Matthew Brower’s Column: The Thinning Veil | Local


Having grown up in the Midwest, one of the things I appreciate about living in Montana is the near ubiquitous sight of snow on the highest peaks. I love the contrast of the snow capped mountains against the bright blue sky on a hot summer day. It reminds me that seasons come and go and that life is a series of beginnings and endings, hellos and goodbyes.

I just returned from a two week stay in Minnesota spending time with my wife’s family. The joyful occasion of a nephew’s wedding—a season of “good mornings”—brought us back to Duluth. The opportunity to spend time with in-laws entering the painful final chapters of life marked by dementia and physical decline – a season of “goodbye” – invited us to stay for an extended visit.

Although always filled with many happy and humorous moments, this time with the family was sadder than most. We don’t know the precise moment, but for some of them death is approaching. The veil between this life and the next is thinning. Interestingly, amid this very real grief and pain, there was also an ever-present holy sense of hope.

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Watching my wife feed her mother, a once vibrant and energetic woman who now finds it hard to just swallow, I was struck by the honor and privilege of serving someone at this dependent and vulnerable stage. It is truly an overwhelming encounter with love itself, the kind of encounter that only comes about in the midst of a complete outpouring of self for the other. My wife remarked to me that she felt like she and her mother had now come full circle.

One of the beautiful truths in life is that if we want to find meaning and fulfillment, we must willingly sacrifice ourselves for the good of another by making our life a gift. We have to empty ourselves to be whole. It may be counter-intuitive, but maybe that’s why Jesus reminded us that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 16.25).

This month and next, we have special days set aside to recognize the gift of our parents. Parents are well aware of the realities that come with fostering a totally dependent and vulnerable child. They quickly become aware of the constant and vital sacrifices that parenthood demands. Their wants and desires must take precedence over the needs of their child. A woman, once pregnant, cannot “steal” her motherhood. A father, once a father, cannot “steal” paternity. He may run away from the responsibilities associated with fatherhood, but all of this has an impact on the quality of his fatherhood, the type of father he chooses to be.

A psychologist I know often says that the first duty of the mind is to conform to reality. Failure to fulfill this obligation leaves us confused and miserable, at war with ourselves. But the challenge of embracing reality and conforming our will to that reality can be surprisingly daunting. Around us we see a world consumed by the triumph of the will and the exaltation of autonomy to a position unsuited to the weak fracture of our human nature.

During my trip, as I walked through the airport, I saw lines of people – spouses, families, colleagues – one after another staring at their phones, cut off from the life around them. This is something many of us, myself included, have been guilty of too many times. But it was sad. And I wondered if we fade into our devices because it’s so hard for us to embrace the seasons we find ourselves in. It is humbling to recognize the reality of suffering, our ultimate dependence and the limits of our will.

It is tempting to escape into the illusion of a life where we can create our own reality, a reality we can control, a reality devoid of pain, sacrifice and ultimately death. But there is no real hope to be found in this illusion because a life without pain is a life without love.

Like it or not, we are unable to transcend the earthly and spiritual realities that govern the world around us. Death is the great reminder; suffering is the great master. Confronted in faith and well understood, suffering and death reveal to us something deep and beautiful. It is here that we find our purpose, a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness and come to appreciate that in our weakness we find our true strength and love itself – a loving and merciful God who created us to commune with him. in this life and in the Next.

Finding our purpose and entering the places we are called to enter requires an openness on our part. We need to be brave and open our hearts to step into pain and suffering in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. We must resist the temptation to always “fix” and instead let this suffering transform us. In doing so, we can discover the depth of love that awaits us in these uncomfortable and painful horizons.

Every moment is a gift and a blessing in the company of the cross because no human person, however fragile or vulnerable, and no moment of human existence is wasted for God. The gift of this life, with its immeasurable joys and overwhelming sorrows, points us to the life of the world to come.

As I watch my stepfather grapple with the fact that his wife’s earthly life is coming to an end, he embraces the reality of suffering and death in the only way that makes sense — he cries, holds her hand and accepts the arduous task of lovingly accompanying his 53-year-old fiancée as her mind and body deteriorate. Together, they prepare a moment that Jesus understands perfectly for having assumed it — “my will not be done, but yours” (Lk 22:42). And there, true hope is born, blossoms and breathes life into death.

Matt Brower is the executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference. He advises the Roman Catholic bishops of Montana on public policy issues and represents them before state and federal legislators. He is a licensed attorney and holds a degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame.


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