On the”Beauty”of Dying

As a priest it has been my privilege to accompany many on their final journey as they prepare for death. Some have gone quickly others have lingered for years in nursing homes. From a pure worldly perspective death seems little less than a disaster and a cause for great sadness. But from a perspective of faith there is something “beautiful” going on. I know you may think it bold that I describe it this way but in the dying process something necessary and beautiful is taking place. It is born in pain but it brings forth gifts and glory if we are faithful.

In particular I see two scriptures essentailly fulfilled in many who are dying.

  1. And Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). When I walk the halls of nursing homes I behold a rather astonishing thing: Men and women who raised families, ran businesses, protested bravely in the Civil Rights Movement, fought wars, gave sage advice to their children, commanded respect in their workplace and communities, most of these have become like little children. Some can no longer walk, some need to be fed, some cry and need consolation, some hold dolls, many wear diapers, some can no longer talk, many need constant care. “Ah, how tragic,” the world says. But an increasing part of me sees a beauty,  for they are changing and becoming like little children. A kind of innocence is being restored and a complete dependence without which they may never make it to heaven. Now their status as little children is fully evident and theybecome humble enough for heaven. Painful but beautiful, very beautiful. A very dear friend of mine died a couple of years ago. Catherine had been the Pastoral Associate and business manger of the parish of my first pastorate. I depended on her for practically everything and she knew just about everything, having been at the parish for over 50 years. Rather suddenly she came down with a rare and aggressive form of Alzheimer’s disease. Within 6 months of diagnosis she no longer remembered anyone. And yet there was a childlike joy that came over her. She had a favorite doll she hugged close and when I would walk in the room she would light up. She no longer recognized me as far as I could tell but she loved company. And she would sing, without clearly understood words but it seemed a kind of childlike nursery song. A remarkable thing to see. Here was a woman I had so thoroughly depended on now in such a state. But she was happier than I had ever seen her. She had become like a little child and it was clear  that God was preparing her for heaven. That was a gift, though a painful one.  And another great gift was this: Almost to her last day she never failed to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. Long after she had stopped recognizing anyone else she still received communion with great devotion. She might be humming or looking around but as soon as I reached in my pocket for the pyx, she stopped, looked and made the sign of the cross and folded her hands. That was years of training and faithfulness. It was a beautiful testimony of her undying faith in the Eucharist and her last lesson to all of us.
  2. There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, this alone I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze on the beauty of the Lord within his temple.(Psalm 27:4)  Now I suppose most of us who are still healthy and reasonably active would have a hard time really praying this prayer absolutely. The fact is we want a lot of things: a pay increase, creature comforts, good health, for the project we are working to go well, and yes, somewhere in all that, God too and heaven, but later. You understand, heaven can wait. And yet how obtuse our desires can be. It’s really quite strange to want anything more than God and heaven, but, fact is, many struggle to want God more than the things of this earth. Somehow God has to gently purge us of earthly desires so that, little by little, all we want is Him. And here too the dying process is so important and beautiful. Little by little in life we give back to God our abilities, our health, many of our loved ones. And finally we are led to that place in our dying days when we are given the grace to give everything back. I remember my father saying to me in his final weeks, “I just want to be with God.” I heard my grandmother say that too and many other I have accompanied on their final journey,  “I just want to be with God.” And they meant it too. It wasn’t  a slogan now. They had given everything back, their treasure was now in heaven. They had sold all they had for the “pearl of great price.” Now they could sing the words of the old spiritual: “You may have all this world, just give me Jesus.” For just about all of us it will take the dying process to get us to the place where we too can say, “There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, this alone I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze on the beauty of the Lord within his temple.”

And so there it is, the “beauty” of dying. It is a strange and painful beauty to be sure but it is beautiful nonetheless. In an age of euthanasia that sees no purpose, no value in the dying process, we do well to behold and proclaim its strange but true beauty. We ought not fail to recognize the dignity of the dying who fulfill scripture as they make their final passage. Surely we grieve but through faith we also perceive a strange and wonderful beauty.

