by Catherine Doherty.
As I was meditating on death, it seemed to me that we do not talk or think enough about this topic. We should, you know, because death is one of the most beautiful moments between lives.
Since man divorced God, say, for the last four hundred years or so, especially in the Western world, and since the pre-Vatican II Church surrounded death with a sort of grimness, Catholics became rather fearful of death, just as pagans were and still are. Some of the attitudes and customs that are definitely un-Christian are still with us.
Let’s face a few truths from Scriptures. Death is awesome; there is no denying that. It is the cessation of "being" as we know it in our experience. And there is also the idea of the "just punishment" that God metes out for sin.
We remember all that; but we fail to remember that Christ has conquered death and that, from the moment of his resurrection, death has lost its sting.
We should keep in mind that when we die, we are about to enter into the fullness of life—a life of pure love, a life of intimate union with God, a life of overwhelming happiness and joy.
Christians have always considered the day that people died as their birth date. That’s why, throughout the liturgical cycle, you read about the saints, not on the day of their earthly birthday, but on the day of their death, which is their birthday into heaven.
To die in the state of grace means to go to heaven. We’re not interested here in purgatory because it is, at worst, a stopgap on the way to heaven.
So let’s talk about heaven, which is not a place but a state of union with God. It is a state of such joy and happiness that St. Paul says that ear has not heard, eye has not seen what God has reserved for those who love him (Isaiah 64:3 and 1 Cor 2:9).
Why then are we so afraid of death, except for psychological and human reasons? If we believe—and we do profess to believe, since we call ourselves Christians—if we believe that Christ came to redeem us so as to bring us to his Father and give us this life of union with him; if we believe that all of our earthly pilgrimage (not only of us personally but of the whole Church) is directed toward that one goal of union with God, why are we so reluctant to accept this fact, this joyous and beautiful fact of faith?
The central point of our belief is that since we die with Christ, we shall resurrect with him.
Because our faith in this central tenet is so weak, we push the thought of death away from ourselves instead of preparing for it. And we do that, not only with regard to our own death personally, but with the deaths of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends.
If we believed, as Christians should, in the resurrection of Christ and in our own resurrection, we would be dancing. We would be wearing white garments of joy. We would have music and wine. Hosannas and Alleluias would resound in our hearts and in our homes when someone goes to God.
Why should we begrudge all these wonderful people (to whom we belong and who belong to us) the tremendous happiness and immense joy of union with God? Why mourn for them?
It is understandable if we mourn for ourselves, of course. In the natural order, we will be bereft of their earthly companionship and of the knowledge that they are on this planet. We will no longer be with them, in the sense of living in the same place.
This sorrow is part of the natural progression of life. After all, children leave their parents’ home to work, to get married, to form new families.
Whenever we are bereft of someone’s immediate presence, especially in the case of those with whom we have close family ties, it is natural for us to mourn. That is understandable. That is being human.
Remember, though, that we are mourning for ourselves. To mourn for those who have made their final leave-taking and have gone to God is strange for a Christian, to say the least. If we stopped to think it all out in the light of the Gospels, we would understand better how to accept the loss of a loved one.
Yes, we have this contradiction within us between our beliefs and our practice (or non-practice) of those beliefs when someone close to us has passed away.
But we also have strange attitudes to death as such. These probably are inherited from the superstitions of our ancestors to whom death was a great mystery, as was birth.
In this case, I am speaking of primordial man and his early descendents. Let us call it our anthropological and pagan inheritance.
In more modern centuries, however, we Catholics have become so very much divorced from the sources of our Christian religion (and practically from God himself) that we not only fear the reality of death, but we fear even the thought of it.
Read Evelyn Waugh’s novel, The Loved One, and you’ll see what I mean.
We fear pain also. True, there is a type of pain that is almost unendurable, but oftentimes we want to immediately abolish every little hurt that comes our way, all the little stings and discomforts that barely pass for pain.
We want to do this regardless of the source of it, so we reach out for a tranquilizer, an Aspirin, some morphine or its derivatives. And whenever we have a psychologically painful mood, we want a mood lifter.
Where is our faith? We have been redeemed through pain; are we not willing to face some of it ourselves? Do we need always to be assuaging it, instead of bearing it? But I am really writing about death, not pain, so I better stick to the subject.
Frankly, this is what I most wanted to say: Let us turn to God and ask him—who has already taken the sting out of death, who has conquered it—to help us to see the face of his love.
Let us beg him to increase our faith so that we desire to be with him, even if we must die to do so.
Teresa of Avila said, "I die because I do not die." She was so in love with God that she really wanted to die to be with him, but she was so in love with people that she was also willing to live forever if it be his holy will. That is the proper attitude to death, my dearly beloved.
Not that God is opposed to our mourning, to our exhibiting tears and all other signs of human sorrow. In his humanity, he himself wept over Lazarus.
I repeat, let us act with common sense and with love for the brethren, but let us have a joyous faith at all times. Let us pray for the deceased members of our families, and let us also rejoice with them and for them.
—Excerpted from Dearly Beloved, Vol. II, February 25, 1966, pp. 171-177, available from MH Publications.
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