When word spread that former President Jimmy Carter was suffering from cancer, it quickly became more than a passing headline.
Just about every religious publication in the U.S., no matter the denomination, covered not just Carter’s incredible and faith-filled life, but the example he was setting for how a Christian faces death.
That’s not, of course, to write a premature obituary for the 90-year-old statesman. He’s undergoing treatment and retaining his wonderful optimism about this new "adventure," as he called it. But any 90-year-old realist, particularly one with cancer spreading throughout his body, knows that the time is drawing near.
Death is frightening, particularly in our society where dying is often hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes. Wakes are held, not in our living rooms, but in funeral homes.
We don’t talk about death much. And when we know someone who is dying, we’re often tongue-tied in their presence. What can we say? How should we feel?
Often, we expect people’s grieving, whether for their oncoming death or for the death of a loved one, to fit into a rigid time frame. We want them to "get over it," to be stoic, hold it together, perhaps as much for our own self-interest as theirs.
People like Jimmy Carter do us an incredible service by being present to us as they deal with illness and death. When Carter held his news conference in August, sitting alone before a phalanx of reporters, he radiated peace, realism, faith and, yes, a truly Christian sense of joy.
Describing his life as "blessed," he said, "It is in the hands of God, whom I worship." It was clear he was examining his life. He described the high points: a long and happy marriage, the founding of The Carter Center. He talked about his big disappointment: the failure to free the hostages in Iran during his presidency, which doomed his re-election chances.
Jesuit Father John Schlegel, who was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer and made it public in February, also is setting an example. Father Schlegel is at the end of a successful career, having been president of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and the University of San Francisco. He served at John Carroll University in Cleveland and Marquette University in Milwaukee, and he was president and publisher of the Jesuits’ America magazine.
Like Carter, Father Schlegel has been forthcoming and reflective about his prognosis and impending death. In a sense, his journey has become a homily. He’s been busy using his remaining time to complete a "bucket list," which included meeting his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis.
And, as Carter used the word "adventure" to describe what’s coming next, Father Schlegel told Partners magazine, a publication of the Midwest Jesuits, that "maybe my best lesson is yet to come."
Neither spoke of a miraculous cure for their illness, but rather about what awaits them as they fall into the hands of a loving God.
We might think that Carter and Father Schlegel are fortunate in that they’ve been given time to prepare for death. But really, don’t we all have that time today? We all know that death will be our ultimate journey, whether sudden and soon or lived out through illness and old age. Why not reflect on life and death now?
I don’t mean in a depressing way, but in a joyful affirmation of how God has been and will be present through our lives, through good times and bad.
And in a reality check: Would we be ready if we were called home today? Do we have relationships that need healing? Important things undone? Dreams postponed? Unused gifts? Would we benefit from the sacrament of reconciliation?
Accepting the inevitability of the end means that we experience and appreciate life more fully. Ultimately, this acceptance helps us face death as Jimmy Carter and Father John Schlegel are showing us.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and columnist for Catholic News Service. She lives in Nebraska.