Preparing for death through a love of life
Students attend Ash Wednesday Mass to begin the Lenten season
How should young people prepare for death? How should college students, in the words of Jean de la Fontaine, a French author of fables, "consider the end?"
Any student who attended an Ash Wednesday mass knows the Christian answer: to prepare for death, one must appreciate life.
The Flag Room in the Student Union was packed with worshipping students and community members as Father Pat presided over the Newman Center's Ash Wednesday service last week. His homily reflected on the spiritual aspect of mortality, and students received the Eucharist and ashes on their foreheads to start off the liturgical season of Lent.
During the 40 days and 40 nights preceding Easter Sunday, Christians are encouraged to pray, fast and give alms during the Lenten period of prayer in preparation for celebrating Jesus' resurrection.
The ashes serve as an important reminder of human mortality and the fall from Paradise, as told in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. Genesis Chapter 3, verse 19 says: "For you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Christians should be simultaneously reminded of their humble beginnings and their humble ends when presented with the ash, according to Father Pat, the Newman Center's only priest.
"If you want to appreciate life, then you think about death," he said. "Easter is about life; it's about the resurrection. Lent is about mortality and it's about how we prepare for the resurrection, for new life."
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the focuses of a Christian's Lenten journey. Prayer is intended to make the Christian more transparent to God and to him or herself, while fasting and almsgiving are intended to reduce the needs of the flesh. By reducing the importance of the body, the spiritual needs become more poignant in a Christian's life, helping to ready the soul of Jesus' resurrection.
"One thing I love about Lent is that it's in the spring," Father Pat said. "The air is clean, it's fresh and we're transferring from darkness to light, from dead trees to green buds - it's life. It's all life."
Father Pat gave the homily for the Ash Wednesday mass. Students were respectful and attentive as he walked around the flag room making jokes and encouraging students to "check their spiritual pulse."
Mikily Tenbrook, a freshman biology major, appreciated the energy and enthusiasm Father Pat brought to the experience. Tenbrook doesn't usually go to mass, but because of the priest's animated and humorous personality, she said she'll try to go during the Lenten season.
"It was very different than what I'm used to," Tenbrook said. "[Father Pat] was so upbeat. Usually priests are very solemn and serious, but he was just so excited the whole time. That made it fun."
Father Pat has been a priest at the Newman Center for 25 years and constantly tells people he has the "best priest assignment in the world." His relationship with the students is one of great affection and fun - there's nowhere else he'd rather be, he said.
"I love it. It's always great," Father Pat said. "It's so nice to see the young people and I try to spend as much time as I can on campus. I'm going to a lecture tonight, I try to get to the basketball games and I spend time hanging out around the library."
Jessica Mershimer, a freshman exercise science major, said her favorite part of mass was Father Pat's homily and believes he relates well to students despite being so much older than them. His words will be with her during her own Lenten journey, she said.
"We should be keeping our focus on God and doing everything with his vision in mind," Mershimer said. "I think that's important to remember. If you're doing everything for that ultimate motive, you'll be doing some pretty good stuff and you'll be led in the right direction."
Mershimer intends to be a good student, reach out to her friends and be more giving during the Lenten season.
"Seeing that this is my first year of college, I want it to be an impactful time," Mershimer said. "I want to set the tone for the rest of my years here and be proud of my beliefs while doing so."
Although the ashes of Ash Wednesday should remind Christians of their mortality and to "consider the end," Father Pat also said students should be living their lives as thoroughly and enthusiastically as they can. It's difficult for students to think about death when they're so young and there are other ways to appreciate and become aware of our mortality, he said.
"Rather than thinking about death at this point in life, think about life," Father Pat said. "Let's do more living. Let's eat up our poetry; let's eat up our equations. Engage yourself in your studies. It's about absorption."