The 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 …
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.
Here 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:
(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 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:
(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 …
(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.
(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.
(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:
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.
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.
When my Father lay dying, I remember that one of the losses I began to grieve was that he was the keeper of many family stories. He was the one who could look at an old family photograph and tell you who they all were and something about each of them. As I saw him lying there, no longer able to talk much, I thought of all the memories stored up in his mind, all the stories, all the people he once knew and had spoken so vividly of.
And not only the family stories, but he was also a great historian and a great wellspring of the classics. He had read all the “Great Books” all of Shakespeare, all of Sacred Scripture, so many other worthy writings, and had memorized many lengthy quotes.
Such an encyclopedic mind, vivid thoughts, vivid memories, the keeper of the family story. And though I knew he’d take it with him in his soul, there was a grief to me that his magnificent mind was now closing to me. I regret I did not more carefully retain all he told me.
Thankfully he had written a family history that stays with us, and all his many photos and family films, that we worked to preserve, stay with us. We his sons, are moving much of this to digital, but it took Dad’s living presence to really bring these things home.
The video below put me in this reflective mind. It is of an old man who lays dying. And in various flashbacks we see his life, his stories, his good moments and tragedies. And then he passes.
I remember a Bible verse my father had jotted down on the frontispiece of a book he was reading at the time of his own father’s death:
But as for man, his days are like the grass, or as the flower that flourishes in the field. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him again. (Psalm 103:16)
Reading that, as a very young teenager, I realized, for the first time that the Bible was very beautiful and I was startled to think that the house in which I was sitting would one day “never see me again.” All the stories, all the memories, gone with the proverbial winds.
The photo at the upper right is the last picture I ever took of my father. He standing in front of the family home. This was taken as he was leaving it for the last time. He moved into a retirement community for a brief while, but he was not long for this world. And, there he is, standing in front of the place that “never sees him again.”
Yes, there is something very precious about our memories, our stories. They are meant to be shared, handed down. But something irreplaceable, dies with each person. A very personal glimpse of history, a very personal story, something that can never be fully shared with anyone, no one but the Lord.
Only the Lord really knows our story, knows it better than we ourselves:
O LORD, you search me and you know me.
You yourself know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down;
you know all my ways through and through.
Before ever a word is on my tongue,
you know it, O LORD, through and through….
For it was you who formed my inmost being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being fashioned in secret
and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me yet unformed;
and all my days were recorded in your book,
before one of them came into being…
at the end I am still at your side… (Ps 139:varia)
Yes, the Lord knows. He knows all about us.
An old spiritual says,Nobody knows the trouble I seen, Nobody but Jesus. For in the end, he is the keeper of every story, my father’s, my own, yours. And whatever is lost in death will be restored a hundredfold, with understanding besides, in the great parousia. Not a story, not a word will be lost, but we shall recover it all, and tell the old, old stories once again.
It is no surprise to learn that, as land values continue to rise, space for cemeteries gets scarce. I have seen more and more mausoleums be built at the local cemeteries, and they are getting taller as the years go on. But the picture to the right really takes the concept to new heights! The picture is The Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica III, a vertical cemetery in Santos, Brazil. It is the world’s tallest cemetery, with burial spaces on 32 floors. There’s also a restaurant, chapel, lagoon and peacock garden. It has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Santos.
I don’t know what to say really. There is nothing wrong with the concept insofar as Catholic teaching goes and perhaps it is a better or more efficient use of land than our current American approach. It just takes some getting used to.
I might have some concerns too in the event of an earthquake or the like. Also, will the building be maintained well once it is full? But that is a problem even with traditional cemeteries. Here in DC we have had several non-Catholic cemeteries that were full and then went into terrible disrepair (eg. Woodlawn, Congressional and Rock Creek) requiring the local community to come to the rescue. Once a cemetery fills and no longer has an income stream it tends to be neglected. Recent laws require cemeteries to establish an endowment to provide for perpetual care. Hopefully that is the case here.
While we are on the topic, a few random thoughts on Christian burial and cemeteries:
Regular visits to cemeteries have declined in recent years. As the practice of praying for the repose of the dead has fallen (shame on us) there are also fewer visits to gravesides. It is true many are busy, but such visits provide us a way to honor those who have preceded us in death, and gives us a context in which to pray for them and remember our own mortality.
