Blessed Are Those Who Die in the Lord – A Meditation on the Christian Attitude toward Death

Mother Angelica 2'90 - 1
Catholic Standard Photo by Mike Hoyt

The recent death of Mother Angelica provoked the expected saddness at the passing of such a great woman. Indeed, her vivacious and plain-spoken presence has long been missed during these years of her declining health. She called this her time of purgatory and purification. In an extraordinary grace, the Lord called her at 5:00 PM on Easter Sunday, likely the very time at which He was making His first appearances to His disciples at Emmaus and in Jersalem.

For the faithful—and Mother Mary Angelica was surely that—the day we die is the greatest day of our life on this earth. And even if some final purifications await us, the beatific vision for which we long lies just ahead; the 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 when I say this. But in this age of emphasis on worldly comforts, medicine, and the secular, this age in which we rarely speak of Heaven (or Hell), I wonder if we have lost some of our longing for Heaven and cling too strongly to the trinkets of this life. I attended the funeral of the relative of a family friend some years ago. 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 there is life after death. And perhaps, then, to die is the greatest day of their life. But I do not observe that Christians live this way. 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 as legitimate explanations quickly entered my mind. And even after giving her some of those explanations, I must say that 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 reasons. In this post, I’d like to briefly speak to some of these.

Here are some legitimate and understandable reasons that we may draw back from dying, and may not at first think of dying is 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 and physical 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. So this is a basic human instinct that we ought not to expect to disappear, because it has necessary and useful aspects.
  2. Most of us 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 before meeting their demise. Parents rightly see their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence we love life here and cling to it not just for our own sake, but because we understand that others depend on 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 the world that we are almost suicidal and wish only to leave it, manifests a strange sort of ingratitude.

It also manifests 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. And yet, without hearing words, I felt the Lord’s 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 life that is called 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.

Thus a healthy Christian attitude learns 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.

  1. Most of us seek to set our life in order to some degree before we go to face judgment. While it is true that we can procrastinate, there is a proper sense of wanting time to make amends and to prepare in a fitting and growing way to meet God.
  2. It is not necessarily death that we fear, but dying. Dying is something none of us has ever done before and we tend to fear the unknown. Further, most of us realize that dying itself 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, if possible, that the cup of suffering be taken from him. Manfully, though, He embraced His Father’s will, and our benefit rather than His. Still, He did recoil humanly 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. And 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.

But 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 on this earth 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: “Fix my health. Fix my finances. Grant me that promotion.” And while it is not wrong to pray about these things, their cumulative effect, added to 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 point.
  3. Worldliness makes Heaven and being with God seem more abstract and less desirable. With our magnificent comfort that leads to worldly preoccupation, Heaven and any talk of Heaven or going to be with God recedes to the background. In this climate, few speak of Heaven or even long for it. They’d rather just have that new cell phone or the cable upgrade with the sports package. Some say that they never hear about Hell anymore in sermons, and in many parishes (though not in mine, thank you) that is regrettably the case. But it is also true that they almost never of 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 is the perfect storm of comfort and worldliness leading to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. That may be why, when I say that dying is the greatest day of our life, or that I am glad to be getting older because it means I’m getting closer to the time I can go home to God, or that I can’t wait to meet God, people look at me strangely and seem to wonder if I need therapy.

No, I don’t need therapyat least not for this. I am simply expressing 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 does 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, “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 … Going home to live 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? It would seem 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!

Mother Mary Angelica, faithful warrior, rest in peace.