It’s probably fair to say that middle age took most of us by surprise. One day—or so it seems—you can eat whatever you like, go to bed at two in the morning, and fit into all your clothes. The next day you’ve developed allergies, consider 10:00 “staying up late,” and find there’s more belly on you than there used to be. And I won’t even talk about wrinkles!
But by far the most difficult part of being middle-aged is that we begin losing people.
For many of us, it starts with our parents’ deaths, and the world feels suddenly far colder and more lonely when there’s not that generational buffer between us and death anymore. Then, slowly, friends develop life-threatening diseases—diabetes, cancer, respiratory infections—that limit their quality of life and eventually end it altogether.
And who’s ready for that? Who’s ready to say good-bye to people who are special, beloved, important? Who’s ready to start thinking about inching closer every day to it being our turn?
The truth is, we’re woefully unprepared. Our culture doesn’t deal with death very well. Instead of confronting our own or anybody else’s mortality, we stave it off. If someone mentions death or dying, we act as though they breached the most egregious of etiquette taboos and we describe their interest as “morbid.” Most Americans view death as the enemy, something to be fought at all costs.
It’s counterintuitive, but even Catholics follow those cultural norms. We know that death is not the end of our lives, but the beginning, a passageway to the kingdom of God. We’re like someone who’s lived in a small apartment their whole life and now is leaving to go live in a palace—for eternity. You’d think we’d want to talk about death! You’d think we would spend time every day imagining our futures, where there would be no pain, no sorrow, no hatred, only happiness and love. You’d think we’d teach our children about it, that we’d go joyfully to the bedside of someone dying.
You’d be wrong. We’re as uncomfortable as everybody else.
This came home to me the last time I sat in a hospital room with a person dear to me who was dying. I thought I was pretty sophisticated about the whole thing, but what actually happened was—nothing. I had nothing. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what I could offer. I didn’t know how to be close to this person in this incredibly important moment. I left that room impoverished, not only by my loss, but by my inadequacy to the event.
I wish she were dying now, because something amazing happened to me recently that would have changed that whole interaction: I picked up a book about to be published by Pauline Books & Media. Simple enough—I read all our books before they’re published, and I had no reason to think that the Memento Mori: Prayers on Last Things prayer book would change me in any significant way.
Reading this book, which gathers together both the strongest and the most comforting prayers and thoughts, felt like those moments when dark clouds part and sunlight comes streaming through—only it was the light of Heaven that was surrounding me. It enabled me within minutes to really understand death as a passage and not as an event. If I had had this book in my hand at my dying friend’s bedside, I wouldn’t have been uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have been tongue-tied. I would have had the right words to say, to read, to pray. She is with Jesus now, of course; but the next time that happens (and as I said, the moment we pass 40 or 45 the inevitability of losing people becomes very real indeed, and there will be a next time, and a time after that, and a time after that), the next time, I will be prepared. I will have the words. I will be the presence God is calling me to be.
I can’t share everything, all the incredible wonders of this book, but I can give you a taste of them. For example, the prayer for those close to death would have made all the difference in my friend’s hospital room:
Merciful Father, with the death of Christ you opened the gateway to eternal life. Look kindly on all those who are close to death, especially [name]. United to the passion and death of your Son, and saved by the blood he shed for us, may [name] come before you with confidence, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
But it’s not just a book to be read and prayed at deathbeds. We really can be different from the culture around us, and this book offers us a way there. Saint Francis called her “Sister Death,” and we can see dying in that light, too, but only if thinking, reading, and praying about it becomes part of our daily routines. I have added the prayer to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to my own personal evening prayers, so that every night I can ponder the mysteries of death, and entrust myself to God:
O Immaculate Virgin, glory and splendor of Carmel, look kindly upon me and cover me with the mantle of your maternal protection. Strengthen my weakness with your prayers, illumine the darkness of my mind with your wisdom, increase in me the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Adorn my soul with grace and virtue so that it may be pleasing to you and your divine Son. Assist me in life, console me at the hour of my death with your presence, and present me to the Holy Trinity as your child and devoted servant to praise and bless you forever in heaven. Amen.
Everything you will need to shift your perspective and open yourself to God and the passage from life to eternity is in this book. You’ll find New Testament Scripture passages, the writings of the saints, and the most comforting of Psalms. It will instruct you in doing an examen and in making a good confession. It addresses your fears with prayers to combat evil, prayers for protection, and spiritual warfare prayers, as well as a renewal of baptismal vows. It includes litanies, chapelets, Rosaries, and then rightly shifts your perception onto Heaven itself. There is no other prayer book like this one.
Okay, so I still sort of hate being middle-aged. But I’m learning to lean into it more gracefully, and to accept help when it’s offered… like through the words of the Memento Mori prayer book.
Image: Clément Falize for Unsplash