When I go to cemeteries I experience a strange kind of peace. As I look about and see all the head stones it occurs to me that all these people had struggles like me. They had worries, joys, successes and failures, gains and losses. Perhaps like me they got all worked up about things from time to time. But all that is over now. If they were faithful they have gone on to God, perhaps by way of purgatory. Nothing here remains for long. We all return to the dust and our soul flies away. Cemeteries give me a kind of perspective that brings peace. An old spiritual says “Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, goin’ home to live with God”
The Church does not encourage but does permit cremation. However, a concern has also arisen as this practice increases. It seems to me that not all families are arranging for immediate burial of the ashes. Too often, long periods of time elapse after the funeral but before interment of the ashes. On a few occasions I have had to call the family and gently remind them of the requirement for proper burial or repose in a mausoleum. When there is a body, burial is soon for obvious reasons. But ashes don’t present the same urgency to many. So the funeral Mass comes and goes and the family says they have arranged burial at a later time. But the phone does not ring and I get busy and forget. Let’s be clear, the fireplace mantle is NOT an appropriate place to retain ashes. Proper burial or placement in a cemetery is required and essential. Neither is it ever appropriate to scatter ashes. No matter how meaningful this may seem, human remains are not to be scattered.
Catholic Cemeteries are preferred for the burial of Catholics because the ground is consecrated. It is true that a priest can bless a grave in any non-Catholic cemetery. But the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery is special. Further, the Catholic practice of regular prayers for the dead are properly observed in Catholic cemeteries. Each year on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (Sept. 15) and also on Memorial Day masses are offered at Catholic cemeteries. Other devotions, such as stations of the cross and rosary processions are also offered and all the dead buried there benefit from the help of these regular prayers. Catholic Cemeteries are special places for Catholics.
If you don’t think this post is an advent theme, it is. For either Christ will come to us or we will go to him. And we have to be ready for that meeting, by God’s grace. Remember to pray for the dead. Prepare also for your own death by regular recourse to confession, Holy Communion every Sunday, daily prayer, daily scripture, repent of your sins and pray to be delivered from a death sudden and unprepared. Requiescant in Pace (May they rest in peace).
Here is the (horrifying) burial of Mozart from the movie Amadeus. It shows Mozart being buried in a pauper’s mass grave and using a borrowed casket. Today, in the Church, we are careful to be sure the poor receive more decent burial and Catholic Cemeteries of Washington does provide graves for the truly indigent. A scene like this would not happen today. The music sung in the backgorund is from Mozart’s own Requiem: Lacrimosa dies illa, qua resurget ex favilla, judicandus homo reus. Huic ergo parce, Deus, pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Amen. (Ah that day of tears, when from the ashes rises guilty man for judgment. Then, spare him O God, kind Jesus, grant them rest).
As we wrap up November and the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgement, heaven and hell), A classic meditation of St. Cyprian comes to mind. It is a meditation on a fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to truly have God, and the things waiting for us in heaven, as our highest priority.
St. Cyprian has in mind the Book of James, and also the Epistle of St John. Yes, surely these dramatic texts are present in his mind as he writes. Hence, before pondering St. Cyprian, it may be good to reference these pounding and uncompromising texts:
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God…..Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:4,8)
The Lord Jesus, of course, had first said,
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matt 6:24)
And St. John also adds:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
Nothing is perhaps so difficult to imagine, especially for us moderns, as being wholly free of the enticements of the world. These texts, so adamant and uncompromising, shock us by their sweeping condemnation of “the world.” Who can really say that they have no love for the world?
We may perhaps find temporary refuge in some distinctions. For, while the adulterous love of attachment, and preference for the world, over its creator is certainly to be condemned. Yet, surely the love of appreciation for what is good, true and beautiful in the world is proper. Does not St. Paul speak of those things which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim 4:3-5).
Our distinction, though proper, cannot provide most of us full cover however, since we also know that the adulterous love of this is still aplenty in our soul, whatever noble love we also have. And the lust of the world is more than willing to sacrifice the good, the true and the beautiful, not to mention God himself, for lower pleasures.
Only God can free us. And while some are gifted to gain remarkable poverty of spirit long before departing this world, for most of us, it is the dying process itself that God uses ultimately to free us from the lust of this world. Slowly we die to this world as we see our skills, strength and looks begin to fade in late middle age. As old age sets in we say farewell to friends, perhaps a spouse, perhaps the home we owned. Our eyesight, hearing and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults, and complications begin to set in.
For those who are faithful, (and I have made this journey with many an older parishioner and family member), it begins to occur that what matters most is no longer here; that our true treasure is in heaven and with God. A gentle longing for what is above grows. Slowly the lust of this world dies, for those who are faithful and let God do his work.
Yet too many, even of those who believe, resist this work of God. While a natural fear of death is to be expected, too many live in open denial and resistance of what is inevitably coming. Our many medicines and creature comforts help maintain the illusion that this world can hold, and some people tighten their grip on it. A natural fear of death is supplanted by a grasping fear, rooted in a lack of faith and little desire for God.