One of the finest hymns about dying was written by Henry F. Lyte in 1847. He wrote this as he approached his own death from tuberculosis:

  • 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, oh, abide with me.
  • 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.
  • Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
  • Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
  • Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
  • In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

10 Replies to “On the”Beauty”of Dying”

  1. Ditto to the above and thank you for this post. For myself and my family, your timing is impeccable – my family is in the midst of witnessing this process, which can at times, be somewhat overwhelming. I believe this post will help my children, father-in-law and husband understand that the degeneration of their loved one is part of being loved by God.

  2. I once read somewhere that when a person is born with a deadly or disabling condition, it could be received as a reminder, a gift, that not just that person, but also all of us – the whole Body- will one day end our lives with nothing but God and his grace. I guess God grants to some an accelerated “course” on life and to others a long journey.

  3. This is such a beautiful reflection. It reminds me of how I also get to see people’s journeys through death, and sometimes back to life. It never fails to amaze me, and while, say, in a Code I become very goal oriented, afterwards I give thanks to God for calling me to this vocation.

    Thank you for sharing your stories and reflections. It really does mean a lot, and it helps me put new perspective on my own work.

  4. What a fresh and original analysis of growing older. Thank you so much. I will share this with many friends and family. Thank you.

  5. This is a wonderful reflection, Monsignor. The Catholic Church has long been the upholder of the “culture of life”, but it is just as important to remember that we are, in a way, a religion of death. What I mean is that we have the unique ability to recognize beauty in death, just as you said. Martyrdom, suffering, and death are all ways in which we can be born anew in grace and love. We have a powerful message to speak to our culture about death just as we have one about life.

  6. While we waited with our mother’s body for the funeral home to pick it up, my sister mentioned that her older son had told her, “When Oma dies, don’t just spring it on me. Lead up to it so I won’t be so upset.”

    That mention brought to mind the following joke, which I did NOT tell my sister. I surely am wicked enough as it is, given that I even thought of it.

    Guy goes out of town for a couple of weeks, and asks a neighbor to feed his cat, and to check on his mother who lives nearby. A couple of days into the trip:

    Guy: So, how’s Fluffy?
    Neighbor: Fluffy’s dead.
    Guy: *wail* How could you spring it on me like that? You should have said something like the cat is on the roof, and the next time I called say that she hadn’t eaten anything, and maybe I wouldn’t’ve been surprised.
    Neighbor: Oh…sorry.
    Guy: So, how’s Mom?
    Neighbor: Well, she’s on the roof…

  7. Yea dying is beautyful. So much so that we the younger and healthy pack off the aged and/or dying to solitary confinement in old persons homes .
    A person who remembers once told me our grandparents used to keep such persons away from the rest in their own houses. Food would be delivered daily to the infirm. The person delivering the food would use the emptied plates as a sign the infirm was still alive. If the delivered food was found intact that was a sign the person had died. Thence no more deliveries. The body would be left to rot in that house which would be left to collapse. Those were those days.
    Has there been a change? Here where I’m we keep them away from our daily routine. They have to contend with an annual visit across Christmas time. In the course of the year we send them some cash. One important matter we demand of the old is our inheritance from them.’Dad give my share of your land befor you die. i don’t want to quarrel with my brothers over the same’.

    1. Namatsi – Thanks for sharing from where you are. Could you share more? How does the culture explain the only once a year or how does the culture see the aged or the dying and the infirm? How do they see themselves? Is there any consolation or explanation to this suffering?

  8. That was put so well, and very useful, until we die to ourselves, how can we live in Christ? It reminded me of a beautiful prayer the Anchoress posted a while back,

    “May all your expectations be frustrated,
    May all of your plans be thwarted.
    May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
    That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child, and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.”

Comments are closed.