In the month of November we remember the souls of the faithful departed and our obligation to pray for them . November and into the early part of Advent is also a part of the Church Calendar when we begin to ponder the last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. In the Northern hemisphere the days grow shorter and in regions further north, the once green trees and fields shed their lively green, and after the brief golden gown of autumn, a kind of death overtakes the landscape. Life changes, we grow older and one day we will die.
It is fitting at this time that we ponder the passing glory of things and set our gaze on heaven where joys will never end. There is a beautiful prayer in the Roman Missal that captures this disposition:
Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis, id disiderare quod promittis, ut, inter mundanas varietates, ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.
O God, who makes the minds of the faithful to be of one accord, grant to your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the changes of this world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are. (21st Sunday of the year)
So here we are well into November. Summer is past and Winter beckons. Ponder with me that this world is passing. And I have a question to ask you. How do you see death? Do you long to one day depart this life and go home to God? St. Paul wrote to the Philippians of his longing to leave this world and go to God. He was not suicidal, he just wanted to be with God:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit. (Phil 1:20-23)
I am struck that, these days, almost no one publicly speaks of their longing to depart this life and be with God. I suspect it is because we live very comfortably, at least in the affluent West. Many of the daily hardships with which even our most recent ancestors struggled have been minimized and even eliminated. I suppose that when the struggles of this life are minimized, fewer people consciously long to leave this world and go to heaven. They set their sights and their hopes and prayers on having things HERE be better. “O God, please give me better health, a better marriage, a financial blessing, a promotion at work….” In other words, “Make this world an even better place for me and I’m content to stay here, rather than to long to go there to heaven.”
Longing to be with God was more evident in the older prayers, many of them written just a few generations ago. Consider for example the well known Salve Regina and note (especially in the words I have bolded) the longing to leave this world and be with God:
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope. To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To Thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, Thine Eyes of Mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show us the Blessed Fruit of thy Womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
The prayer acknowledges in a very realistic and sober way that life here can be very difficult. Rather than ask for deliverance from all of it, for this world is an exile after all, the prayer simply expresses a longing to come to heaven and be worthy to see Jesus. It is this longing that I sense is somewhat absent in our modern world, even among regular Church goers.
When was the last time you meditated on heaven? When was the last time you heard a sermon on heaven. I understand that we all have a natural fear and aversion to dying. But for a Christian there should be a deepening thirst for God that begins to erode the fear and aversion to death. St. Francis praised God for Sister bodily death which no one can escape (Canticum Fratris Solis). And why not praise God for it? It is what brings us ultimately home.
As for me, I will say it: I long to leave this world and go home and be with God. I am not suicidal and I love what I do here. But I can’t wait to be with God. I don’t mind getting older, because it means I’m closer to home. Another day’s journey and I’m so glad, one day closer to home! In our youth centered culture people (especially women) are encouraged to be anxious about getting older. As for me, when I hit forty, I said, “Hallelujah, I’m halfway home (err…as far as I know)!” Now as I get ready for fifty I rejoice even more. I’m glad to be getting older. God has made me wiser and he is preparing me to meet him. I can’t wait.
A couple of years ago a woman here in the parish walked into a meeting a few minutes late. It was obvious she had been rushing to get there and entered, quite out of breath. No sooner had she entered than she fell headlong on the ground. She had died instantly of a heart attack, was dead before she hit the ground. We rushed to revive her, but to no avail. God had called Wynette unto himself. I remember saying at her funeral, “For us it was one of the worst days of our life, but for Wynette it was the greatest day of her life.” God for whom she longed had drawn her to himself. She had died hurrying to God’s house and you know I had to quote the old spiritual that says, O Lord, I done what you told me to do….unto that morning when the Lord said, “Hurry!”
Even a necessary stopover in Purgatory cannot eclipse the joy of the day we die. There will surely be the suffering that precedes our death. But deep in our heart, if we are a believer, must ring forth the word: “Soon!” An old spiritual says, “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world; going home to live with God.”
So I ask you again, do you long for heaven? Do you long to depart this world and be with God? You say, “Yes, but first let me raise my kids!” I know, but do you rejoice as the years tick by and goal becomes closer? Do you long to be with God?
I close with the words of Psalm 27:
One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD….My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me.
As you listen to this Spiritual, consider the harsh conditions that the slaves who wrote it endured: