This article is part three of a four part series. The previous article in this series can be found here.
We have to be prepared, because we do not know when God will call us (cf. Matthew 24:43; 25:13). In order to be ready for our personal judgment, it is important that we die well. The first step in dying well, is to have a proper attitude towards death. To help foster this, I am sharing the words of St. Augustine in his autobiography, The Confessions. Augustine and his mother, St. Monica were conversing before her death. He says:
But you know, O Lord, that in the course of our conversation that day, the world and its pleasures lost all their attraction for us. My mother said, “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world.”
Monica fell ill soon after. At one point, she regained consciousness and Augustine shares this story:
“Here you shall bury your mother.”…My brother haltingly expressed his hope that she might not die in a strange country…since her end would be happier there. When she heard this, her face was filled with anxiety, and she reproached him with a glance because he had entertained such earthly thoughts. Then she looked at me and spoke: “Look what he is saying…Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” (From the Office of Readings for the Memorial of St. Monica)
Notice the difference: Augustine’s brother is preoccupied with worldly concerns, whereas the saints were preoccupied with the state of Monica’s soul and especially that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass be offered for her. I find that too many Catholics are more preoccupied with the earthly aspects of the funeral and the remembrance of the dead, instead of focusing on the more important spiritual aspects.
An excellent treatment of death comes from the book On the Death of His Brother Satyrus, by St. Ambrose, an excerpt of which is the second reading of the Office of Readings of All Souls’ Day:
We see that death is gain, life is loss…We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body. It must soar above earthly lusts to a place where they cannot come near…The law of our fallen nature is at war with the law of our reason and subjects the law of reason to the law of error. What is the remedy? Who will set me free from this body of death? The grace of God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
What more need be said? It was by the death of one man that the world was redeemed. Christ did not need to die if he did not want to, but he did not look on death as something to be despised, something to be avoided, and he could have found no better means to save us than by dying. Thus his death is life for all. We are sealed with the sign of his death; when we pray we preach his death; when we offer sacrifice we proclaim his death. His death is victory; his death is a sacred sign; each year his death is celebrated with solemnity by the whole world. (From the Office of Readings for All Souls’ Day)
Are you ready to die?
Is our attitude towards death consistent with our belief in the resurrection of the dead (John 11: 25-26)? Or do we give lip-service to the resurrection of the dead while continuing to deal with death like the pagans? Are you ready to die? If you are not ready to die, why aren’t you? There are a number of possibilities.
Being scared of the pain of death is understandable. We can only say that pain is not the greatest evil and, even if it is unavoidable, is salvific. The Cross saves the world and we have a share in that Cross by being joined to Christ in his Mystical Body. We should therefore learn how to turn that pain to our benefit!
Concern for those left behind is also completely understandable. If we love, separation will be difficult, but it is easier if our love is pure. True love will not begrudge the dying their time to leave and be with God. Christians should be prepared to let go of our relationships on earth to be with God in Heaven.
It is also understandable, for those who care for the well-being of others, to be concerned for them in our absence. We must always trust that our Heavenly Father, who knows the hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7), will also take care of them, because he loves them infinitely more than we do.
Many, however, spend their lives enjoying primarily or exclusively worldly pleasures and loathe to part from these attachments. I am not speaking merely of sinful pleasures – any pleasure from which we are not willing to be parted is a manacle that binds us to this earth and keeps us from approaching God.
These need not be material, either. There are many relationships in which we have unhealthy attachments. Obviously, love seeks union, making the thought of separation painful – but if our love of God is really our first love, then our pain will be mitigated and we will also live in the hope of being reunited with them.
Many of us fear death because we know that we are not worthy of Heaven because of our sins. We know that we deserve God’s just punishments for our many offenses.
To we who have this fear, I say: go to confession! Make a thorough examination of conscience, including what you call “small” sins and all that you don’t necessarily feel bad for, and then confess them! If you are unable to approach the sacrament of penance for whatever reason, then make the most sincere act of contrition you can, and then do penance for your sins and for the sins of the whole world. Offer yourself in sacrifice to God, in union with Christ. Above all do not delay. As Augustine says, “God has promised forgiveness for your repentance, he has not promised tomorrow for your repentance.”
I am going to go yet further and propose something which is the logical conclusion of our faith as Christians and which is attested to by Sacred Scripture, particularly the example of St. Paul: a Christian should welcome death. Paul says “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1: 21, 23). What does it say about our love for Christ if we do not share this same desire?
Even if our attitude is not quite there yet, our motto should still remain “be prepared.” Our Lord speaks of this frequently. It should be on the minds of Christians daily. We know neither the day nor the hour of our deaths. There is no tomorrow. This thought should not fill us with fear, except the healthy fear of the Lord. But even if we only fear his just punishments, may we repent of our sins and firmly resolve, with the help of his grace, to do penance, to amend our lives, and avoid the near occasion of sin, for his greater glory, and our salvation.
Be concerned with the present.
Finally, let us consider the question, what now? Too many people worry about discerning when the end of the world will be. Our Lord makes it clear that the question isn’t important (cf. Matthew 6:25-34; 16:4). We don’t need to know when the end of the world is because the end of your “world” can be at any moment – you are not guaranteed tomorrow. Worrying about the second coming is like a teenager throwing a party and hoping to get it cleaned up before their parents return. “It is not for [us] to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Love is concerned with the present and the duties of the present, pleasing the Beloved now. Holiness is, practically speaking, fulfilling the duties of our state in life. Therefore, we should understand our duties well – our duties to God, our neighbor and ourselves, as well as the priorities of our duties, while also accepting our limitations.
How Christians should prepare for death.
Because “You know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13) let us conclude by considering briefly how a Catholic should prepare for death. In the end, what determines how we will spend eternity, is how we die.
- Live a holy life. How can we expect to be happy with the Lord for eternity when we do not do our best to be happy with him here on earth? Holy Mass and Holy Communion, frequent confession, daily prayer and charity to God and neighbor are essential.
- We should ask regularly for the grace of final perseverance because it is only by our perseverance that we will secure our lives and eternal salvation (Luke 21:19).
- Prepare for imminent death, when possible, by the reception of the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, confession, and anointing of the sick. Do not wait to call the priest until it is too late. We need the graces of the sacraments to die well!
There is nothing more valuable than a good death. We are all going to die, and our eternity depends on the states on our souls when we die.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of all Graces, intercede for those without faith, that they might believe, and obtain, by her intercession, for those who do believe, the grace of final perseverance, so that we might all enjoy the vision of God, face-to-face, for all eternity in Heaven.
- This article is part three of a four part series. The series continues with Novissima Pt. 4: Purgatory.
- Cover Image: “The Last Judgement” (c. 1431) by Fra Angelico.