Death is a great mystery. It’s mere possibility—of our own or our loved-ones—often terrifies us. We hate death, because it seems to take us away from those we love. This seems to be why most people prefer not to think or talk about it. It is easier just to ignore it. But death is part of life, so we cannot avoid it.
We all long to live and to live longer. We desire that our friends and family not depart from us. Thus we ask, why? Couldn’t God have found another way to punish us that is less dreadful? Some people react to the death of a loved-one, especially if that loved-one was a young child, with anger at God: “Why did you allow this person to die? Why didn’t you answer my prayers and save this person’s life? Why, why, why?”
God has an answer for us if we are willing to listen.
There is a famous story that I like about a former Supreme Court Judge. His name was Oliver Wendell Holmes.
One day, Oliver Wendell Holmes got on a train leaving Washington and took his seat. Not wanting to waste a moment, he opened his briefcase and began working. Perhaps it was some case he was reviewing for the Court. At any rate, he got absorbed into his work and lost awareness of his surroundings.
Soon, the train began its journey down the tracks and the conductor began checking people’s tickets, going down the aisle seat by seat. When he came to Oliver Wendell Holmes, he interrupted the Judge with, “May I see your ticket, Sir?”
Stirred as if woken from a stupor, the Judge mumbled, “Ticket? Oh, yes, my ticket!” He then began to check all his pockets searching for his train ticket. He first checked his pants, then his shirt, then his jacket, and finally began emptying his briefcase and rummaging through his papers.
As the conductor recognized the famous passenger, he tried to calm him down, “Your Honor, please, don’t worry about your ticket. You are an honorable person, so when you get to your destination and you find it, just put it in the mail and send it to us.”
But Judge Holmes was not deterred. He continued his search, now more anxious than before. Again the conductor, wanting to help in some way, said: “Your Honor, we trust you. Don’t worry about your ticket.”
“But you don’t understand!” the Judge quipped, “I have to find the ticket because I don’t know where I’m going!”
This funny but true story seems to me a great metaphor for how people live their lives today. All of us are traveling together on the Train of Life, traveling down the tracks that will lead to our final destiny.
It seems that many people on the Train of Life have little clue where the train is going to stop for them and they will have to get off. Perhaps when the Train stops, they too—like Oliver Wendell Holmes—are absorbed in their work. Or perhaps they are in the diner, enjoying a good meal, or in the sleeper getting caught up on their rest, or in one of the seats looking out the window and enjoying the scenery as life passes them by. So many of our fellow passengers don’t know where they are going.
But at some point this Train is going to stop for each one of us and we will be asked to get off. Where will that be? Heaven? Hell? Death forces us to ask those questions and to adjust our lives so there are no surprises.
We will consider the topic of heaven, hell and purgatory in the following weeks.
Fr. John Waiss
Francisco de Goya, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons