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Books blog: The New Year is a good time to contemplate the Four Last Things

Fireworks over the River Thames in London to celebrate the New Year (PA)

Today is the last day of the old year and my thought are turning to what Catholics call “The Four Last Things”. Why is that? Because I have just read in The Hermeneutic of Continuity – the popular blog of Fr Tim Finigan, parish priest in Margate – that he had a “cardiac event” just before Christmas and is having by-pass heart surgery today, probably as I type this.

As is his way, Fr Finigan has been sharing this recent unexpected turn of events in his blogs.

What strikes me is his serenely Catholic take on his health. Well – he is a Catholic priest, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised. He writes to his readers, “Your prayers are much appreciated for the success of my operation and recovery if that is God’s will, or for my eternal salvation if the Lord decides it is time for me to render an account of my stewardship.”

He continues: “Remember – heart attack or no heart attack – we will all face eternity with a few short years. We forget that so easily and concern ourselves with stupid trivia or even sinful things that last a moment but can lose us salvation”.

He concludes, “Go to confession!” adding that he is ready if the Lord decides “to give me some more years to make reparation for my sins and help a few people get to heaven.”

Fr Finigan has given me a shot in the arm; now you see why I am thinking of the Four Last Things – as he himself has been.

His remarks are a little homily all in themselves: surrender to the will of God; recognition that eternal salvation is what life is about; realisation that our time on earth is short; that committing a mortal sin can actually lose us heaven; the need for regular confession; and that making reparation and praying for the salvation of others’ souls is essential in our life’s pilgrimage to God.”

He reminds me what a wonderful grace it is to know why we are born and what the purpose of life is all about. Not everyone knows this. I have been reading two small books over Christmas: “Gratitude” by Oliver Sacks and “Latest Readings” by Clive James.

Sacks, a famous neurologist, died of cancer in August this year. In four short essays – “Mercury”, “My Own Life”, “My Periodic Table” and “Sabbath” – he shares his thoughts on his mortality. He muses on what he calls “the hard problem” – understanding how the brain gives rise to consciousness, and writes, “I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today”. Although wistful about his memories of the “Shabbat” that his Orthodox Jewish parents celebrated throughout his childhood, Sacks has no religious beliefs.

Neither does Clive James, omnivorous reader, critic, poet and TV personality, who is suffering from a life-limiting disease. I think in this list he would like to single out “poet” and his recent poems, which I have blogged about, are well worth reading for their delicacy and power in the face of his anticipated demise, which is only delayed by miraculous new drugs. He writes, in this stimulating and informative short book about his current reading, “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”

James discusses Conrad, Kipling and Hemingway among other writers.

Fr Tim Finigan only mentions he is reading St Alphonsus de Liguori. I prefer Fr Tim’s response to mortality, even as I –sigh – often get distracted by “stupid trivia”.

Let’s pray for him – and for all those souls “most in need of God’s mercy”, as the prayer of the children of Fatima has it.