And Death is Gain….A Meditation on the Christian view of Death

Today on the Feast of All Saints and in the month of November we remember, first the Saints in heaven, and then the souls of the faithful departed in purgatory.

Indeed, 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 welcome to 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 publically 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:

24 Replies to “And Death is Gain….A Meditation on the Christian view of Death”

  1. Msgr Pope, Thank You for this Beautifully written article on death and longing to see Jesus, face to face! The final song did not appear, but I thought it would be th old “Spiritual”, “Soon and Very Soon”!!!

    Love, Blessings and Prayers,


  2. Ah, but then there’s “…Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done come on earth as it is heaven…”
    Not just yet I s’pose.

    1. Thank God for humility among the graces. “,,,Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”
      Omitting the second time for “come” and adding “in”
      Put this in my notes for the next Step Four and going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

  3. We get so busy running around making sure we have water and flashlights for these earthly storms we forget to prepare for the most important journey of all! I have been blessed to have been with several family members and friends as they were dying and these experinces have only strenghtened my conviction that heaven awaits. It seems to me that those that walk in faith gain tremendous grace during their final days and that grace spills over on all those fortunate to be with them. My uncle, commenting on how blessed he had been in life sighed and said “all this and heaven too!”

  4. A few weeks ago as I was tucking my 4-year old into bed, we had finished prayers and he asked about Heaven – I don’t remember what exactly I said, but after I was done he said with all enthusiasm: “I can’t wait to get to Heaven!”

  5. Yes, I long for heaven with its perfect, infinite, and eternal joys, and my growing older is a closer approach to that.

    However, our life on earth has a purpose – a building purpose. Our time on earth builds our eternity.

    I wish to go, but not until I am perfect and am fully ready to meet the Lord, and not until I have completed my assigned task on earth in helping other souls.

  6. It is easy for a priest to say “I long to leave this world and go be with God”….not so easy for a parent of small children

    1. Greg, my only prayer when my sons were children was to live until the youngest was 18 (ok, I nudged it up to 21 when he was a late bloomer!) so as parent I totally understand your view. When my kids were all 21 and self-managing their lives, I told the Lord He could have me anytime. My death would be a loss to the grandchildren, but not the tragic loss like that of losing their Mommies or Daddies!

  7. Msgr.
    This has been in my mind since.How will it be in heaven.Assuming I get to heaven after spending sometime in purgatory,Will i forget everything that had happened to me?Will I will still think or see the people I loved as If I were stll in the flesh.
    Please enlighten me.

  8. I agree that Saint Paul wasn’t suicidal and people in general aren’t suicidal. I’d expect, but don’t know, that there is a whole bunch of people who have longed for heaven.–maybe everyone who ever attained the age of reason, at least for a moment.

    “I can’t wait.”–Monsignor Pope. Sorry Monsignor, but you will have to wait too. Reminds me of the song, Can’t Hardly Wait, by The Replacements, on just this very topic.–or I think it is on this topic.

  9. Wonderful!
    I agree wholeheartedly.
    This life is beautiful, and it is a gift, but it is the journey, not the destination.
    When I walk down the aisle on the way to Communion, I think “This is the straightest route home.”
    Each and every birthday is just one year closer to that beautiful place that is eternal. Forever.
    Who wouldn’t want to think about that?

  10. Father, as a Catholic who spent many (happy!) years as a Hospice nurse, I thank you for taking the time to talke about this subject that is an anthema to most Americans. [I once had a family member say, without irony, “Well, IF I die….”]

    I, too, have trouble explaining that I long to be with the Lord, (and since I am in my middle fifites I know that I have spent more time on earth already than I will spend in the future) without sounding sucidal. As you said—as did St. Paul….I want the perfect peace of heaven, but if I am still breathing, I guess my job here isn’t done yet.

    Besides, one of the last things I said to my sainted mother before she died was…”save me a good seat”! Can’t wait to see her again, too!

  11. At many funerals, the deceased seem subject to premature canonization. At memorial services, remarks about the deceased always seem to assume direct translation to heaven. But in 2nd Maccabees 12:38-46 it is suggested that it is a holy and pious thought to pray for the dead, that they may be freed from their sins.
    “Time” is a created dimension. We do not know how time may be measured for souls in Purgatory. In any event, prayers for others are not wasted.

  12. I can hardly wait to depart. I love Jesus to such an extent that He is all I think about anymore. I am constantly trying to “fill in the gaps” and better “wrap my arms” around Him. I especially wonder what it will be like to “behold His Holy Face.”
    …I have been re-reading the mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich’s account of “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” The veil at Manoppello Italy is thought to be either the burial cloth that covered Jesus’ face or Veronica’s veil from the Way of the Cross. While he lay dying, via bilocation, Padre Pio was witnessed praying before this veil. Pope Benedict has also visited the site. This image could very well be the face of Jesus.

  13. “I shall not think it at all wrong..for us to change our desire by reflecting that, if we live, we have more chance of serving God, and that we might do this by giving light to some soul which otherwise would be lost.) St Teresa, Way of Perfection, Ch19. (Just happened to have read that yesterday.)

  14. Our longing to be with the God in heaven is exponential to the suffering we experience on earth. Life is a passion play.

  15. Hi:
    I’d like to give a setup and then ask one question I have always had on this:
    death means the death of the body, therefore what only remains continues on.
    Thus if I make an effort now to simulate that effect, like going to sleep or being suspended in a sensory deprivation tank, or just closing my eyes in a quiet room, then I will experience approximately what it is like.
    Doesn’t seem like much.

    This would seem to be true unless something is ADDED to us after death. But I dont find Jesus talking about such a thing except after our physical resurrection.

    so the question is: why is death appreciated as a positive when it is really just a subtraction from our being?

    not trying to be obtuse, I just want to know.

    1. The problem as I see it is in the premise of your question, namely, that death is able to be simulated by sleep… or that that is all it is. As for the second question, again I see a flawed premise, namely that Jesus did not speak of things except in reference to our physical resurrection. The heart of heaven is to be present to the Lord. That our bodies will one day, in a glorified state share in this presence is surely magnificent but that does not set aside the soul’s capacity for and enjoyment of this highly desirable and magnificent state beyond words to describe.

  16. Thank you for this article Msgr. It really addressed some things I have been mulling over lately.

  17. … and yet, “the enemy, death, shall be destroyed last:” 1 Cor 15. Enemy, not friend. From the Bible ‘which you wouldn’t have without the Church’, remember?

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