‘And so I face the final curtain’

07 December 2012

What does it mean to die having lived life to the full, asks Peter Graystone

THE actor Larry Hagman died last month, leaving fans of the soap opera Dallas with a void, and the Christian Enquiry Agency with a problem. The Agency is gearing up for a 2013 campaign that encourages people who have never read the words of Jesus for themselves to find out what the controversy is about. Drawing attention to Jesus's claim that his purpose was "to bring life in all its fullness", it will feature postcards, posters, and advertisements in cinema foyers. Through the website christianity.org.uk, anyone can ask to be sent a Gospel, free of charge.

Hagman, however, may have derailed the campaign with his final words, which his family report as: "I've lived life to the full." The excesses he was talking about were a liver-transplant-inducing appetite for alcohol, a turbulent emotional life, hallucinogenic drugs, and a penchant for fancy dress. Behaviour such as this gives fullness of life a bad name.

The British Heart Foundation has conducted a survey of people who are nearing the close of their lives, asking what they most regret. Of those polled, 58 per cent confessed that disappointment over an important choice hindered their life, leaving them in the wrong career or the wrong relationship; and 27 per cent identified fear of failure as their biggest impediment - almost as many as those who blamed lack of finance. The most recurrent regret was not having travelled more.

Regrets about maintaining unhealthy habits until it was too late dominated the top ten. The 11 per cent of men who lamented not sleeping with more women were outnumbered by those who regretted losing touch with friends.

The National Theatre is currently presenting Damned by Despair, a play from 1625 by the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina (Comment, 24 August; Arts, 19 October). It is rare for this flagship theatre to present an explicitly Christian drama, and it has not been well received - perhaps because audiences find its Christian polemic baffling.

In the play, we see a Neapolitan gangster, Enrico, fill his life with ruthless greed and swaggering murder. Faced with death, and melted by the love of his father, however, he repents on the gallows and is carried to paradise.

The middle-aged couple I was sitting next to enjoyed it less than I did, and protested that the apparent injustice of the ending was a terrible moral to put in front of the school parties in the cheap seats. I explained as best I could the concept of God's grace, which means that even the worst of us can be redeemed. Unaware that this is central to Christian faith, but a firm believer in the efficacy of punishment, the man spluttered: "It's all this forgiveness of wrong that's emptying the churches."

I hope that I have a decade or two before I need to ask myself about the regrets that I no longer have time to amend. But I genuinely do not think it will be any of the items on the British Heart Foundation list. Damned by Despair has left me with one serious desire that relates to a fulfilled life: I hope that I will not be overtaken by regret about the people I have not forgiven.

I am aware that addressing this is in my own hands. As Jim Elliot, the martyred missionary to the Waodani people of Ecuador, said: "When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die."

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for the Church Army.

 

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