And this is where we pick up with St. Cyprian:
How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world!
Instead we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.
And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ.
The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?
John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live for ever.
Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be.
Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.
We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.
What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!
There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.
My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently. (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314)
As November ends, remember the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Prepare eagerly to meet God, run toward him with joy and confidence, calling on Him who made you for himself. Death will surely come. Why not let it find you joyful, victorious and confident; eager to go and meet God?
Pope John Paul, and also Pope Benedict, have referred to Western Culture as a “culture of death.” Fundamentally what this means is that, when confronted with human difficulties, the offered solution is increasingly, the death or non-existence of the person with the problem.
To illustrate this, I was recently talking with teenagers on the sin of abortion. One of the students said that she supported abortion because babies born to young mothers are more likely to have birth defects or diseases, and many of them will live in poverty. Thus it is best if they are aborted. I responded,
“Don’t you think that death is a strange therapy? What if you went to the doctor and he said to you, ‘You are obviously alive now, but someday, in the future you might loose a limb, or get sick, or you might loose your job and have to go on welfare, so I am going to kill you right now, here in my office.’ What do you think of this? Isn’t death a horrible and strange therapy? You would probably respond that you would like to live and take your chances.”
The young student silently reflected on the application I had made of her theoretically “compassionate” reason for abortion. I chose not to press her on it and we moved on with the discussion, but I think all in the room got the main point that death is a strange and horrifying therapy, even if it masquerades as compassion.
Yet our culture increasingly proposes death as the solution for many problems. If the infant in the womb is deformed, diagnosed with an inclination to disease, down syndrome or any poor prenatal diagnosis, the solution for many is to kill the child. Currently 90% of children in the womb who show a likelihood of Down Syndrome are aborted.
At the other end of life too, death, masquerading as compassion, is also evident. Euthanasia, or physician assisted suicide is more and more being considered a credible kind of compassion. But here too, death is a very strange and horrifying therapy. Really it is no therapy at all.
The Catholic Bishops of the United States just issued a policy statement on the question of physician assisted suicide entitled, To Live Each Day With Dignity. I want to present just a few excerpts here for our consideration.
The bishops begin by exposing the strange results of this false compassion:
The idea that assisting a suicide shows compassion and eliminates suffering is…misguided. It eliminates the person….
Pretty clear. You will know false compassion by it’s fruit: death, by the fact that it does not really eliminate suffering, it really eliminates the person. Death is not therapy. The bishops go on to say,
True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem. [Emphasis mine].
The false compassion of the culture of death in which we live also strips certain human beings of dignity(though it claims the opposite), since in effect it declares that their life is not worth living. Here again the Bishops say it very well:
By rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, the government implicitly communicates the message….that they may be better off dead. Thus the bias of too many able-bodied people against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is embodied in official policy. This biased judgment is fueled by the excessively high premium our culture places on productivity and autonomy, which tends to discount the lives of those who have a disability or are dependent on others. If these persons say they want to die, others may be tempted to regard this not as a call for help but as the reasonable response to what they agree is a meaningless life. Those who choose to live may then be seen as selfish or irrational, as a needless burden on others, and even be encouraged to view themselves that way.
This could not be better said. The claim of the “Right to Die” Movement that it is all about dignity is once again shown to result in precisely the opposite. For, in order to attribute this supposed dignity to some, it strips many more of the dignity they have. The poor, the disabled, the chronically and terminally ill (we are all terminal), are said, increasingly, to have lives not worth living. It would be better for them (us?) to be dead. Really, says who? Does it really bestow dignity on them for us to speak in this manner. And if some DO suffer anxiety or depression over their state, is killing them really to be considered a legitimate or credible therapy? Is this dignity?
The Bishops go on to beautifully remind us that the dying process may well be one of the most important and fruitful times in our life if we face it with faith. I have surely learned this in working with the dying. I experienced it most powerfully with my father, as he lay dying. Some very important things happened for him (and me) during those months. The dying process is often a gift in a strange package, and it is anything but meaningless. In fact, it is one of the most meaningful times of life. To short-circuit this by suicidal notions, or false compassion, is a terrible misunderstanding of the truth and grace available to the dying and those who care for them. The bishops say,
Respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome. Nor does it mean we should deprive suffering patients of needed pain medications….with the laudable purpose of simply addressing that pain (CCC, no. 2279).
[E]ffective palliative care can enhance the length as well as the quality of a person’s life. It can even alleviate the fears and problems that lead some patients to the desperation of considering suicide. Effective palliative care also allows patients to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves.
No one should dismiss this time as useless or meaningless. Learning how to face this last stage of our earthly lives is one of the most important and meaningful things each of us will do, and caregivers who help people through this process are also doing enormously important work.
