The Angels and Our Death

This is the fourth in a series of five posts on the angels and their role in our lives. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the mission of the angels. Angels are ministering spirits mystically present and active throughout creation, in the events of Scripture, in the liturgy, and in our lives.

The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in my posts are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural passages below represent my own additions.

In today’s post we ponder the presence and role of the angels at the moment of our death.

Scriptural and Liturgical Roots We read in Scripture that the Lord shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:31). While this text most likely refers to the Last Judgment, it nevertheless emphasizes the role of the angels in gathering us to the Lord. In one of Jesus’ parables, we read of the poor man Lazarus and how the angels escorted him after he died:

The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. (Luke 16:22).

We also read in Scripture of the role of St. Michael the Archangel at the death of Moses:

But even the archangel Michael, when he disputed with the devil over the body of Moses, did not presume to bring a slanderous judgment against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 1:9)

The Church sees an even broader role for Michael and the angels at the death of each of us. The offertory prayer of the Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form implores that “Michael, the standard-bearer, may lead us forward into the Holy Light, promised of old to Abraham and his seed.” Further, the In Paradisum of the Funeral Mass says,

May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.

The In Paradisum is indeed a beautiful chant with beautiful teaching. At the bottom of this post is a link to a recording, sung in Latin. There are also English translations that fit well with the melody.

Thus, we see the biblical roots of the role of the angels at our death. We turn now to the insights of the Fathers of the early Church.

As we know from Scripture, encountering an angel can be disconcerting. In most cases, the first words from angels are “Do not be afraid.” Some of the Fathers speak to this experience:

  • Tertullian says, “When by force of death the soul is snatched from the weight of the flesh that closed it in, it trembles with excitement to see the face of an angel, the summoner of souls, realizing that its eternal abode has been prepared.”
  • Ephrem imagines the confusion of a man when he sees the heavenly powers just after death: “When the armies of the Lord show themselves and when the divine commanders bid him to leave the body behind, he shakes and trembles at the unaccustomed sight of these figures.”

On the other hand, angels also have a consoling effect for the faithful at the moment of death, keeping demons at bay:

  • Gregory the Great says, “The hymns of the angels fill the soul with so divine a joy, that it does not notice the sufferings of death. And during its voyage toward heaven, the angels scatter the demons who try to bar the soul’s advance.”
  • Aloysius Gonzaga (a Church Father, though not an ancient one, living from 1568–1591) taught that when the soul leaves the body, it is accompanied and consoled by its guardian angel so that the soul can present itself confidently before the judgment seat of God.

The angels escort us upward toward Heaven and God’s judgment seat:

  • John Chrysostom says, “If we need a guide in passing from one [earthly] city to another, how much more so will the soul need someone to point the way when she breaks the bonds of the flesh and passes on to the future life.”
  • Ephrem sees the angels “taking up the soul … and carrying it through the upper air.”
  • Gregory notes that the angels of paradise are asked by the lower angels to permit the soul to enter there.

Strangely, there is little mention of the presence of angels while we are at the judgment itself. Perhaps it is because this is a personal matter, just between our soul and the Lord. It seems likely that each of us will need some purgation. St. Paul speaks of a kind of fire that will both purify and refine us:

Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If what he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as if through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15).

As to this purgation, one ancient source (“The Apocalypse of Paul”) speaks of a man lifted up to a mystical vision of a river of fire; he asks an angel what it might be. The angel tells him that if anyone is impure yet repentant, he is led forward, first to adore God, and then by command of the Lord handed over to Michael and other angels, who “baptize” him in the river of fire and lead him to the City of God. At this point, it would seem that the guardian angel intercedes before God and seeks help among the people on earth to pray for the soul in its care. After the purifications have been completed, the guardian angel leads the soul into Heaven.

