Facing the end

Sunday's New York Times featured an innovative "year in review" roundup, with a short essay on each of the last ten years written by a "noted author." I thought the concept was more appealing than the execution (and I noticed that their writers all happen to have recently published books to promote). My favorite of the contributions was the last one, on 2009: "The End," by Mary Karr. (I reviewed her now-in-stores memoir Lit in October.)

Karr reflected on a recent visit to her former pastor -- the man who baptized her years ago, who is now terminally ill. She was taken aback by his suffering, and impressed by his fortitude. The experience inspired muted hope for the coming decade:

2009 has been a colossal bummer. Yet just as the Depression recalibrated American values for the better, so might our current hardships lead us closer to Father Kanes sense of charity, his joy. Then, any flower we lay on next years altar will offer an occasion for delight, our own dwindling coffers be damned.

Yesterday I learned that a priest I admired -- my pastor when I was a little girl -- had died at 93. He too suffered greatly in his last years, but he never stopped ministering, and by all accounts he was alert to the very end. I received a Christmas card from him just weeks ago. (He was also a Commonweal reader to his last days, I'm told.) Thinking of him, and reading Karr's essay, reminded me to be grateful for teachers in the faith who show us not only how to pray, but also how to suffer, and how to meet death.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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