Preparing for a Happy Death

The very structure of the daily prayers in an abbey helps remind the religious of impending death. We have to foresee this moment by preparing well, being vigilant, ready.

This text was originally published as part of Ad Cenam Agni, a 2023 virtual Lenten Retreat hosted by the Abbot's Circle.

“We must learn to risk fear as we risk death; true courage is to be found in this risk”  - Georges Bernanos, Dialogues of the Carmelites.

During these singularly graced days of Lent, we are invited to do exactly what our Savior said if we want to follow Him, which is to take up our cross. Although the crosses each one of us carries are individual, and tailor-made, every last one of us will die. As we follow Christ to His Passion, Death and eventual Resurrection, these next days must become a time when we seriously consider our own inevitable death. It is only in this manner that the true priorities of life will become manifest.

In order to learn to die well, we should look to Christ the head of His mystical body, in order to learn how best to prepare. A careful reading of the Gospel accounts of Our Lord’s Passion will make it pellucid that, in His human nature, Christ was oppressed with sadness in the garden of Gethsemane. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.“ Luke 22:42. And elsewhere we learn in the Gospel of St. John (John 11:35) that “Jesus wept” over the death of His friend Lazarus. 

From these references, we see that, in itself, our death is an evil, the result of the Original Sin and its punishment. And yet, we are told in the texts of the Church’s liturgy that this sin was a “Felix culpa”, a happy fault, so it would represent the highest prudence to think on our eventual death frequently, daily, in order to prepare for it well. In a very real sense, our death is the supreme moment and the frame of our life. During the reflections of this week, we will look at death, so that we may prepare ourselves well for the supreme moment in our lives. 

The world would have us believe that to dwell on death is a morbid thing, and yet the truth of the matter is that it is a matter of highest prudence to consider our own approaching deaths daily. The Word of God, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became incarnate to save us, and He often spoke in the Gospels of the necessity of taking up our cross and following Him. When we consider His life on earth, it was not merely a matter of suffering during the Passion and His death on the Cross, but rather that the life of the Savior was full of difficulties and suffering right from the events of His birth in Bethlehem, the flight from Herod into Egypt, opposition from the religious authorities of the time, and the crowds who were hard hearted and slow to believe. He even exclaimed at one point: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”

Our faith teaches us that the Lord went through all of this for our redemption, and as members of His Mystical Body, we have within our power, with the help of grace, to unite our sufferings and our death with those of the Savior. And we must never be discouraged by our sufferings here below, they help to conform us to Christ, and if accepted with trust in God, they make us holy. Nor must we allow a downcast spirit to overtake us if we find that we repeatedly fail to conform ourselves well. Remember, “A Saint is a sinner who gets up one time more than he falls.”

As we prepare for this supreme moment of our death, when we must appear before our Savior and our Judge, wisdom teaches us that it is essential to consider His own death, and to realize that he went through that for us. Yet, in a very real way, each of us can say, “He did that for me!” He calls us to follow Him, and dwelling on His mysteries by a continual reading of the four Gospels will imbue our very lives with the consideration of His entire life, and especially His Passion and Death. Ideally, this process begins early in life. Unless we experience serious illness in our youth, it is a frequent thing for people to live as if this life will never end, and much in contemporary society reinforces this attitude. Rather than fret about this, and becoming distracted by the ills of the world, it is better to look at the inevitability of our death, but always with Christ, looking to what He has done for us and seeking better to cultivate a spirit of child-like trust in Him.

A good practice to help develop such trust is to strive daily to become more grateful for the good things the Lord has showered upon us. Many of us, given a day where ten good things happen to us, and one negative thing, will focus on the negative. This is our nature, and it distracts us from focusing on necessary things: doing God’s will; cooperating with His grace and working out our salvation with a holy fear of the last things.

The very structure of the daily prayers in an abbey helps remind the religious of impending death. Each night at Compline, the community sings the responsory, In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum “Into your hands Lord, I commend my spirit”, words used by the Lord as He died on the cross, and themselves a quotation from Psalm 31:5. As I write these words, after nearly thirty-seven years as a Norbertine, death is much closer to me than when I entered as a twenty-five year old. It is essential that we realize that this moment is, ironically, the most important in our lives.

Christ, in so many of His parables to the crowds (the servants waiting for the Master to come home from the wedding; the ten virgins – five wise and five foolish; and many others) stresses that the reality of our visitation, of our death, will probably come at a time when we least expect it. This means that we have to foresee the moment by preparing well, being vigilant, ready. A good preparation for death would be to develop a relationship with the Angels and Saints, in particular Our Lady, St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, and our own guardian angel. Tradition has it that St. Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, something that I certainly very much want; and as such, St. Joseph must have extraordinary intercessory power.

Another very good preparation for death would be to cultivate the habit of saying the daily rosary. This practice is a deepening of dwelling on the Gospels, since it is a meditation on the mysteries therein. It is also a prayer that can greatly foster the virtue of humility, a virtue that connects us with reality: the reality of God’s greatness, and the reality of our contingency, which can strengthen our knowledge of and trust in God’s love for us.  In the next consideration, we will return to the virtue of humility, and also consider fortitude, or courage.

In this closing consideration, where we have looked upon the death of Christ, and our own death; it is wise for us to continue to emphasize the virtue of humility, which enables the soul to make true progress. The consideration of death can be a literal reality check, and an invitation to humility; and God plays His part in the gradual unfolding of our prayer life. Because He so surpasses our categories and conceptions, we need the help of a virtue that might seem counterintuitive when considering becoming closer to God, but which actually makes a lot of sense. We need courage…great courage. If any of us could clearly see how much the Lord loves us, we would die. Ultimately we would die from joy, but a joy perhaps mixed with fear, because of the intensity. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Heb 10:31

The best ways of overcoming this fear and developing a deep humility would be to persevere in prayer, most particularly when it is dry and feels pointless and hopeless; often to consider the Passion and Death of Our Lord; cultivate an intimate relationship with Our Lord, the Blessed Mother Mary, St. Joseph, our guardian Angel, and the Saints; daily recitation of the rosary; frequent reception of the sacraments of Confession and Communion; and perhaps most importantly, to develop a deep spirit of charity and forgiveness towards our neighbor. If we love the neighbor whom we can see, we can be more certain that we love God who dwells in our neighbor’s soul. If we arrive at this charity to our neighbor, the humility of seeing ourselves as we are before God, and the courage to persevere, we will come to a more vivid experience of the Lord’s great love for us, and thus be transformed in love even before our death. May He be praised forever. 

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