Fausto Gomez OP
The terrible Covid-19 pandemic has caused and continues causing thousands upon thousands of deaths throughout the world. The deadly novel coronavirus is making us all vividly aware of the fragility of our life, and of the poignant reality of death. And just in case we forget, journalists and columnists remind us of the classical Latin phrases memento mori (“remember that you will die”) and nemini parco (“death spares no one”).
In the month of November, we Christians commemorate all the saints and our beloved dead. It is an opportune time to meditate a bit on death, on our own death.
Death is inescapable, inevitable, and utterly undeniable. The Psalmist proclaims: “Man’s days are like those of the grass; like a flower of the fields it blooms; the wind sweeps over him and he is gone, and his place knows him no more” (Ps 103:15-16).
THE MEANING OF DEATH
Death is part of life. “It is urgent to place death within life, to try to understand it from life itself… Death places us face to face with the meaning of our life, its configuration, its hierarchy of values, its real perspective of importance” (Julian Marías).
It is said that at times social death may precede biological death as it has happened in some places to dying patients during the peak of the coronavirus infections. One of the miseries suffered by those who are gravely affected by the novel coronavirus is total isolation and separation from the loved ones. Our Christian faith urges us to accompany as much as possible the sick and the dying with our compassion, prayers and the Sacraments.
Medically speaking, death is defined as the total and irreversible cessation either of cardiopulmonary function and/or of the function of the entire brain, including the brain stem (although, let us note, “brain death” is still debated). Death means the termination of this earthly life, which implies the disintegration of the body and, in Christian perspective, the passage of the soul, hopefully, to eternal life that will also be shared by our bodies (we are body-soul), then in a glorious form.
Theologically speaking, death, like suffering, has a penal character, due to sin as source of death (cf Gen 2:15-17; Rom 6:23), although suffering is not usually a punishment for our sins (ordinarily the saints suffer most!). The suffering and death of Christ “blazed a trail” for us. If we follow it, Vatican II tells us, “Life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning” (GS 22). Like suffering, death may become a redemptive death, when it is lived as death in God, and joined to Christ’s redemptive and victorious death (cf. Rom 6:3-5).
For a Christian, death is of course important and also traumatic, but not an ultimate reality. In the perspective of Easter – the Christian perspective -, sickness means not merely a time on the cross, but an opportunity to love. In this earthly life, Good Friday and Easter Sunday need each other and ought to be integrated: there is no resurrection without crucifixion; there is no glory without the cross: “He who seeks not the cross of Christ seeks not the glory of Christ” (St John of the Cross).
ACCEPTING OUR DEATH
“Then I heard a voice from heaven say to me, ‘write down: Happy are those who die in the Lord.’ ‘Happy indeed’, the Spirit says; ‘now they can rest forever after their work, since their good deeds go with them’” (Rev 14:13).
Christ’s death is the paradigm of a good death. Christ often confronted his death – his “hour.” Before washing the feet of the apostles, John writes, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world and go to the Father” (Jn. 13:1). The Crucified and Risen Lord accepted his death totally and as part of life. He told us not to be afraid of those who can kill the body, but not the soul (Mt 10:28).
After Jesus, the saints with many other simple faithful people accept their death patiently, hopefully and even joyfully. When she was dying (+1897), and in the midst of great sufferings and temptations, St Therese of the Child Jesus cried out: “I am not dying. I am entering life.” These lovely words bring to my mind these consoling words: “If you are an apostle, you will not die. You will change house and nothing more” (Josemaría Escrivá).
Just before dying, Saint John XXIII(+1963) kept repeating in the midst of much suffering Christ’s words, “I am the resurrection and the life; I am the resurrection and the life.” Last words of Saint Teresa of Calcutta (+ 1997): “Jesus I love you, Jesus I love you.”
We are aware of our mortality. Yes, we are obviously mortal. We are immortal, too – our spiritual soul is. The Roman philosopher and orator councils us: “Convince yourself firmly of this: You are not mortal; what is mortal is your body” (Cicero). Earthly death is part of our life – and pregnant with meaning: “In everything you do,remember your end, and you will never sin” (Sir 7:36); “Do not consider anyone happy before his death, for it is only at his death that a man will be known” (Sir 11:28).
Luis de Granada wrote that the meditation on death is salutary, because (1) it puts order in our life (the end measures the means to achieve it); (2) it helps us to say “no” to sin (the main obstacle to a good death); (3) it teaches us to die a good death.
PREPARING FOR A GOOD DEATH
We prepare for a good death by living a good life, by following Christ: this is the healthiest way of living and the best way of dying! We prepare for a good death by practicing virtues – good habits -which are sourcesofhappiness and the way to more happiness here and hereafter. Four virtues in particular may help us face our personal death, namely, courage, hope, love and prayerfulness.
Patient and persevering courage or fortitude makes us strong when facing suffering and particularly death, for “to be strong means to be ready to die” (Josef Pieper). St Augustine reminds us: “When God is our strength, we are strong; when our strength is our own, we are helpless.”
We face our death with faithful hope: hope through this life and hope in heaven. The only way to be happier tomorrow – and hope tells us that tomorrow will be better – is by being faithful to the present, to today, to the moment, which is the only thing in our hands.
Virtuous hope is faithful and loving hope. Without love as charity, hope cannot help us walk towards temporal and eternal happiness. Theological hope helps us accept death as a healing and salvific act. Indeed, “The greatest misery consists in the loss of hope in the face of death” (CDF, Samaritanus Bonus).
Faith, hope and love pray! In prayer, we ask for the grace to do the will of God, to accept our death and to help others accept theirs. We pray for our beloved dead. We pray to God through Jesus in the Spirit to strengthen our faithful and hopeful love. And when we recite the Holy Rosary or the Angelus we ask Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother, for a good death: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Words to ponder: a challenging question: “When your time comes, you will be sorry for not having used your time in God’s service. Why don’t you organize your time properly now and use it as you would have liked to do when you will be dying?” (Saint John of the Cross).