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The Illusion of Immortality and a Dislocated Shoulder

January 7, 2015


The end of one year and the beginning of another is always a good time to reflect on the gift of “time” that we have been given.  We take stock of the preceding year.  What were the good moments and blessings?  What were my mistakes, missed opportunities and struggles?  We make resolutions for the coming year.  “This year I resolve to … (fill in the blank).”  In both taking stock on what has occurred and looking to the future is the realization that time is a gift and not necessarily a given (although we can easily think so) and how we make use of this gift does matter both for ourselves and for others.

In my own “New Year reflecting” I have gained some good perspective both by an insight given by Pope Francis and by a recent personal experience.  The insight being the first of the fifteen spiritual diseases the Holy Father made mention of in his speech to the Curia: the illusion of immortality.  The personal experience being my recent dislocated shoulder acquired on a ski trip to Utah.

The media has certainly picked up on Pope Francis’ Christmas address to the Curia and, as often seems to be the case, many outlets are demonstrating more their own particular slant on things than are offering good reporting.  In the Catholic Church we are used the spiritual practice of the examination of conscience.  It is a helpful and fruitful discipline in the spiritual life.  As I read the address given by the Holy Father to the Curia, I heard a pastor leading his community in an examination of conscience in order that the community might advance on the way of discipleship.  Are these maladies present in the Curia and its work?  Probably, more or less, but neither are these maladies limited to ecclesial circles alone.  Any institution (corporate, media, government, educational) would do well to undertake such a thorough examination.  Something tells me not to hold my breath on this possibility though.  To those media and secular institutions chuckling about the Pope’s remarks, I would remind them that Jesus said something about focusing on the speck in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.

Here is what the Holy Father said about the first malady:

The first is “the sickness of considering oneself ‘immortal’, ‘immune’ or ‘indispensable’, neglecting the necessary and habitual controls. A Curia that is not self-critical, that does not stay up-to-date, that does not seek to better itself, is an ailing body. … It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity, and of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”

The Community of Sant’Egidio has a saying, “Each one of us is given only so many Easters.”  Only so many Easters to come to know the risen Lord, only so many Easters to let the truth of the resurrection and the gospel settle into our hearts and our very living.  In other words, no one is immortal.  We each have only so many years given us yet it is so easy to fall into the illusion of immortality.  I can easily think “I can do that tomorrow” but I might not have a tomorrow.  This is the “sickness of the rich fool” and it is very easy to catch, individually and even institutionally!  The humility of knowing that I am not immortal, immune nor indispensable leads me to value each day, each setting and each encounter.  It also allows me to cultivate empathy in my heart.  “There but for the grace of God go I,” is a prized awareness gained by the person who knows that he or she is also not immune.  An awareness of my mortality also leads me to better claim the possibilities each day offers.  A body in motion tends to stay in motion.  This is a dictate of good health and the Holy Father is applying it to the spiritual life both of the individual Christian and to the life of the whole Church.  The Church must remain healthy!  Striving for health enables health!  The illusion of immortality does not enable good health because it leads one into the fallacy of thinking that what is necessary and habitual applies neither to me nor to the institution of which I am a part.

It is a humbling thing to wipe out on a ski slope and dislocate ones shoulder but humbling moments can lead to wisdom if they are approached correctly.  Five days ago on a trip visiting my brother and his family in Utah I did just this yet, while certainly humbling, I am already learning from this experience.  A body in pain will quickly cut through the illusion of immortality.  This is one learning gained. As I ever so slowly made my way down the remainder of the slope after my fall, not able to put the slightest pressure on my right arm, and once I saw in the clinic my shoulder blade about an inch lower on my arm than where it should be I was under no illusion regarding my mortality!  But there have been other learnings gained.  My brother Tony, with whom I was skiing, is an avid skier as well as being a former Army Airborne Ranger.  The skillset he brings to skiing is at a much higher and advanced level than mine.  Maybe there was a brotherly sense of needing to prove something at work but I should have taken things slower and more elementary.  There is an important value in the mundane work of developing the necessary skillset required rather than jumping right into something.  There is also an important value in acknowledging the correct level at which ones skillset is!  Another lesson learned (again, from my brother) was how I saw him staying aware of the risks involved and planning accordingly.  (I think this also might harken back to his Ranger training.)  He stays updated on the avalanche possibilities, he checks the weather, he takes the time to pack the needed gear before he and his family head out on an outdoor adventure, even when this causes his wife and son a little frustration.  But the extra time given at the outset can prove critical later. 

We are not immortal, the time we are given is a gift and we are called to be good stewards of the time we have been allotted.  In our lives of faith we need to do the mundane work of developing the skillset that is needed and we must not be naïve regarding the situation and times we find ourselves in as Christians.  Our Lord calls us to daily prayer, to the daily work of community and service and he calls us to be as cunning as serpents regarding the world in which we live.  We need to know that the extra time given at the outset can prove critical later. 

Not to boast but hopefully to acknowledge; one skillset I did bring to the table the day of my wipeout on the ski slope was a relaxed and calm approach to the event gained through the discipline of prayer.  The doctor and clinic staff remarked how popping my shoulder back into place was one of the easiest they had ever done.  “Most patients,” they said, “especially those with some muscle mass tend to tense up and this is what leads to a painful experience.  You, on the other hand, were so relaxed and calm that the shoulder easily popped back into place!”  When the staff gathered around me to begin the procedure and the nurse encouraged me to slowly breathe in and out and focus on my breathing I easily slipped into the Jesus Prayer in my thoughts.  A prayer I strive to live with every day.  (Breathe in) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, (breathe out) have mercy on me, a sinner.

Each one of us is given only so many Easters.  How might I make best use of the time I have been allotted?  As we make our New Year resolutions it might be worthwhile to reflect on this question.  It might also be worthwhile to be open to insights coming from the most unexpected of places in our lives and experiences (i.e. the insight of a Pope as well as insights gained from dislocating ones shoulder).