It was still a familiar mom-saying when I was young, even though my mom never said it to me, and it was probably a little outdated even then: Make sure you’re wearing clean underwear, in case you are in an accident! Perhaps nowadays that admonition when young people leave the house has been bumped down the list by, don’t text and drive! I think that the focus has shifted from accident-preparedness to accident-avoidance.
I am not sure why there was such concern about underwear in an accident anyway; I think it had something to do with being presentable or respectable in the eyes of the eventual doctor, or paramedic. But it did bring to mind a certain unpleasant reality many prefer to avoid: that this outing may not end as expected, sashaying home safe and sound.
Every time we set out, we assume that our day could include some surprises, but its end will be the same: we will go to bed, then have tomorrow. This assumption may be necessary for us to function, but it is also necessarily false. We all know that one day will be our last.
Perhaps we assume the day will come to us as it recently did for Michael, a long-time parishioner. Eighty-six years old, ten years widowed, and still in his own home, he fell and broke a hip, needed surgery, and was placed in Intensive Care to achieve sufficient function in his internal organs to withstand the surgery. The organs continued to fail instead, and after more than a week to receive the sacraments and visit with his family, he died surrounded by love: a full life, followed by a peaceful and prepared-for death.
But we know that is not the only option. Heart attacks and strokes come to people who are “too young”; accidents happen even in the home; and lethal violence manifests in nature as well as human nature. A bizarre bug bite or a tiny bit of food lodged in the throat can bring the same result as a raging tornado or runaway dump truck. Systems fail; weather happens; people don’t pay attention; we get sick. We know this, but assume it won’t happen to us.
Perhaps the concern for clean underwear for the undertaker is a relic of a time when people dressed out of concern for what other people might think. Certainly, the concern for dressing well for Mass has yielded to an assertion that God does not care about one’s clothes, but rather what is inside. And while I cannot endorse disregard for one’s church-going wardrobe, it is precisely what is inside that God cares about, and so should we.
The state of our souls at the moment of death has everlasting consequences. Since we cannot predict the moment of our death, we must attend to the state of our souls. We Catholics are blessed to have not only a clear identification of the sins that can harm us, but also the tools we need to reverse that harm by the medicinal application of sacramental mercy.
Whether a terrorist shooter or a text-messaging driver, the menaces that lurk between us and our tomorrows can spoil all our plans, including those to go to confession “eventually”, or even to return to the life of the sacraments “soon”. Some Day Soon will certainly come, but it may not find us here to greet it.
The Boy Scouts know to Be Prepared, but Catholics realize that this includes being prepared for death. I cannot exhort you emphatically enough to flee from the sin that kills and seek often the forgiveness that saves, though at the same time nobody I know would suggest you neglect your underwear.