Killing by assisted suicide is no therapy at all, it is killing. It is snatching from God’s hands the authority that is rightfully His. It is making arbitrary, and often self-serving, judgements about whose life is worth living, and whose life really “matters.” This is not dignity, it is not legitimate therapy, and it is not compassion to kill the patient.
It IS compassion to love the patient, alleviate pain, assist with comfort, show patience and understanding, listen and console.
The Bishops conclude well:
Jewish and Christian moral traditions have long rejected the idea of assisting in another’s suicide. Catholic teaching views suicide as a grave offense against love of self, one that also breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with family, friends, and God (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 2281). To assist another’s suicide is to take part in “an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 66). Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, know that suicide is a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent. They realize that allowing doctors to prescribe the means for their patients to kill themselves is a corruption of the healing art. It even violates the Hippocratic Oath that has guided physicians for millennia: “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan.”
One of the great and stately hymns of the Protestant musical heritage is “Abide With Me.” I love to play it at the organ, its rich chordal progression, and counterpoint in the pedal, create a very moving experience. The words too are a minor masterpiece that are a prayer of one approaching death with faith.
The author, Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) was an Anglican pastor in Devonshire England, for 23 years. In 1844, Three years before his death Lyte was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Despite this, he continued to work hard and was known to say, “It is better to wear out, than to rust out.” But his physical condition continued to deteriorate, until finally on September 4, 1847, at 54 years of age, he stood in his pulpit to deliver his farewell message. It is said, He was so weak that he almost crawled to the pulpit.
Later that day he retired to his room and wrote the words to this hymn: Abide With Me, as he meditated on the death he knew would soon approach. Advised by doctors to leave the cold, damp, coastal weather of England, he left for the Mediterranean. He died en route. A fellow clergyman who was with Henry during his final hours reported that Henry’s last words were: “Peace! Joy!”
Abide With Me was set to music by William H. Monk (1823-1889), and was played at Henry Lyte’s funeral service.
I have, when the situation was right, shared this him with the dying. Not all have fully accepted that they are dying, but for those who have reached the stage of acceptance, and when death seems certain, this hymn is very powerful, personal and poignant. It is a deeply personal prayer to the Lord to shepherd me through the valley of death and across chilly Jordan into the Promised Land of Heaven. As Catholics we can also see how it points to Jesus’ abiding presence in the sacraments and the liturgies celebrated for the dying.
The hymn opens with the approach of death described as the deepening darkness of eventide. At some point nothing, and no one in this secular world can help any longer. Only the Lord can help shepherd us through the valley of the shadow of death. And so the plea goes up: Abide with me.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The second verse poetically describes life as a “little day.” For in the end, how brief and how swift this life passes. And as it passes, all earth’s glories and joys seem so little. I have seen the dying with that look in their eye as they look through and beyond me. They see something and someone greater now.
As my Father lay dying and could barely talk in his final days he said, “I just want to be with God.” It was his way of saying, “Abide Lord with me!”
The third verse too begs of the Lord, not a mere passing word, but an abiding, a lasting presence, filled with patience, familial love and a mercy that stoops to raise us up to joys unending
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Not a brief glance, I beg a passing word;
But as Thou dwell with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
The fourth and fifth verses amount to a plea for mercy based on God’s constant mercy of the past. It is not unlike the mercy verses of the Dies Irae which say: 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? Through the sinful Mary shriven and the dying thief forgiven, thou to me a hope has given! But here Lyte makes the basis even more personal as he appeals to the Lord mercy for him in the past.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
The sixth verse calls to mind that at death’s approach some temptations increase. Perhaps it is despair, perhaps it is anger at God, perhaps we suffer unwillingly or with resentment, perhaps there is the tendency to be impatient with those who seek to help or console.
Here are some of the reasons we anoint the sick and dying. Surely we pray for healing, but we also seek, by the Lord’s mercy to stave off the effects of illness that can draw us into temptation.
We also pray that one will courageously face death and, by facing it, see in it no sting, but only victory in the Lord.
It is the abiding presence of Lord that is communicated to the soul in the anointing: Through this holy anointing, may the Lord, in his love and mercy, heal you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Yes, for the dying: may the Lord abide with you in these last and difficult moments.
Holy Communion too, for those physically able to receive it also brings the Lord’s abiding presence. And so the hymn beautifully says:
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Yes, here is the cross. But it is the tree of victory, for it is the key that unlocks heaven. And soon it’s “Friday” gives way, after the passage through judgement and purgatory, to an eternal Sunday for those who die with faith. Only the cross of Jesus can perfect us and bring forth the endless day of glory where we will abide for ever with God.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.