The angels in Heaven reserve special attention for virgins and martyrs:

  • Eusebius says that virgins will not walk toward the King, they will be carried by the angels.
  • Of the martyrs, Origen says that the angels look at them with wonder and greet them as conquerors. The angels sing, “Who is this coming from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength?” (Isaiah 63:1)
  • St John Chrysostom says, “The martyrs go up to Heaven surrounded and preceded by the angels as an escort. When they arrive in Heaven all the holy powers from on high run forward and stand before them, trying to see their wounds. They receive them with joy and embrace them. Then they form an immense procession to lead them to the King of Heaven … taking part in mystical songs … leading them into the Holy of Holies.”

Surely, every soul is greeted with joy by the angels and saints, and they are caught up into the great movement and “dance” of love between the members of the Trinity. The Eastern Church calls this movement and experience of love the perichoresis.

To summarize, here are the traditions articulated by the ancient Fathers about angels:

  • The angels help our soul escape the sufferings of death.
  • Our guardian angel accompanies our soul and assures it of a peaceful journey.
  • Our guardian angel defends us against the demons, who want to stop our journey.
  • Our guardian angel leads us to the judgment seat of Christ.
  • Our guardian angel stands along the way of the river of fire and there intercedes as our soul is purified.
  • Our guardian angel bids the angels of the gates of Heaven to open them.
  • The angels of the gates of Heaven welcome our soul.
  • All the angels welcome us with joy.
  • The angels reserve special honor and joy for virgins and martyrs.

What happens to our guardian angel after we die? There is no doctrine, but there is a general consensus:

  • If a soul enters communion with God, it joins its angel in praising the one and triune God for all eternity.
  • If the soul goes to Hell, its angel can only praise God’s divine justice and holiness.
  • It is not clear whether our guardian angel takes up other souls or duties after we die. However, given the vast number of them (myriad), it seems unlikely. Perhaps in the case of a soul that departs to Hell (where the angel surely cannot go), its guardian angel is assigned to a new soul, but this is pure speculation.

This is how the angels care for us at the hour of our death.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Angels and Our Death

A Grief Observed

I like many of you am grieving these days. I will not speak directly to it here, but I think you know why I am grieving.

I don’t do grief well. But I have learned to study it in others and thus find my way.

My father died more than 10 years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those boxes. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother’s, who died about two years before he passed away.

I discovered many things that moved me. As I read through the various papers, I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that others bear. In particular, I was struck by the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (A photo of my father and sister is at right).

My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word until she was well past two, and even then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. The counselor at her elementary school spoke of Mary Anne as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care for her by the time she was six.

Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share here, but Mary Anne was deeply troubled. By age 13, she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches during which she was stable, but soon “the voices” would return, as would the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and attempts at suicide.

Through all of this, my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she got the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated much correspondence with insurance companies, state mental health officials, and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, during her lifetime my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, both financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and desperately wanted a sister, my parents even went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl.  They filed paperwork and came very close, but the plan ultimately fell through. The baby sister we never had …

Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire; she had set fires before when the “voices” told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained that there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died—a grief observed.

My father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file:

Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage
.

And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne, I could not help but moved, too, by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three sons, from the most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true that there were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister—It was a grief observed.

After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse, causing her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well; she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away for only a brief moment, going into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching, when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods—In her death it was another a grief observed, it was her grief.

My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble; the searching on a dark, frigid, and stormy night; the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed, he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He, too, was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died in 2007, literally and figuratively of a broken heart—a grief observed.

All these thoughts swept over me as I looked through this file labeled simply, “Mary Anne.” I too am grieving

There is an old spiritual that says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our troubles. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that refers to those who have died in the Lord: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)

For my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord but who died with grief, I pray that this text has already been fulfilled, and that they now enjoy that everything is new—a grief observed no longer.

Requiescant in pace

I made this video on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.

And Death Is Gain: A Reflection on the Proper Christian Sense of Death

This is the third in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Yesterday we pondered the fear of death and some understandable reasons for it, but we also considered how a lack of lively faith can lead to a fear of death that is unchristian. As St. Paul admonishes regarding death,

We do not want you to … grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thess 4:13-14).

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. 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 by the fact that almost no one speaks publicly of their longing to depart this life and be with God. I suspect that 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 or even eliminated. I suppose that when the struggles of this life are minimized, fewer people long to leave it and go to Heaven. They set their sights, hopes, and prayers on having things be better here. “God, please give me better health, a better marriage, more money, a promotion at work.” In other words, “Make this world an even better place for me and I’ll be perfectly content to stay right here.”

Longing to be with God was more evident in the older prayers, many of which were written just a few generations ago. Consider, for example, the well-known Salve Regina and note (especially in the words I have highlighted in bold) this longing.

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 towards us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

This prayer acknowledges in a 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—it simply expresses a longing to go 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 churchgoers.

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 of and aversion to dying, but a Christian should have a deepening thirst for God that begins to erode this. St. Francis praised God for sister bodily death, which no one can escape (Canticum Fratris Solis). And why not praise God for death? It is what ultimately brings us home.

In regard to death as gain, St. Ambrose had this to say in a meditation on the occasion of his brother’s death:

Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.

We see that death is gain, life is loss. Paul says: For me life is Christ, and death a gain. What does “Christ” mean but to die in the body, and receive the breath of life? Let us then die with Christ, to live with Christ.

We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body. It must soar above earthly lusts to a place where they cannot come near, to hold it fast. It must take on the likeness of death, to avoid the punishment of death.

The law of our fallen nature is at war with the law of our reason and subjects the law of reason to the law of error. What is the remedy? Who will set me free from this body of death? The grace of God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord (taken from a book by St. Ambrose, bishop, on the death of his brother, Satyrus (Lib. 2, 40. 41. 46. 47. 132. 133)).

As for me, I will say it: I long to leave this world one day and go home to be with God. I am not suicidal and I love what I do here, but I can’t wait to be with Him. I don’t mind getting older because it means I’m that much closer to home. In our youth-centered culture, people (women, especially) are encouraged to be anxious about getting older. When I hit forty, I said, “Hallelujah, I’m closer to home.” Now at 56, 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!

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 hearts, if we are believers, 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: How do you see death? Do you long for Heaven? Do you long to depart this world and be with God? I know you want to finish raising your children first, but do you rejoice as the years tick by and the goal becomes closer? A prayer in the Roman Missal says,

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 (Collect, 21st Sunday of the Year).

I close with some words from 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 (Psalm, 27:4, 8-9).

As you listen to this spiritual, think about the harsh conditions endured by the slaves who wrote it:

On the Fear of Death

This is the second in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

For the faithful, the day we die is the greatest day of our life on this earth. Even if some final purifications await us, the beatific vision for which we long lies just ahead; our exile in this valley of tears is ended.

Is calling the day we die the greatest day of our life too strong a statement? I have seen some fellow Christians wince at this statement. In this age of emphasis on worldly comforts, medicine, and the secular, we rarely speak of Heaven—or Hell for that matter. I wonder if we have lost some of our longing for Heaven and cling too strongly to the trinkets of this life.

At the funeral of a relative several years ago, I was approached by a friend of the family. She was an unbeliever, a self-described secular humanist, and she made the following comment to me: “Perhaps there is Heaven for the faithful who believe that there is life after death, and perhaps, then, for them the day they die is the greatest day of their life, but I do not observe that Christians live as if they believe this. It seems to me that they are as anxious as anyone else about dying and earnestly seek to avoid death just as much as anyone else.”

It was a very interesting observation, one that I found mildly embarrassing even though I quickly thought of some legitimate explanations. Even after giving her some of those explanations, some of the embarrassment lingered as to the kind of witness we Christians sometimes fail to give to our most fundamental values. Based on her remark—and I’ve heard it before—most of us Christians don’t manifest a very ardent longing for Heaven.

There are, of course, some legitimate reasons that we do not rush towards death; there are also some less legitimate ones. Here are some legitimate and understandable reasons that we may draw back from dying and may not at first think of the day we die as the greatest day of our life:

  1. There is a natural fear of dying that is part of our physical makeup and, it would seem, hard-wired into our psyche as well. Every sentient being on this planet, man or animal, has a strong instinct for survival. Without this instinct, strongly tied to both hunger and sexual desire, we might not only die as individuals but as a species. It also drives us to look to the future, as we work to ensure the survival, even thriving, of our children and those who will come after us. It is a basic human instinct that we ought not to expect to disappear, because it has necessary and useful aspects.
  2. We would like to finish certain important things before we die. It makes sense, for example, that parents would like to see their children well into adulthood. Parents rightly see their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence, we cling to our life here not just for our own sake, but because others depend upon us.
  3. The Christian is called to love life at every stage. Most of us realize that we are called to love and appreciate what we have here, for it is the gift of God. To so utterly despise this world that we wish only to leave it manifests a strange sort of ingratitude. It also shows a lack of understanding that life here prepares us for the fuller life that is to come. I remember that at a low point in my own life, afflicted with anxiety and depression, I asked the Lord to please end my life quickly and take me home out of this misery. Without hearing words, I felt the Lord’s silent rebuke: “Until you learn to love the life you have now, you will not love eternal life. If you can’t learn to appreciate the glory of the gifts of this life, then you will not and cannot embrace the fullness of eternal life.” Indeed, I was seeing eternal life merely in terms of relief or escape from this life, rather than as the full blossoming of a life that has been healed and made whole. We don’t embrace life by trying to escape from it. A healthy Christian attitude is to love life as we have it now, even as we yearn and strive for a life that we do not yet fully comprehend: a life that eye has not seen nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
  4. We seek to set our life in order to some degree before we face judgment. While it is true that we can procrastinate, there is a proper sense of wanting time to make amends and to prepare to meet God.
  5. We fear the experience of dying. Dying is something none of us has ever done before and we naturally tend to fear the unknown. Further, most of us realize that the dying process likely involves some degree of agony. Instinctively and understandably, we draw back from such things.

Even Jesus, in His human nature, recoiled at the thought of the agony before Him—so much so that He sweat blood and asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible. Manfully, though, He embraced His Father’s will, and our benefit rather than His own. Still, in His humanity, He did recoil at the suffering soon to befall Him.

Despite this hesitancy to meet death, for a faithful Christian the day we die is the greatest day of our life. While we ought to regard the day of our judgment with sober reverence, we should go with joyful hope to the Lord, who loves us and for whom we have longed. That day of judgment, awesome though it is, will for the future saint disclose only that which needs final healing in purgation, not that which merits damnation.

We don’t hear much longing for our last day on this earth or for God and Heaven. Instead, we hear fretting about how we’re getting older. We’re anxious about our health, even the natural effects of aging. And there are such grim looks as death approaches! Where is the joy one might expect? Does our faith really make a difference for us or are we like those who have no hope? Older prayers referred to life in this world as an exile and expressed a longing for God and Heaven, but few of today’s prayers or sermons speak this way.

Here are some of the not-so-legitimate reasons that we may draw back from dying:

  1. We live comfortably. While comfort is not the same as happiness, it is very appealing. It is also very deceiving, seductive, and addictive. It is deceiving because it tends to make us think that this world can be our paradise. It is seductive because it draws and shifts us our focus away from the God of comforts to the comforts of God. We would rather have the gift than the Giver. It is addictive because we can’t ever seem to get enough of it; we seem to spend our whole life working toward gaining more and more comforts. We become preoccupied by achieving rather than working toward our truest happiness, which is to be with God in Heaven.
  2. Comfort leads to worldliness. Here, worldliness means focusing on making the world more comfortable, while allowing notions of God and Heaven to recede into the background. Even the so-called spiritual life of many Christians is almost wholly devoted to prayers asking to make this world a better place: Improve my health; fix my finances; grant me that promotion. While it is not wrong to pray about such things, the cumulative effect, combined with our silence on more spiritual and eternal things, gives the impression that we are saying to God, “Make this world a better place and I’ll just be happy to stay here forever.” What a total loss! This world is not the point. It is not the goal, Heaven is. Being with God forever is the goal.
  3. Worldliness makes Heaven and being with God seem more abstract and less desirable. With this magnificent comfort that leads to worldly preoccupation, longing for Heaven and going to be with God recedes into the background. Today, few speak of Heaven or even long for it. They’d rather have that new cell phone or the cable upgrade with the sports package. Some say that they never hear about Hell in sermons, and in many parishes (though not in mine, thank you), regrettably, that is the case. They almost never hear about Heaven, either (except in some cheesy funeral moments that miss the target altogether and make Heaven seem trivial rather than a glorious gift to be sought). Heaven just isn’t on most people’s radar, except as a vague abstraction for some far off time—certainly not now.

This perfect storm of comfort and worldliness leads to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. That may be why, when I say that the day we die is the greatest day of our life, or that I’m glad to be getting older because I’m getting closer to the time when I can go home to God, or that I can’t wait to meet Him, people look at me strangely and seem to wonder whether I need therapy.

No, I don’t need therapy—at least not for this. I’m simply verbalizing the ultimate longing of every human heart. Addiction to comfort has deceived and seduced us such that we are no longer in touch with our heart’s greatest longing; we cling to passing things. I would argue (as did my family friend) that we seem little different from those who have no hope. We no longer witness to a joyful journey to God that says, “I’m closer to home. Soon and very soon I am going to see the King. Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world. I’m going home to be with God!”

There are legitimate, understandable reasons for being averse to dying, but how about even a glimmer of excitement from the faithful as we see that our journey is coming to an end? St. Paul wrote the following to the Thessalonians regarding death: We do not want you to be like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Do we witness to the glory of going to be with God or not? On the whole, it would seem that we do not.

The video below features a rendition of the hymn “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest.” Here is a brief passage from the lyrics:

The golden evening brightens in the West,
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise most blest. Alleluia!

The Mystery of Life and Death

This is the first in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Note: I wrote this post prior to the terrible shooting that occurred Sunday in Texas. Once again we are confronted with terrible violence and the specter of sudden death. Please offer your prayers for those who have died and their families.

As we begin here a series on the Four Last Things, a shooting like this confronts us not only with the death and life, but also the mystery of iniquity. In reading this, I hope you will keep in mind that my remarks here speak of death that awaits us all at a time and in a manner not of our own control. Please also remember this post was not written as a response to the Texas shooting and I do not propose it as an explanation, or commentary on that terrible shooting. Rather it is a commentary on the deep mystery of life and of death.

*     *     *

You are going to die and you don’t get to say when or how. I say this at every funeral, both to those present and to myself. This solemn reminder is hard to process. It is one thing to assent to this obvious truth intellectually, but it is another thing to internalize it in our depths and really know what it means.

What is death? Some speak of heartbeats that stop or brain waves that cease, but that is not what death is. The cessation of vital indicators is the effect of death, not death itself.

Part of the mystery of death is that it is presupposed by another equally deep and mysterious question: What is life? Some say that life is organized energy, but this answer also misses the mark. It describes what life does, not what it is.

The force we call life is mysterious. We see its effects. We know when it is present and when it is gone, but we do not know exactly what it is. Just because we have a word for something doesn’t mean we understand it. Similarly, death is mysterious. I have been at the bedside of parishioners and my own loved ones at the moment of death and I cannot adequately articulate how strangely baffling it is. There is labored breathing; sometimes there are nervous twitches. Occasionally some words are spoken. Then, suddenly, there is a great stillness. The mysterious force that we call life has departed; the soul, the animating principle of living things, is gone.

I remember looking at my sister, my father, and my mother as each lay in the casket. They were there and yet they were not. When I looked at my mother, she seemed alive; I fully expected her to look at me and tell me to comb my hair or that she loved me—but she was not there. Her body had lost that mysterious spark and force we call life. Her soul had departed.

Looking at my father’s still body in the hospital room where he died was overwhelming. He had been a giant in my life. He still looms large in my memory; his voice rings in my soul. But there he was lying still in that hospital bed—and yet he was not there. Something deeply mysterious had happened. The hidden, mysterious life force of his soul was gone even though there seemed to have been no change in the appearance of his body.

Sadly, I have had to have several of my pets put down over the years. In those cases, too, the mystery of life and death is evident. An animal is alive one moment and then suddenly grows still. Even with plants and trees, I have seen them healthy and green only to be astonished when they die. What happened? The life is gone; a mysterious, organizing principle and force has departed—but what it is we do not know. We do not see death, only its effects.

I am overwhelmed in the face of death, at the mystery of it and the mystery of what has departed: life, a force that cannot be seen or measured, that does not tip the scales of scientists or involve our senses but that is nonetheless very real.

Especially in its inception, life is mysterious. Consider an acorn. In appearance, it is not so different from a small stone. Yet if you were to put both in the soil, the stone would sit there forever and do nothing; the acorn, though has a mysterious spark, a life force in or around it that springs forth to become a mighty oak. What is that spark? Where is it? An acorn has it but a stone does not. Why? Only God really knows.

It was my father who first taught me of the mystery of life. When I was a child, he told me that one of the deepest experiences of his life had occurred when he was about my age:

It had suddenly occurred to him, coming into his mind like a bolt out of the blue, that he existed. He cried out, “I exist!” and then grew silent in astonishment.

He said that ever since that moment he had never ceased to be amazed and awed at the mysterious fact of his existence. Indeed, it is an awesome mystery. Why do I exist? Why do you exist? Why is there anything at all?

As my Father grew silent in amazement, so must I. I have already said too much. The word mystery comes from the Greek muein, meaning to shut the mouth or close the eyes. As we begin a meditation on the four Last Things, (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), ponder with awe and reverential silence the great mystery of life and death.

Tomorrow I will discuss some of the more practical aspects of death.

A Meditation on the Swift Brevity of Life, as Seen in a Video

blog7-24The short video below shows the span of one woman’s life, some seventy years in less than two minutes. How quickly she moves through the stages of her life, from infancy to her golden years!

My mind drifted back to a photo album my father once assembled not long before his death. In the frontispiece he inscribed a passage from Psalm 103:

But as for man, his days are like the grass,
or as the flower of the field.
The wind blows and he is gone,
And his place never sees him anymore.

Indeed, our lives do pass swiftly. I often think about the many men who once lived in my old rectory, this place that never sees them anymore. One day I, too, will be swept from here, becoming a distant memory peering out from some old pictures in the archive.

In Psalm 90 there are some other painfully beautiful lines:

O Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to the next.
Before the mountains were born
or the earth or the world brought forth,
you are God, without beginning or end.

You turn men back to dust
and say, “Go back, sons of men.”
To your eyes a thousand years
are like yesterday, come and gone,
no more than a watch in the night.

You sweep men away like a dream,
like the grass which springs up in the morning.
In the morning it springs up and flowers:
by evening it withers and fades. …

Our life is over like a sigh.
Our span is seventy years,
or eighty for those who are strong.

Make us know the shortness of our life
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Lord, relent! Is your anger forever?
Show pity to your servants.

In the morning, fill us with your love;
we shall exult and rejoice all our days.
Give us joy to balance our affliction
for the years when we knew misfortune.

Show forth your work to your servants;
let your glory shine on their children.
Let the favor of the Lord be upon us.

Yes, lines like these went through my mind as I viewed this beautiful video—a commercial, really. From the dawn to the twilight of life in just under a minute and a half!

At the end of the video, the woman walks off into the distance as the setting sun casts its orange and gold rays. Here, too, I recalled the moving lines of an old hymn:

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia.

Yes, our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong. Or as the old Douay beautifully put it, The days of our years are threescore and ten. But if in the strong they be fourscore …

Considering Cremation? A Reflection on the Reverent Interment of Cremated Human Remains

Funeral wood urn complete view isolated on pure white background

I have written off and on about some of the problems that are setting up around cremation. Of course there has been very little explicit teaching or information available to Catholics to help them to frame their thinking. To assist modestly in that refelction I wrote the following flyer for my own parish. What follows is the text of that flyer. In case you are interested, I provide it in PDF format here: Considering Cremation?

