I find myself waiting in the wings as the curtain is about to rise on a play in which I'm to perform—only I don't know any of my lines. I think, "I'll just have to improvise"; then I realize I don't know the plot nor even the name of the play!
I have another recurring dream with a similar theme: I'm back in school, and it's finals week. I'm sitting in a classroom, waiting to take the final for a course I forgot I had. Somehow the whole semester went by, and I only attended the first day. I guess I blew off the class so often I forgot I was even signed up for it. I have no notes, no study guide; I haven't read any material—I don't even know what the class is about.
I've heard from others that they have similar dreams (for my musician husband, it's a concert, rather than a play, that he's to perform). Such dreams may arise from a fear of forgetting some duty in our hectic lives. But I wonder if they might be gentle reminders from above of that Big Day that awaits each one of us, when we'll meet Him face to face. A day that perhaps we're forgetting to prepare for.
It's so easy to forget. Not only do we generally shy away from thinking of our own death, but we even have a hard time believing that it's really going to happen. Yes, yes, we know intellectually that we could go any day, but many of us don't act accordingly.
Off the top of my head, I can think of several people I knew personally who died unexpectedly. There were the schoolmates in junior high and high school who were killed in car accidents. There was a neighbor in his forties, a runner who appeared to be in great shape—only one day he didn't come home from his run. He'd had massive heart attack. I knew two people—one a new friend in her 20s, the other an old family friend in her 70s—who died twenty years apart but in very similar circumstances: each was happy and excited, then, almost in mid-sentence, suddenly succumbed to a brain aneurism.
Even when we know people who've died suddenly, the reality of one's own death can be so hard to grasp.
When we still have unfulfilled hopes and dreams, we hold on to this life. But even if every day is a dreary drudgery, we still see life stretching out to the horizon. With either perspective, how hard it is to live for the next life; how hard it is pass up little comforts; how hard to delay gratification that long.
St. Thomas Aquinas points out how stupid that is: “They must be esteemed to have lost their sense, who either pursuing abundance, or fearing lack of temporal goods, lose those which are eternal.”
What makes the saints extraordinary is their ability to perceive, believe, and live out spiritual truth, not to be taken in by the illusion of permanence. St. Clare of Assisi reminds us: “Our labor here is brief, but the reward is eternal. Do not be disturbed by the clamor of the world, which passes like a shadow. Do not let the false delights of a deceptive world deceive you.”
St. Paul frequently urges us not to let our minds get fogged up by the day-to-day trivialities that are always clamoring for our attention. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). Instead, we should prepare ourselves: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor 9:24).
Fr. Martin Connor, a wonderful speaker and retreat master, once told us that each year he sets himself a “death-day”. He picks a day some 6 to 9 months off and thinks of it as if the doctor told him that's how long he has to live. It helps him keep his priorities straight.
How does one prepare for that day? What spiritual and relational and temporal matters need to be addressed? If you knew you had only a week, what would you make sure to do?
St. Dominic Savio was only a youth when he died, but he had already figured this out. When he and a couple companions playing soccer were asked by St. John Bosco what they would do if they learned that they would die the next day, his answer was unique. One boy said he'd run to confession, another that he would spend time before the Blessed Sacrament. Dominic replied that he would keep on playing soccer.
He wasn't callous—he was prepared. He had already attended to his spiritual duties, and earthly duties, so he was free to enjoy a little recreation (another—though lesser—duty).
Dominic didn't see any need to stop playing soccer, as he believed it to be God's will for him to play soccer right then—and he had dedicated himself to doing God's will at all times.
Perhaps that is the secret to being prepared.