Here on the Way to There: A Catholic Perspective on Dying and What Follows by Msgr. William H. Shannon. St. Anthony Messenger Press (Cincinnati, 2005). 170 pp., $12.95.
PITTSFORD — Msgr. William H. Shannon can make death seem so attractive that you might want to cross into the great beyond before your time is due.
Or so the priest said some of his listeners have accused him of doing after hearing one of his funeral homilies.
During an interview in his apartment at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse, Msgr. Shannon made it clear that by making death attractive, he wasn’t endorsing suicide and physician-assisted suicide, which he and the church oppose as immoral. Indeed, he added that the physician-assisted suicide movement may lead people away from looking at their time of dying as a final and eternally vital chance to reconcile with those from whom they are alienated. Instead of fretting over death, which no one can escape, he said believing Christians should prepare for death, which the church teaches is actually the beginning of a better, greater life with God.
“Human existence is much greater than life on this earth,” Msgr. Shannon said.
Faithful Christians should look forward to death as an opportunity to finally embrace the God they have been seeking all their lives, and to join the “communion of saints” with whom Catholics pray at each liturgy, he noted.
As chaplain to the sisters for a quarter century, Msgr. Shannon has seen many sisters die and has given many a funeral homily. He said the concepts he has addressed from the pulpit inspired him to write Here On The Way To There: A Catholic Perspective on Dying and What Follows.
The book combines practical advice on how to prepare for death — from appointing health proxies to making decisions in case of future incapacitation — to more poetic musings on what life will be like in heaven.
“Scripture tells us ‘God is love,’” he wrote. “Imagine what it must be, not simply to be in love with someone, but to be in Love. Period. We can only be filled with awe.”
Msgr. Shannon is professor emeritus of religious studies at Nazareth College in Pittsford, and is probably best known for his books on Thomas Merton.
He divides his his latest literary endeavorinto three parts. The first deals with “Here: Dying, Death and Entering into New Life.” Part II deals with “Here on the Way to There: Some Reflections on Growing Older”; and the book’s final section is titled “There: What Eternal Life Will Mean for Us.”
Part I notes that Americans often view death as a cruel, irreversible tragedy. However, Christians have the example of Jesus’ resurrection to help them view death differently, Msgr. Shannon wrote.
“It was God’s love that raised Jesus from the dead,” he observed. “God’s love would not let him perish. And it is God’s love that will not let us perish, that will enable us to live forever.”
In the first and final sections of the book, the author offers some interesting passages on exactly what the resurrection of the body means.
He notes that here on earth, our bodies completely change their cells every seven years, and adds that Christians should not confuse resurrection with resuscitation. Our person will remain the same, but it seems that our resurrected body will be a new creation, not bound by time and space, much like the resurrected Jesus.
The priest writes in a kindhearted, pastoral manner, yet is not afraid to address thornier questions about death and dying, including those about end-of-life care, as well as the existence of hell and purgatory. He also writes extensively about the hospice movement, and how it has revolutionized care for the dying.
“(Hospice) has helped physicians, nurses (indeed all of us) to see that terminal illness should not be seen as a failure on the part of the medical profession; on the contrary, it offers the opportunity of moving, at the appropriate time, in a new direction and with different goals: from attempting to cure an illness to a commitment to care for the person who is ill,” Msgr. Shannon wrote.
The book’s major drawback may be its organization — some of the practical information seems a bit jarring and out of place when read within the context of more reflective passages. Then again, the author may have been attempting to weave practical advice into his theological musings, akin to a pastor offering both spiritual and practical counsel to a parishioner during a time of crisis.
Msgr. Shannon’s book is well-written, scholarly without being aloof, and a valued addition to Catholic literature on dying. Here On The Way To There is a much-needed work, given the explosion in bioethical debates raging around end-of-life issues, not to mention the ever-present popular interest in questions about the next life and what it holds for all of us.
In an increasingly dark world ridden by sudden violence, war and terrorism, it’s refreshing to read an author so aware of the tragedies of this life, yet entranced with the promises Jesus offers regarding eternal life.
“Restlessness is part of our human existence,” he writes in Part III. “But that restlessness speaks to us of something deep within us. It is a subliminal symbol of our need for God: a need that we can never fully satisfy in this life.”
By the end of Here On The Way To There, it will be clear to any believer where that need will be satisfied.