Most people fear death in a greater or less degree, however much they may outwardly conceal the fact. And if we ask the reason why they should fear it, the reason is not far to seek. Death is a punishment of sin. It was the penalty that was attached by God Himself to the first transgression of His law. To our first parents, Adam and Eve, He said: “In the day thou eatest of it, thou shalt die the death.” He was speaking, of course, “of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe”, as Milton says in the opening lines of his Paradise Lost. For this reason we shrink from it and all its circumstances – the coffin, the corruption, the worms, all so many marks and signs of our fallen condition. Disease, old age with its disabilities, the natural decay and loss of our faculties are its normal forerunners and are invested with the same reproach as testimonies to our being originally born in sin.
The older you get, the more real death becomes
When you were still going, you did not think about death. It was almost impossible for you to envisage it. When you were older death became more real, and if it were a disturbing thought perhaps you turned hastily away from the grim spectre. When you become old, if you are not so already, its approach will be so near that you can hardly avoid thinking of it and the thought of it may, though it need not, have a paralytic effect on you.
Looking death straight in the face
The wise thing to do at all times in your life is to look death straight in the face, for the thought of it is a deterrent from sin – a much greater evil. But your consideration of death must not be morbid, but sane and calm. Acknowledge it to be a frightening thing but accept it, as a punishment of sin, in entire resignation to God’s will. Offer it, in advance, as often as the thought of it occurs, as an expiation for all your sins, and unite it with the death of Our Lord on the Cross. In this way you will ensure a happy death, one that will be full of consolation and hope for the actual moment of its happening. The fears and anxieties that during life may come to you at the thought of death are indeed veritable sufferings, but united to our Blessed Redeemer’s sufferings they can be converted into so many acts of penance that will bring their certain reward in not only procuring you a happy and peaceful death but in winning for you great merit in heaven. So the naturally disturbing thought of death can by degrees become a consoling one, seeing that it can be the means of immense spiritual gain.
“Watch and pray, for ye know not the day nor the hour”
But there is another consideration that can help to rob death of its terrors. After it, our destiny will be fixed for eternity. There will then be no more chance of doing penance and no more chance of practising virtue, of being patient under the daily annoyances and troubles of life, of exercising charity in the many ways and opportunities that offer themselves every single day, of acquiring merit and hoarding up treasure in heaven. Death is the end of our trial and probation; and death may come at any time, be we young, middle-aged, or old. “Watch and pray,” Our Blessed Lord said, “for ye do not know the day nor the hour.”
“While it is day”
The thought of death therefore should be the stimulus to instant action. We recall the words of Our Lord, “I must work the works of Him who sent me, while it is day,” and again He said, “The night cometh when no one can work” (John 9:4). The night is, of course, death. Let us then make Our Lord’s word ours, act upon them at once, now, to-day and every day. Let us work as it were against time. There is a Tuscan proverb that runs: “Pray as if you had to die to-day, work as if you had to live for aye.” If we live in this spirit, how faithful we shall be to our prayers, how constant in our frequentation of the sacraments, how often we shall turn to God during the day offering our work with a renewed intention of doing it all for Him, how careful and assiduous we shall be in doing that work, whatever it be, for we shall know that we are doing His will, the complete doing of which is the summit of all perfection. To those who live in this spirit, death when it comes will only be the end of a long day of toil and service in the interests of our dear Lord and Master, who will know how to console, bless, and reward His faithful servant. Death for such a one will have lost its terrors. This is the consolation of those who “live and die in the Lord”.
The joy of having finally made it all the way through the valley of the shadow of death
Yet though we have a natural dread of death, there is another sure way of getting rid of its terrors, and it is one that every good Catholic can acquire. To those who have a great and true love of God, who have thought and meditated upon His perfections – His goodness, His beauty, His lovableness, and the rest, all of which He has in an infinite and ineffable degree – to those who have come so to love Him that nothing and nobody apart from God has any attractions for them except in so far as they lead them to an ever-increasing love for God and an ever-growing desire to possess Him, to such souls death is not a dread, it is only the unfolding of the gate that gives entrance to the full vision of Him.
Why should they fear now that they are freed from the prison-house?
One of our English poets has described us as “the prisoners of death”, but death can hold us only on this earth. When death comes for those who love God above all things, it is the beginning of their true life. While on this earth, all their aspirations and hopes have been directed to the unseen world, why should they fear now they are freed from the prison-house? Their heart has long been in heaven and the Treasure they most prize is there; there is their King and their Lord, their dearest and unfailing friend; and there too is their Mother Mary, and with her, the angels and the saints, the very élite of God’s creation. The soul in love with God has all this in mind and so is detached from all earthly things and ever looks to the world to come.
Our dearest and unfailing friend
Death reminds us to grow in this love of God, to love ever more entirely for Him, continually to push out self-love so that He may find room to wholly possess us.
It is not difficult for a good Catholic to arrive at a pure love of God, loving Him for Himself alone and His ineffable goodness. The thought alone that the greatest pain of the damned in hell is the loss of this Infinite Good is enough to convince our intellect and to stir our will, so that (as has been pointed out in another conference) we love Him with the whole of our minds and our hearts. Fear, such as the thought of hell may inspire, is – especially in the initial stages of conversion, as St Augustine points out in his Confessions – a motive for serving God; but this fear should by degrees give way to love, so that love becomes the dominating motive in our lives and sanctifies them as nothing else can.
It is then that we shall be able with all sincerity to say with St Paul, quoting from the prophet Osee [Hosea], “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1Cor. 15:55).
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949