"….and Death is Gain" – A Meditation on the Christian View of Death

In the month of November we remember the souls of the faithful departed and our obligation to pray for them . November and into the early part of Advent is also a part of the Church Calendar when we begin to ponder the last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. In the Northern hemisphere the days grow shorter and in regions further north, the once green trees and fields shed their lively green, and after the brief golden gown of autumn, a kind of death overtakes the landscape. Life changes, we grow older and one day we will die.

It is fitting at this time that we ponder the passing glory of things and set our gaze on heaven where joys will never end. There is a beautiful prayer in the Roman Missal that captures this disposition:

Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis, id disiderare quod promittis, ut, inter mundanas varietates, ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.

O God, who makes the minds of the faithful to be of one accord, grant to your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the changes of this world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are. (21st Sunday of the year)

So welcome to November. Summer is past and Winter beckons. Ponder with me that this world is passing. And I have a question to ask you. How do you see death? Do you long to one day depart this life and go home to God? St. Paul wrote to the Philippians of his longing to leave this world and go to God. He was not suicidal, he just wanted to be with God:

Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit. (Phil 1:20-23)

I am struck that, these days, almost no one publically speaks of their longing to depart this life and be with God. I suspect it is because we live very comfortably, at least in the affluent West. Many of the daily hardships with which even our most recent ancestors struggled have been minimized and even eliminated. I suppose that when the struggles of this life are minimized, fewer people consciously long to leave this world and go to heaven. They set their sights and their hopes and prayers on having things HERE be better. “O God, please give me better health, a better marriage, a financial blessing, a promotion at work….” In other words, “Make this world an even better place for me and I’m content to stay here, rather than to long to go there to heaven.”

Longing to be with God was more evident in the older prayers, many of them written just a few generations ago. Consider for example the well known Salve Regina and note (especially in the words I have bolded) the longing to leave this world and be with God:

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope. To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To Thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, Thine Eyes of Mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show us the Blessed Fruit of thy Womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

The prayer acknowledges in a very realistic and sober way that life here can be very difficult. Rather than ask for deliverance from all of it, for this world is an exile after all, the prayer simply expresses a longing to come to heaven and be worthy to see Jesus. It is this longing that I sense is somewhat absent in our modern world, even among regular Church goers.

When was the last time you meditated on heaven? When was the last time you heard a sermon on heaven. I understand that we all have a natural fear and aversion to dying. But for a Christian there should be a deepening thirst for God that begins to erode the fear and aversion to death. St. Francis praised God for Sister bodily death which no one can escape(Canticum Fratris Solis). And why not praise God for it? It is what brings us ultimately home.

As for me, I will say it: I long to leave this world and go home and be with God. I am not suicidal and I love what I do here. But I can’t wait to be with God. I don’t mind getting older, because it means I’m closer to home. Another day’s journey and I’m so glad, one day closer to home! In our youth centered culture people (especially women) are encouraged to be anxious about getting older. As for me, when I hit forty, I said, “Hallelujah, I’m halfway home (err…as far as I know)!”  Now as I get ready for fifty I rejoice even more. I’m glad to be getting older. God has made me wiser and he is preparing me to meet him. I can’t wait.

A couple of years ago a woman here in the parish walked into a meeting a few minutes late. It was obvious she had been rushing to get there and entered, quite out of breath. No sooner had she entered than she fell headlong on the ground. She had died instantly of a heart attack, was dead before she hit the ground. We rushed to revive her, but to no avail. God had called Wynette unto himself. I remember saying at her funeral, “For us it was one of the worst days of our life, but for Wynette it was the greatest day of her life.” God for whom she longed had drawn her to himself. She had died hurrying to God’s house and you know I had to quote the old spiritual that says, O Lord, I done what you told me to do….unto that morning when the Lord said, “Hurry!”

Even a necessary stopover in Purgatory cannot eclipse the joy of the day we die. There will surely be the suffering that precedes our death. But deep in our heart, if we are a believer, must ring forth the word: “Soon!” An old spiritual says, “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world; going home to live with God.”

So I ask you again, do you long for heaven? Do you long to depart this world and be with God? You say, “Yes, but first let me raise my kids!”  I know, but do you rejoice as the years tick by and goal becomes closer? Do you long to be with God?

I close with the words of Psalm 27:

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD….My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me.

 As you listen to this Spiritual, consider the harsh conditions that the slaves who wrote it endured:

19 Replies to “"….and Death is Gain" – A Meditation on the Christian View of Death”

  1. I long to be with God too, but what good is that if I don’t desire to take you all with me. What a selfish way to die. Thatl’s why I’m still here. I don’t want to go by myself. ‘EVANGILIZE’L

  2. What a lovely reflection. Since joining the Church, I too, have had a longing to meet my Maker, but in slow steps. What started as a simple wish is a yearning. I wonder whether being chronically ill has something to do with it. I have young children to raise, but now I know that when it is my time, God will take care of everything that needs taking care of. When he calls me, I shall have no worries, I will gladly go to meet Him. In the meantime, I must do His work.

    1. I should add that as a child I wanted to be close to Jesus and was often considered morbid for having death on my mind … but I didn’t think of it as death, rather as walking straight into his waiting arms.

