I was walking down the hallway at the hospital recently when a patient motioned for me to enter his room. The patient’s wife and adult daughters were present.
The patient said, “Father, look at what I have to endure.” At first, I thought he was talking about his medical condition, but in fact, he was referring to his family. I had walked into an on-going conversation between his wife and daughter.
The daughter wanted to be able to keep, as a memento, some of her father’s cremated remains. The wife opposed the idea based on her understanding of the Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body.
The man, who had been reduced to being a witness to a discussion about his future mortal remains, was at a loss as to how to deal with his family. He was being discharged from the hospital, and expected to make a full recovery from the illness that had required his hospitalization.
Despite the positive prognosis, his family was already dividing up, not his personal property (which would have been disappointing enough), but his ashes after an as yet unscheduled and unnecessary cremation. He looked at me, and asked, “Why am I being ignored? I’m sitting right here!” I laughed so loudly that I had to leave the room for a moment.
This man’s plight is a perfect metaphor for the state of religion today. Religion is talked about, from time to time, and dabbled in. Religion is often treated as a memento or trinket, particularly on days such as Easter Sunday. However, for the most part, religion is ignored.
Religion is ignored because it seems old-fashioned, a holdover from when one couldn’t golf or shop on Sunday because businesses were closed. Religion is ignored because truth has become a matter of personal opinion. Religion is ignored because it seems to place unfair burdens on us; it limits our freedom.
There is, however, a logical contradiction required in order to ignore religion. The central truth of religion is always with us, and very much a valued part of everyone’s life.
Because of the prominence we give to politics in this country, we tend to identify freedom with political freedom. There is, however, an experience of freedom that is more fundamental than political freedom; it is the freedom exercised and experienced in love relationships.
The capacity to love another person is the most fundamental expression of freedom; it is an experience that we treasure, but often take for granted. When I was a college campus minister, most of the conversations I had with students were about relationships. College undergrads are at the point in their lives when being in a love relationship seems like the most important task to be accomplished. Their parents assume that studies are the most important part of college life, but college students worry if they’re not in a relationship, and if they are in a relationship they worry about its longevity.
Despite the distrust of contemporary culture, religious faith is entirely justifiable, and completely legitimate; it is so because it is an act of our humanity, our free will, our capacity for relationship.
In a few minutes, when we renew our Baptismal vows, we will profess our belief in bodily resurrection. The resurrection of the just is not a function of the condition of our remains. It makes no difference whether one is buried or cremated because bodily resurrection is a result of God’s power. Bodily resurrection is God’s promise that the relationships we form and cherish during our lifetime will not end in death.
Sometimes, I wonder if God asks the same question that the man in hospital asked me, “Why am I being ignored? I’m right here!”
If you, or someone you love, have ever had doubts about the beliefs professed by the Catholic Church, it is possible to satisfy those doubts. The experience of loving someone, and being loved in return, is an experience of the human freedom that can hear God’s Word, and respond in love.
If, over the past year, your relationships have not been what you hope for, today is an opportunity to remedy what is lacking by renewing your commitments to your loved ones.
If you have cultivated an awareness of the value of love in your life, today is an opportunity to give God thanks for the gifts of love.
In this renewal of our Baptismal vows we have the opportunity to touch the texture of eternity: the exercise of free will to create everlasting love relationships with God and fellow believers.