It is rightly said that our culture has a strangely contradictory approach to death. On the one hand, children from a young age see portrayals of death in their hundreds and thousands in films and games; on the other hand, nobody wants to talk about real death or to be near a dying person. People try to make funerals into the “Celebration of the life of” the person who has died while at the same time fearing the trauma of the funeral itself, often without being able to articulate why.
As an antidote to this, there are many services aimed at helping people to cope with death. Care of the dying is often notable for professional compassion and sensitivity, and bereavement counsellors are on hand to help those who have lost a loved one. Death often takes place under sedation so that what our forefathers called the “agony of death” is seldom seen.
Much of this is very much to be welcomed as an application of Christian medical care (the hospice movement is now moving away from its Christian origins but it is a Christian thing to care for the dying.) What is very often missing, though, is the most important thing about death: that it is the gateway to eternity.
Through much of the Old Testament, the prospect of eternal life was not clearly understood or taught. Even in the time of Our Lord there was still a debate raging between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over whether there was a resurrection from the dead. Our Lord Himself, in his own words recorded in the Gospels, provides for the first time in history a definite, insistent, clear teaching on the reality of eternal life and the possibility of eternal death.
Fulfilling and perfecting the hints and gradual realisation of the later literature of the Old Testament, Jesus spells it out for us plainly for the first time. He tells of the man who built bigger barns to store his grain: the Lord said to him that his soul would be required of him that night. He says that we should store up treasure in heaven; He tells us of the foolish virgins who were not ready for the master to arrive; He describes the banquet which many refused to attend; He warns of salvation and damnation and the judgement that will be given between the sheep and the goats.
Unless we are to pass over major portions of the teaching of Our Lord in the gospel, we have to admit that preparation for our death and eternal life was a central part of the teaching of Jesus Himself. If we are to be Christians we cannot possibly ignore these words from the very Word of God Himself.
Throughout the ages, the Saints have indeed preached this message of Our Lord. It is only in recent years that we have shied away from it. This can only be through a lack of faith in the teaching of Our Lord that there is an eternity after death for which we should prepare. The secular approach to death with its exclusive focus on comfort during this life may be an influence on us. We may also be swayed by an incomplete Christian preaching which speaks only of the resurrection and eternal life without thought to the fact that there may be an alternative. We also tend to think exclusively of the death of others and our quite proper Christian duty to help them as a corporal work of mercy, without thinking about the certainty of our own death and the need to prepare for it.
St Alphonsus often used to say in his preaching that God promises us His grace, but He does not promise us tomorrow. He was concerned to concentrate the minds of his hearers on the urgent need to change their lives now by taking up or resuming the practice of their faith. In his time, most people still believed in the Gospel – our evangelisation may need to start again with St Paul and his efforts to convince the gentiles of the true God. But for ourselves, trying to live the Christian faith more deeply, St Alphonsus can help us to get back to the basics of our Catholic faith and practice.
As he said, at the time of our death, nothing will comfort us except to have loved the Lord Jesus. If a man is worth twenty billion pounds it will be no use to him; if he has five doctorates, they will not matter; if he has a powerful position in the government, it won’t help. All that will matter is the state of his soul.
We may not have achievements like that – still we easily treasure things on earth: whether money, influence, popularity, a collection of fine objects, a nice house, a car we feel proud of, a position we have worked for, at our death it will all be worth nothing whatsoever in itself. All of these things will be of value only if they have been used by us to love the Lord Jesus and only in so far as they have been used by us to love the Lord Jesus. Even then, they will only be incidental to what our soul has become through the influence of God’s grace in the measure that we have loved the Lord Jesus.
It is common nowadays to see on the edges of towns, places where people can store the superfluous things that they can no longer fit into their houses. It is salutary for us to remember that the whole lot is, in the end, superfluous except in the measure that it has brought us closer to Jesus and to the eternal life that He has won for us.
The fact that there is an eternal life, that it is not an automatic entitlement, that it depends on how we live here and now, and specifically how we live our faith, especially given that we have the great gift of knowing the teaching of the Catholic Church, means that thinking of our own mortality from time to time and preparing for the most momentous event of our entire life, is not a morbid refusal to live in the real world but the most practical commonsense.
I mentioned that the Hail Mary reminds us daily of our own death. A popular prayer of commendation is also a good preparation for us:
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you. Amen.St Alphonsus helps in his meditations on the Stations of the Cross. Notice how often modern meditations on the Stations focus on the sins of other people, perhaps elsewhere in the world. St Alphonsus brings us home again. Remember the prayer for the fifth station where Simon of Cyrene carries the Cross of Our Lord:
My beloved Jesus I will not refuse the cross: I accept it, I embrace it. I accept in particular the death that is destined for me with all the pains that may accompany it. I unite it to Your death, I offer it to You. You have died for love of me; I will die for love of You. Help me by Your grace.Another prayer of the same saint refers to our own devotion to the Holy Wounds of Our Lord:
My Jesus, I embrace thy Cross and kiss the wounds of Thy sacred feet, before which I desire to breathe out my soul, Ah, do not abandon me at the last moment. “We beseech Thee therefore, save Thy servants, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood.”Let us finish this allocution with a devout Hail Mary...