In mid-November, I was blessed to live the joy of looking into the freshly dead face of a loved one to find the reminder that the true meaning of life is the moment.
The mantra of living the moment is, of course, one of the more horrid clichés of the day. It is the appropriated corporate vision statement of Yoga Inc. It is the twee marketing slogan of Buddha Lite. It is the cultural buzz phrase heard up and down every aisle of Amoralists 'R Us.
Yet use and abuse by the inexorable forces of North American trivialization makes a truth no less true.
The ancient spiritual discipline of yoga remains an authentic means for opening the soul to the world and God despite its Lulule Liz Lemonizing by hordes of downward dog devotees carrying rolled rubber mats under their arms to soothe the Tina Fey / 30 Rock anxieties in their heads.
So, too, the wisdom of the Buddha can speak to a Christian intellect as powerful as Thomas Merton's, for example, despite the Four Noble Truths being culturally reduced to an excuse that spares slothful pseuds having to wipe their chin whiskers clean of the dried alfalfa sprouts left over from their latest vegan sandwich.
Truth will always out against triviality, and there is no truth truer than the cold hard fact of death. What we see when we look into the faces of the dead is the implacable moment when all that is to be resolves itself as all there is.
From childhood, I have ferociously loved the words of the Hail Mary "Holy Mary/Mother of God/pray for us sinners now/and at the hour of our death" for their inexpressibly beautiful alignment of present existence with inescapable non-existence. Now and at the hour of our death. It's not just a continuum. It's a conjoining; two separate facts side-by-side as immediacies. When I was a little boy, during the recitation of those words I used to get a picture in my head of a darkened room, a dying body on a bed, a transparent golden clock with the black filigree hands circling toward 12.
On November 15, I sat the foot of my father-in-law's bed and prayed that prayer over and over again, partly as an intention for his soul to be borne to Heaven through the intercession of beloved Mary, partly as a comfort to myself at the loss of my wife's father, a fair and honest man I've known for more than 30 years, and partly—maybe even mostly—as a plain prayerful description of what was happening in front of us.
Now was the hour of death as my father-in-law's dying lungs clawed for last instants of breath. At one point, the clawing stopped and he lay still. We moved forward to touch him and at the laying on of our hands, his breathing began again, continuing for a few moments more. Each breath contained more moment. And each moment was the only place he could possibly live.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece favourably quoting Philip Larkin's great poem about days being where we live. Even my favourite prayer just cited talks about the hour of our death. Each of those is fully true, though, only insofar as the day, the hour, comprise moments. In fact we cannot know, as Our Lord taught us, the day nor the hour. We can know only the moment and, facing the dead, the non-moment: the conjunction between them.
For some people, I think, this is an understandable source of fear and anxiety. For some reason, I have been blessed to be shown it as a source of the greatest joy. I mean joy as C.S. Lewis defined and taught it to us in Surprised By Joy. In that meaning, joy is not mere variation of life spent sporting happy-clappy party hats and hooting into tin whistles. Joy is the emergence from suffering to find again the unavoidable reminder, the unmistakable fact, the infinite and eternal moment, of God's love. Really, where but there could life's true meaning be found?