the ultimate form of love. More than wanted; I yearned for it, I craved it. I felt a need within my soul to give everything I had for these people. In feeling that, I realized that what I truly wanted in my final ten minutes on Earth was to be in a state of complete, indiscriminate, and universal love. That, in my opinion, is the purpose for which God fashioned mankind, and that helps to explain why Jesus said the greatest commandment is to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Mark 12:30-31) And what is love? The best definition I’ve heard came from someone on the radio the other day, and I’m paraphrasing, “Love is wanting what’s best for someone and longing to be in communion with them.” That was what I felt for everyone around me in my pretend last ten minutes.
Admittedly, I could paint myself to be a real saint within a ten-minute timeframe that existed solely in my imagination. But, even in the act of merely imagining that final ten minutes, I found all the exertion it would take to achieve that level of love to be either exhausting or personally unachievable. As much as I would desire to live my final ten minutes in that way, I find it hard to imagine being capable of a second of that sort of love if my imagination were ever pressed into reality. At the very least, I cannot recall a single second of my life spent loving that strongly and that universally. I simply am not strong enough and am not good enough.
Perhaps that is the plight of all our lives. We all know who we want to be, which amounts to different shades of the same universal palette of love, but we don’t know how or don’t feel able to achieve our desires. There are just too many other emotions, problems, and distractions that get in the way, like the fear of being on a plummeting airplane, or for my mom, the pain of cancer and the fog of heavy medication. This is what makes the hope of heaven so profound and our need for grace and the Holy Spirit’s love in our hearts so powerful. While we cannot achieve the last ten minutes we all desire – my Mom came as close as anyone I’ve ever seen – we know we can achieve that ten minutes for which we long throughout eternity in Christ. May we let that hope strengthen us to face our grief and to live our lives a little bit more in His image and in His love.