Some years ago, the Church gave wider permission for cremation and also lifted traditional restrictions on having cremated remains present in the church for funeral Masses.

A pastoral provision – Extending this permission is pastorally understandable, though traditional burial (interment) of the body is still preferred. Very few if any people these days choose cremation for the reasons it had traditionally been forbidden, namely as a denial of the resurrection of the body. Generally, the reasons cremation is chosen today are economic ones, due to the increasingly high cost of traditional burial. However, the cost savings are not as significant as they once were.

Certain recent trends that are problematic – Although the Church recognizes cremation as a fitting and understandable option for Christian Burial, certain recent trends related to cremation are inappropriate and should not be considered fitting. Among these trends is the failure to secure proper interment for the cremated remains by placing them on mantles or in closets, scattering them, dividing them among relatives, or even making jewelry and other keepsakes using them.

Therefore, please consider some of the basic norms from the Church regarding cremation:

The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching (Code of Canon Law No. 1176, 3).

Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites (Order of Christian Funerals no. 413).

The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium (Ibid).

The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires (cf Order of Christian Funerals # 417).

Perhaps the quickest way to summarize these norms is to say that we should treat the cremated remains of a loved one in the same way we would treat his or her body. For, in fact, this is what remains of the body. And just as we would not think to scatter body parts about, or to have one relative take an arm home and another a leg, neither should we do this with the cremated remains. And surely we would not consider melting part of the body down into jewelry or retaining part of it (other than perhaps a lock of hair) as a keepsake. Neither would we fail to bury the body at all.

Basic requirements for reverent interment – The key point is to treat the cremated remains just as we would treat the full body. Reverent handling and proper disposition are essential.

Proper interment of the remains should be sought, meaning either in cemetery grounds or a mausoleum. Most cemeteries these days have special mausoleums (sometimes called columbariums) with small covered and secured niches where the cremated remains can rest. Proper interment should not be delayed. Ideally it should take place the day of the funeral, and if not that day then very shortly thereafter.

Cremated remains should not be scattered or strewn on open ground, in gardens, in forests, or any other place. Neither should they be scattered into the air from a plane or into the sea. The cremated remains should remain intact, in a properly-sealed container, and interred as a single unit.

What about financial hardship? For some families, the choice of cremation is based on financial hardship. This choice often also means that there is no plan or ability for committal or burial of the cremated remains. As a means of providing pastoral support and an acceptable respectful solution to the problem of uninterred cremated remains, Catholic cemeteries offer to inter these remains properly at little or no cost. Some of these offer a common vault in a mausoleum for the interment of cremated remains. The names of the deceased interred there are kept on file, though not usually inscribed on the vault. Other cemeteries maintain an area for the burial of both cremated remains and the bodies of those who cannot afford a gravesite with a personal marker. So the lack of money should not hinder the proper interment of cremated remains.

Conclusion – Cremation, though less ideal than the burial of the body, is permitted by the Church as a pastoral provision and is a needed solution today for increasing numbers of people. However, we ought to be aware of the need to handle cremated remains with the same reverence we have for the full human body. The cremated remains of a human person are not “ashes.” They are human remains and should be regarded as such. One of the last gifts we can give our loved ones is the proper and reverent interment of what remains of the body. This, along with our prayers for their souls, remains a duty and a work of mercy. It should be handled with devotion and all proper reverence.

The "Great Gettin’ Up Morning" as Described in an Unlikely Advent Hymn

120814Here in the heart of Advent, we are considering how prepared we are for the Lord to come again. Either He will come to us or we will go to Him, but either way we must prepare. In today’s post I’d like to consider some teachings about the Day of Judgment, from an Advent hymn that most do not know is an Advent hymn. Tomorrow I would like to consider the great Parousia, wherein the saved enter into glory with the Lord.

Regarding the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, Judgment Day,” I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is the current sequence hymn for Latin Requiem Masses, the Dies Irae. This gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant, and many composers such as Mozart and Verdi set the text to stirring musical compositions.

But the hymn was not in fact composed for funerals. Actually, it was composed, by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century, as an Advent hymn. Yes, that’s right, an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas; it is also about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.

Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will offer an inspiring English translation by W. J. Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin well enough. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae.) I will also offer the scriptural verses that serve as background to the text.

The syllables of this magnificent hymn hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila!  Perhaps at times it is a bit heavy, but at the same time, no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line: Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).

The hymn opens on the Day of Judgment warning that the day will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end to wickedness and lies:

    • Day of wrath and doom impending,
    • Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
    • David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

Yes, all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and all of creation will answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all. Consider two scriptural roots to this first verse:

  1. (Zeph 1:15-18) A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on men, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
  2. (2 Peter 3:10-13) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up … the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!

The “Sibyl” referred to here is most likely the Erythraean Sibyl, who wrote an acrostic on the name of the Christ in the Sibylline Oracles. These will figure prominently in tomorrow’s meditation on the Parousia.

And now the stunning, opening stunning scene of creation. All have been set aghast; our rapt attention turns to Jesus, who has come to judge the living and the dead and the whole world by fire:

    • Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
    • When from heaven the judge descendeth
    • On whose sentence all dependeth!
    • Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
    • Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
    • All before the throne it bringeth.
    • Death is struck and nature quaking,
    • All creation is awaking,
    • To its judge an answer making.
    • Lo the book exactly worded,
    • Wherein all hath been recorded,
    • Thence shall judgment be awarded.
    • When the Judge his seat attaineth,
    • And each hidden deed arraigneth:
    • Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Here, too, many Biblical texts are brought to mind and masterfully united. Here are just a few of them:

  1. (Matt 25:31-33) When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left …
  2. (Matt 24:30-32)  And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty.  And he shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice: and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them.
  3. (Rev 20:12) And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
  4. (Rom 2:4-6) Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works:
  5. Luke 12:3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
  6. 2 Peter 3:14 and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

So, Judgment shall be according to our deeds; whatever is in the Book! Ah, but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. And so our hymn turns to pondering the need for mercy, and appeals to God for that mercy, basing it on the very will of God to save us. Was He not to be called Jesus because He would save us from our sins? (Mt 1:21) Did not God so love the world that He sent His own Son? And did He not come to save rather than condemn? (Jn 3:16-17) Did He not endure great sorrows and the cross itself to save us? Ah, Lord, do not now forsake me as I ponder my last end. Keep me faithful unto death!

    • What shall I frail man be pleading?
    • Who for me be interceding?
    • When the just are mercy needing?
    • King of majesty tremendous,
    • Who does free salvation send us,
    • Font of pity then befriend us.
    • Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
    • Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
    • Leave me not to reprobation.
    • Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
    • On the cross of suffering bought me:
    • Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
    • Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
    • Grant thy gift of absolution,
    • Before the day of retribution.
    • Guilty now I pour my moaning:
    • All my shame and anguish owning:
    • Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.
    • Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    • Through the dying thief forgiven,
    • Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes, there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy. Pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary, since for now we can call on that mercy. For of that day, though there will be wailing and grinding of teeth at a just condemnation, such tears will be of no avail then (Mt 13:42). Please Lord, let me not be with the goats at the left, but with the sheep on the right (Mt 25:33). And in the end, it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. Only you, Jesus, can save me from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10):

    • Worthless are my tears and sighing:
    • Yet good Lord in grace complying,
    • Rescue me from fire undying.
    • With thy sheep a place provide me,
    • From the goats afar divide me,
    • To thy right hand do thou guide me.
    • When the wicked are confounded,
    • Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
    • Call me with thy saints surrounded.
    • Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
    • See like ashes my contrition:
    • Help me in my last condition.

And now comes the great summation: that day is surely coming! Grant me O Lord your grace to be ready; prepare me:

    • Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
    • from the dust of earth returning.
    • Man for judgment must prepare him,
    • Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
    • Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
    • Grant the dead eternal rest.

It is a masterpiece of beauty and truth, if you ask me. Some years ago, I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant ringing through her echoing arches. When I die, please sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the judge of all, and only grace and mercy will see me through. Perhaps the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. Amen.