Mary Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, Georges de La Tour
You will die.
A friend of mine sells life insurance. He told me that every time someone new sits in his office, he asks them: What are your chances of dying? The poor soul will usually guess something like a 2% chance, or maybe even somewhere between 5% and 10% (the realists).
My friend then exclaims “No, it’s 100%! It’s 100% certain, you WILL die!”
It is a part of the human condition to be very concerned about death. Even those who deny they think about death (willful ignorance) found themselves concerned about death at some point and decided not to think about it ever again.
The meaning of life has been searched for by philosophers and moms, poets and scientists, plumbers and theologians, and every other person who ever lived for as long as people have been thinking.
What We Want and What Really Happens
Why is humanity so curious about the meaning of life? Because we have a deep sense of our finite existence. We sense that all good stories must end, all plays have closing curtains, every day has its night, your dog doesn’t live forever, and neither does your Grandmother. And sensing this, we ask what the meaning of this life might be.
But in the face of the reality of our impending death, we become uneasy. Death is often a taboo topic. Try it – at the next birthday party you attend say things like “All of us are going to die one day.” Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that’s a great conversation starter.
Our society is too quick to cover up death and hide it. We put make up on dead people to hide death’s colors. Think about the phrases we use for death: He has passed on. He is no longer with us. He was taken from us.
We are uneasy with death because we naturally desire the opposite of what naturally happens to all of us - we greatly desire to live forever. We inject ourselves with Botox. We get face-lifts, nose-jobs and tummy-tucks. We douse lotions and potions on age spots, wrinkles, and sags. We start an inquisition against grey hairs – the lucky ones recant and are colored, the not so lucky are plucked out.
Why are people so afraid to tell you their age? Why is there an unspoken impoliteness in asking a woman over 25 how old she is? Is being 47 a dirty secret no one should talk about? Or maybe people don’t like being reminded of their time left on earth.
In the face of the great opposition between what naturally happens and what we naturally desire, there are two ways to live life: embracing death or ignoring it. One is hard and one is easy. I’ll let you figure out which way our modern society tends to live.
NEWS FLASH: You desire to live forever because you WILL live forever. You have a capacity and desire for immortality because your soul, but not your body, is everlasting.
Stop buying anti-aging, anti-oxidizing, anti-sagging, anti-cellulite dreams and doing yoga. Your soul is an everlasting creation.
If you have any doubts about your everlasting-ness (Nota Bene: there is a difference between eternal and everlasting) then do some good ol’ Catholic research for yourself. The arguments for the immortality of the soul are beyond the scope of this article, but they can be found all over the web (start here). Let’s just suffice it to say we are going to live – granted not exactly in the same way -forever. Your soul is an immortal creation.
You Will Die – And Then You Will Live Forever
And you have two options concerning where you will spend the rest of forever – heaven or hell. But my point lies elsewhere. We need more death.
This past week I attended the funeral of a friend from college. I have been
to a few funerals before, but this one had a big impact on me. Maybe it was the unexpectedness of his death that was most jarring. He was only in his early twenties.
During the Funeral Mass I couldn’t stop thinking about the strangeness of death. As Christians, death is seen as a passage into the everlasting closeness with God who is love. It should be joyfully celebrated.
But death is also such a hard thing to endure, especially for us who are left behind. Even Jesus experienced this sorrow of death. He says during his agony in the garden: “My soul is sorrowful even to death.” (Mark 14:33-34) We can’t know for sure what it will be like to die. There is a mystery to the passage of death that frightens us.
(Kenneth Branagh could arguably be one of history’s greatest actors. This movie is worth watching once a year, at least.)
It is tormenting as a Christian to be torn between the empty space of our loved ones and their hope of glory. Death is a drama of love and loathing. The drama between life and death is the mystery of existence, and for good reason.
Churches and cemeteries go together because life and death always occur at the same time. A life is born into this world, and dies in Christ in Baptism, entering into God’s family. Later a person dies in this world, and is brought to life in the next, entering into God’s beautiful closeness. Both always exist at the same time. You can hear it in the Christos anesti, the Byzantine Easter hymn proclaimed at the Easter Vigil:
Christ is risen from the dead,
By death He conquered death,
And to those in the graves
He granted life!
But if we lack recognition of death, we lose our lives – we fall into sins and indulgences of pride. We slowly lose grip of our smallness and start to believe the “now” here on earth is forever. And then we begin trampling on any sense of the eternal consequences of our actions. Jesus said “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” (Matt 16:25)
Why we need more death
I don’t mean we need more people to experience death. I mean we need a healthier dose of death in our lives. We need a natural dose of death, in the sense that we need enough exposure and consideration of death in order to become who we are naturally created to be. And we are created with a human nature designed not for this world, but for the next – designed to know and to love God forever. Just like a seed needs enough water to become a flower, we need enough consideration of death to become detached from this world and gain the next.
