What does it mean to live well and how is it connected to dying well? Religion and philosophy offers you answers but decisions about how you live your life rest ultimately with you.
At first, it sounds very strange to say that you should think about death if you want to make the most of your life. Yet that is exactly what one headmaster teaches his secondary school pupils.
Dr Paul Doherty, head of Trinity Catholic High School in North East London, says that the purpose of his school is to “prepare children for death”.
Paul explains: “Christ’s teaching is about consciousness. When He talks about the end of time He says He will judge the people before him according to their consciousness of Him personified as those most in need. He says in the Gospel: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink’ (Matthew 25:36).
“So when people come before Christ and say: ‘we didn’t see you, we didn’t know that’, they have no consciousness and they have not prepared for death and judgement.”
Paul believes that people who lack consciousness are capable of great evil: “If you look at the interrogation of the Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials, one of the things it shows is that they had no thought whatsoever about the people they killed. Psychopaths don’t seem to be aware of the evil they have done or the hurt they cause to people.”
Paul says he encourages his pupils to understand that they are spiritual beings and to experience religion as something joyful. There is daily Mass at school and regular prayers through the day.
The children support charities, do voluntary work in their communities and when it’s their birthday they collect a card and a gift from the headmaster’s office.
“They become aware they are going to die but there is a consciousness that there is life beyond death and that life is a preparation for that,” says Paul.
Jesus teaches that death will come ‘like a thief in the night’ and that you must, therefore, be in a constant state of readiness. The theologian, Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) in his book, The Imitation of Christ, writes that you should seize the moment to do good while you can:
“The present is very precious; these are the days of salvation; now is the acceptable time. How sad that you do not spend the time in which you might purchase everlasting life in a better way.
“The time will come when you will want just one day, just one hour in which to make amends, and do you know whether you will obtain it?”1
St Francis de Sales (1567-1622), another expert on living well, had the idea, new in his time, that anyone is called to, and capable of, living a holy life.
Fr Thomas Dailey, Director of the Salesian Centre for Faith and Culture at DeSales University, in the United States, has written a book about the saint’s approach, explains:
“St Francis de Sales emphasises humility and gentleness. With the former, we realise we are only creatures, both fallible and mortal, and that the goodness of our lives comes not from us but from God. With the latter, we learn to look upon ourselves and upon others with kindness, based on the same merciful love that God shows to us.”
Key to the saint’s teaching is the idea of vocation, that is, understanding what God wants you to do with your life.
St Francis de Sales writes: “Let us be what we are and be that well, in order to bring honour to the Master Craftsman whose handiwork we are… Let us be what God wants us to be, provided we are His, and let us not be what we would like to be, contrary to His intention.”2
So how can these ideas about vocation and virtue be lived out? Dame Helen Ghosh, has been a top flight civil servant and is now Director General of the National Trust. Here is how Dame Helen defines making the most of life:
“I have always believed it’s important to think about how you get a consistency, a rhythm, between your public and your private life. The choices you make about your career come into that, and how you use your free time. It is about how you reflect your values in your public and private life.”
Dame Helen chose a career in the public sector, partly because this was where she believed she could contribute to the public good. A high point came in the late nineties when she chose to work in the Government Office for London on regeneration schemes in east London, with some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.
“I was talking to tenants’ groups, elders in the mosques and local councils strapped for cash and I had the sense of what government can do to transform people’s lives.”
She rejects the idea that in order to be successful you have to be ruthless. She recalls a discussion she once had during her Whitehall career with the chairman of the Inland Revenue where they had to decide what to do with weaker members of the team.
“He said to me: ‘Helen, what we are trying to do, for the purpose of financing doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers, is to collect money. It’s a good purpose, let’s keep our focus on that. This person’s performance isn’t helping us with this.’
“So if you decide you need to move this person on, the motivation is a good one. You can treat that person well so that they are treated with dignity and consideration and can leave with ‘all flags flying’ but the essential decision has to be motivated by the purpose of the organisation.”
Regardless of whether you are religious, you probably agree with what is known as the Golden Rule:
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
It’s a good principle for making the most of life – and preparing for death.
Read more about the support offered by the Catholic Church.
One day while walking along a road, St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta found a man who was close to death in a gutter. He was filthy and covered in sores. She immediately embraced him and tended to his wounds.
A passer-by seeing what she was doing was horrified and said: “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars”. Mother Teresa looked up and replied “Neither would I!”