You know the story:
An old man is near death. His career was successful, providing well for his family. But he is nagged by a feeling that he wasn’t around enough. Extended business trips and late nights spent at the office haunt him. Was his worldly success worth missing those baseball games, recitals, and family dinners? In the twilight of his life, it sure doesn’t seem like it, and he dies wishing he only had more time.
Stories like this are common. But they don’t have to be. Most of us imagine living a long life, full of accomplishments. We tend to think that there’s always another chance, another opportunity, or another day. Many of us think we’ll look back on life with few regrets and those regrets we do have, well, they happened when we were young and don’t matter, right?
Sadly, as recent tragedies remind us, life is fragile. We may not live a long life. And if we do live until old age, the reality is there is always something else we could have done more we could have given. As the Catechism reminds us:
Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment. (CCC 1007)
Tempus fugit. Memento mori. Time is short. Remember death.
We may not like our life circumstances. Life may have dealt us a bad hand, or maybe we’ve even made some bad choices along the way. Yet, we only have one shot at this; there are no do-overs and we don’t know when it will end. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” says the wise wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. In the literary world of Middle Earth, where wizards like Gandalf don’t die the same sort of earthly death we humans do, such a line might seem surprising. But of course it was written by devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien who understood the finitude of time and the extent of eternity.
During this month of November, which Holy Mother Church has set aside as a time to remember the souls of all the departed, in the midst of our prayers for the dead we should also pause to reflect on time itself, for time is not guaranteed us. The dead will help us remember. Time is a gift, and as with all gifts, we are obliged to show our sincere gratitude to the one who has shared so generously.
During this month, my wife always puts out on our fireplace mantle a craft decoration she made which simply says “Give Thanks.” Also on the mantle right next to those words is a clock. It is fitting, whether by pure irony or by divine providence, that November in the United States is culturally set aside as a time to give thanks for all we have been given. As Catholics, we know that all we have been given starts with time, and nothing reminds us to be thankful for the gift of time like visiting a cemetery, cherishing the memory of a deceased loved one, or offering prayers for the poor souls in Purgatory. Tempus fugit. Memento mori. When we reflect on the gift of time, we naturally want to offer some of our time back to the One who gave it to us. So, while time is a gift from God to us, we can and should offer it back to God as a gift to him. The Catechism tells us it’s a matter of justice:
Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’” (CCC 1807) “Adoring God, praying to him, offering him the worship that belongs to him, fulfilling the promises and vows made to him are acts of the virtue of religion…(CCC 2135)
So, this month, as you gather with family and friends for the beginning of the holiday season, remember to give God thanks for the gift of time and to return your time to him through prayer and worship. Start today freely and gratefully returning your time to God, and don’t be another old man looking back on life with regret in your final days.