“The soldier is not respected because he is doomed to death, but because he is ready for death; and even ready for defeat.” G. K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce
The Saints had a saying: “Memento Mori!” or “Remember your Death!”. We need to remember our death more. We need this macroscopic perspective in our lives. Go to a graveyard for all souls day and pray for the souls of the departed. Or, attend the funeral of a stranger and do a corporal work of mercy – burying the dead. At the end of our grace before eating, my wife and I pray: ”May the souls of the faithfully departed, by the mercy of God, rest in peace. And may His perpetual light shine upon them.”
I am not saying that we should glorify death. The appropriate Catholic response to death is sorrow and pain because God does not delight in death. But it is a sorrow and pain we must endure while grasped firmly to the resurrected hands of Christ, with the hope of eternal joy in heaven which is the joy of seeing Jesus Himself.
“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living… It was through the devil’s envy that death entered the world” (Wis 1:13; 2:24). Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 413
We need death because we need life. Knowing that I will die, I spend every waking moment with the purpose of this life in mind. There is no time to waste. I can waste no time in sin. I must love others and strive to love God with all of my today, my right now. There is no putting off until tomorrow becoming a saint. I need to be one now.
To live our lives without death is no life at all. It would tempt us to think our actions here on earth have no higher meaning or purpose. We cannot live our lives without death.
Meditation on Death
I was reminded of St. Francis de Sale’s meditation on death from his “Introduction to the Devout Life”. The Saints always have a very real grasp on the certainty of death and this gives them a perspective of reality that guides all their actions towards Christ and away from worldliness.
This meditation is given by St. Francis de Sales in a section of his book that is intended to detach us from the affections to mortal sin. It is one thing to never commit a mortal sin, it is quite another to not wish you could commit them. And St. Francis de Sales knew that a firm grasp of our mortality helps us detach ourselves not only from committing sin, but also from the temptation to commit sin.
Take a few minutes and pray through this meditation. If we live our lives without a clear grasp of the certainty of that moment when we shall “shuffle off these mortal coils”, we can be tempted to become too attached to this world, of which we are merely temporary guests.
Meditation Of Death by St. Francis de Sales
From the Introduction to the Devout Life
[My comments are in brackets.]
1. Place yourself in the presence of God.
2. Ask him to give you his grace.
3. Imagine yourself to be lying ill upon your bed of death, without any hope of recovery.
1. Consider the uncertainty of the day of your death. O my soul, thou must one day quit this body. When will it be? Will it be in the winter or in summer? In a town or in the country? Will it be without any warning, or with warning? Will it be the end result of disease or of some accident? Wilt thou have time to confess or not? Wilt thou be assisted by thy confessor and spiritual Father? Alas! we know nothing at all about any of these things. We only know that we shall die, and always sooner than we expect.
2. Consider that the world will then come to an end, as far as you are concerned, and that there will be no more of it for you; it will turn upside down before your eyes. Yes, for then pleasures, vanities, worldly joys, vain affections will appear as phantoms and shadows. Ah! wretch that I am, for the sake of what trifles and unrealities have I offended my God? You will see that you have forsaken God for the sake of nothing. On the contrary, devotion and good works will seem to you then so desirable and sweet: and why have I not followed this beautiful and pleasant path? then the sins which used to seem very little will appear as big as mountains, and your devotion very small.
3. Consider the long and languishing farewells which your soul will bid to this poor world: she will say farewell to riches, to vanities and vain company, to pleasures, to pastimes, to friends and neighbors, to kindred, to children, to husband, to wife, in brief to every creature; and last of all, to her body, which she will leave pale, emaciated, wasted, hideous and fetid.
4. Consider with what haste your body will be removed and hidden in the earth, and how, when that is done, the world will scarcely give another thought to you, and will not remember you any more than you have remembered others: God rest his soul, they will say, and that is all. O death, how important thou art, how pitiless thou art!
Affections and Resolutions
1. Pray to God and cast yourself into his arms. Alas! Lord, take me under thy protection on that fearful day; let that hour be happy and favourable to me, and rather let all the other hours of my life be sad and sorrowful.
2. Despise the world. Since I know not the hour at which I must quit thee, O world, I will not fix my affections on thee at all. O my dear friends, my dear alliances, let me love you only with a holy friendship, which can last eternally; for why should I united myself to you in such a way that it is necessary to dissolve and break the bond of union?
3. I will prepare myself for that hour, and will take all the care that is necessary to make the passage happily; I will make sure of the state of my conscience to the best of my ability, and will put into order such and such shortcomings.
Thank God for these resolutions which he has given you; offer them to his Majesty; implore him again to give you a happy death through the merits of that of his Son. Implore the aid of the Virgin and of the Saints.
Pater, Ave Maria [Our Father, Hail Mary]
Make a nosegay of myrrh.
[Odd word, I agree, but this means to take time to cherish the sweetness of the meditation and resolutions God has given us.]
“I call heaven and earth today to witness against you, I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live” Deuteronomy 30:19
Mary, Our Lady of a Happy Death, pray for us.