The art of living is the joy of looking forward and anticipating the pleasure that awaits the next chapter of a person’s life.
During the period of school days a person naturally relishes the thought of graduation. During the four years of college the student thinks ahead of full-time employment and welcomes the idea of earning an income and being financially independent.
The next chapter that excites the imagination is the thought of marriage which naturally inspires the fruit of marriage, the blessings of children. The establishment of a family prompts the hope of the purchase of a home and motivates a keen interest in the ownership of personal property.
This process of anticipating and looking forward continues with the prospects of seeing children mature, graduate, and enter adulthood as they begin their own careers and families. In middle age parents rejoice in seeing the blossoming and blooming of their boys and girls into men and women.
As parents behold the happiness and fruitfulness of their children’s marriages and witness the beginning of another generation, they experience the harvest of life, the fruitfulness of love’s abundance—the cornucopia of the family that is as marvelous to contemplate as the bounty of the fields and orchards.
This great design of awaiting the next pleasure forms the master plan of life designed by a wise Creator who orients man toward the future with hope. No one ever truly wants to return to the past or dreams of recovering the fountain of youth. No wiser, older man wants to be a mere soldier again. No happily married man ever wants to be just a bachelor again. No well educated person longs to be a student in the classroom again.
It is the next chapter of life’s plan and the vision of the future that pique human interest and keep a person in love with life as a great adventure. Even during the time of old age a person naturally thinks in terms of futurity, of reunion with loved ones who have passed from this life, of a heavenly world in which every tear will be wiped away, and of a pure joy without the mixture of disease, death, evil, and suffering. At the end of a person’s life span no one wants to begin again and relive all the same chapters that have been already experienced.
To Die from Having Lived
At the conclusion of Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, Bishop Latour, a French Jesuit who had come as a missionary to the American Southwest, has retired and come to the end of his days as he enters old age. Suffering from a fever and a chill but not critically ill, he requests Bernard, a young seminarian, to communicate to the new archbishop his final wish to be laid to rest in Santa Fe.
When Bernard jokingly reassures Bishop Latour, “I will go at once, Father. But you should not be discouraged; one does not die of a cold,” he receives a famous answer: “I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.”
To die from “having lived” means to have attempted or done all that one desired with the God-given talents and opportunities provided in his life. It means to have fulfilled one’s vocation and to be at peace with oneself and with God.
Bishop Latour does not seek a long retirement, a new challenge, or the restoration of youth. He has completed all the chapters of his life. He has fulfilled his life’s wish to be a priest; he has completed a long tenure as bishop of Santa Fe; he has brought culture and civilization to a primitive world that had been filled with ignorance and superstition; he has founded schools and built a cathedral; and he has made the Catholic faith, a buried treasure and an uncultivated garden in this part of the world, come to life with new vitality.
Each later chapter of the bishop’s life brought him special joys and exquisite pleasures that were unknown in the earlier stages. Although he fondly reminisces about his past life, he shows no desire to be young again. He acknowledges that there are no more new chapters in this life. Instead he looks ahead to heaven rather than yearns to live forever.
Fulfilling the Dreams of Youth
In a conversation with Father Vaillant, his beloved friend and fellow French Jesuit missionary, Bishop Latour hears the thoughts that capture his own sentiments: “But it has not been so bad, Jean? We have done the things we used to plan to do, long ago, when we were Seminarians,—at least some of them. To fulfill the dreams of one’s youth; that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that.” To die from “having lived,” then, means to have no regrets for the course life has taken, to have fulfilled the deepest desires of the heart, and to have a sense of accomplishment and purpose in cooperating with a divine plan.
Bishop Latour, then, dies what the Church calls “a happy death.”
The art of living requires a series of dreams—not fantasies, illusions, or unrealistic desires but true wishes that continue to inspire a person from childhood into old age.
God does not give all his gifts at once but in stages and always holds something in reserve. There is another special joy, another great source of happiness and fulfillment that lies ahead. The earlier joys prepare the way for the later delights that follow. The sensory pleasures of youth cultivate the ground for the more spiritual sources of happiness that one experiences in the later chapters.
The thrill of graduation from high school or college cannot compare to the happiness of falling in love. The rich blessings of marriage and children prepare a person for even more abundant gladness in seeing the happiness of one’s children and grandchildren that marks the harvest of life in old age—the extended family that forms another tree of life.
Dying from having lived is the exquisite pleasure of looking back with wonder at all the goodness of the Lord one has tasted and looking ahead with hope at, in St. Paul’s words, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (I Corinthians 2:9).