A mother of a dear friend of mine died recently. As Cathy, my friend courageously stopped life support on Carol her mother, I witnessed Carol’s children, grandchildren and close friends come together to share heart warming and hysterical stories of a life well lived. This scene reminded me of a childhood story.
Sebastian, an old Priest lay on his deathbed. He was a holy man who had studied scholarly texts and taught others for years. He had become widely known and greatly respected. More than that, he was revered and loved by his students.
Now that his time had come, his faithful students gathered around to share in his final moments. With characteristic honestly, the old teacher told his students the truth of the situation, he was afraid to die. “I am afraid,” he said, “of God’s final justice. I fear I will be punished in the world to come.”
The students were shocked and began to reassure their teacher: “Father, you are a pure and righteous man, what do you have to fear in facing God?”
With his final breath Sebastian replied to his students, “I am not afraid that God will ask me, “Sebastian why were you not more like Abraham? Why were you not more like Moses? I can honestly say that I did not have the god-given abilities of Abraham or the talents of Moses. But if God asks me, “Sebastian why were you not more like Sebastian? For that I have to answer!” In so saying the old priest passed into the world that waits beyond this one.
Death, they used to say, is a great teacher and often a great teacher will use their own death as a final lesson on life. The final exam turns out to have but a single question and it involves the specifics of life rather than some generalities of religion or philosophy. People ask: What is the meaning of life? They believe there is some general answer. A better question would be: What is the meaning in my life? While you had a chance to live, did you become your true self? Having received the gift of life, did you learn the nature of your gifts and the purpose of them? Have you lived the life that was given to you or substituted some general model or abstract idea?
When it comes to the question of whether or not you have become yourself, there is no way to cheat; there are no excuses and no big reprieves. There is no higher authority to call upon; for the final exam is not about the things outside oneself. Those who believe the answers are “outside there somewhere” are in for a shock when the final question asks who they are within themselves. The answer to the question of life was hidden inside the questioner all along.
The qualification for entering the after-life do not derive so much from following rules and obeying commandments. We qualify for the next world by living uniquely and creatively in this one. When someone’s life becomes meaningful to them their death will have meaning to others.
The saints and prophets, the great philosophers and wise teachers may be proper models for finding the paths of discovery, but each life must eventually become a revelation of itself. Simply imitating a Moses or Jesus, or a Mohammed doesn’t satisfy the question that the divine has for each soul. Living by religious rules and precepts may open a path of learning, but in the end no outer model can lead us all the way to becoming who we are at the core of ourselves.
Seen this way, the final judgement will not pivot upon doctrines or dogmas; for there is no theory or system that can substitute for a life unlived, for a story undeveloped, for a fate not faced, for a destiny not embraced. That’s the final lesson, the last word, and essential wisdom that the good preist was honest enough to communicate with his final breath and Carol was able to prove with her life, well lived.