  3. I can relate so much to you, Vijaya. I only converted 3 years ago, but felt this longing 10 years ago when my chronic illness hit hard. I also have young children, and while I would like to raise them, I know that they will have God’s provision whether I am here or not and in some ways, I could watch over them and pray for them even better after death than I can here.

    I agree that our prosperity in the West tends to deaden us to life’s pains. But I suspect another reason this isn’t talked about is that if it ever is, the person expressing these feelings is usually interpreted as being suicidal.

    1. I noticed that the Monsignor clarifed that he is not suicidal several times. It is sad people misinterpret our statements if we long to meet Jesus. Peace to you, Sarah.

  4. This is good. And fortunately enough for all, I don’t have much time to comment. I am not at all a morbid or depressive personality, but I think about death, often. My own, my wife’s, my children’s.

    I do not so much say, “Yes, but first let me raise my kids.” Rather, it is something like, “They need me.” But that is only relatively true. Jesus long ago laid down that there is only one necessary thing, and it ain’t me. The one thing my children need is to be raised at the feet of Jesus and, with respect to this purpose, I am not indispensible. [I recall one priest who would often remark, that if you think you are so important drive past a cemetery and see all the other people at whose death the earth declined to stop spinning.]

    Another protest is, “Lord, do with me as you will, but grant my children life upon the earth.” Again false, if understandable. I cannot imagine losing a child. But, I have to believe there is consolation even for this. The saying is that we grow older and wiser. If only! And I have doubts as to how much what passes for “wisdom” in this world is of any importance to God. If we must become as children to enter the Kingdom, surely they must have some advantage. Having known less of this world, its sorrows as well as its joys, having had less opportunity to stain the white garment that we must one day bring before the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, are they not even more dependent on the mercy of God? This to me has always seemed to be a good position to be in.

  5. I am 72 and seek the Lord in nature, other creatures and those I serve and love. In so many ways I know (not really KNOW) but sense I am in His presence already!

    So, while I do not desire to bring “brief” grief to my loved ones I am ready whenever He says “come unto me”.

    Until then and only because of Him just knowing my life has purpose and therefore meaning is an indescribable blessing far beyond what I deserve.

  6. The only regret I have in dying, is that I will leave my family crying! That is what we use to say in the jungles of Vietnam while we lived in a combat situation daily, hourly. Death could come so quick you would not hear the sound of the weapon that killed you. Death on the mind of an 18 year old infantryman. Will I live to have children, or will I live to see old age? Us Christian soliders had a saying often written on our helmet covers: GOD WALKS POINT FOR ME! I have two Purple Hearts for wounds received in Combat, so I believe the old saying, “everyday above ground is a good day.” But now I am 60, and I see the sands of time running out, 3/4 of my hour glass is empty (based on a 80 year life expectency). My bodily senses want to stay and live cause there seems to be so much to live for, my soul says: “In God alone be at rest my soul (Ps. 62).”

    Christian mediation on death should include how we die. Everyone dies different, my wife’s uncle who recently died, while on his death bed asked; “why pray now, it’s too late?” The cause of his unbelief may have been the assault of the demons coming to sturggle for his soul. Death is ugly, and horrible, it causes great grief at the loss of a loved one. But us Christians know like the seed that is planted in the earth, and brings forth fruit, our mortal bodies will bring forth a spiritual body, glorified in Christ. Christ showed us how to die with dignity, how to keep out eye on the “prize.”

    Life can be cruel, and fate mean. Remember Beethoven went deaf, like a mean joke. Life might give us reasons to question where God is. Christ questioned too, when He asked, “Father, why have You forsaken Me?” The Book of Wisdom (absent from the King James Version) at chapter 3:1-6 says: “But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction, and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For it is before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them, and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.”

    Everyman’s journey through life is a solitary journey, we came into this life alone, and we leave alone. Job said something like: Naked I came into this world, and naked I shall return, blessed be the Lord, God!

  7. My recent post on this blog was not published. An e-mail telling me why would be greatly appreciated.


  8. I have seen so many deaths that has somehow, made the fear of death to elude me. I have also seen people who wished they were dead not because for them, like St. Paul, that death is gain because it involves meeting their creator. Rather, death is gain for them because they need to depart this world of suffering. As a priest in Africa, I have had the cause to hear a mother of several children wish she were dead because she has no means of caring for them. As we live our lives, let us think of an attitude of living responsibly and simply so that others will simply live. This will involve cutting down our wastefulness and extravagance. By this, we will be preparing ourselves better for life after death. God bless all generous hearts especially those generous to the poor.

    1. “As we live our lives, let us think of an attitude of living responsibly and simply so that others will simply live.”

      This. Yes.

  9. On November 4th, 2009, my mother was transferred from Washington Hospital Center to Casey House, an inpatient hospice facility in Rockville.

    At the hospital the staff were not particularly willing to give to my sister and me any sort of timeframe for when our mother would leave us. At Casey House, although the brochures refer to “life-limiting” illness, the staff were much more frank with us. The admitting nurse said “two weeks” and she was right – Mom passed away November 16th.

    Most healthcare workers strive to make people better. It takes a special kind of person to care for someone one knows is NOT going to walk out the door, but will be leaving zipped up in a plastic bag. The focus of a hospice worker is to try to make their patients’ last days as comfortable and dignified as possible, and to support family members as they watch their loved ones decline.

    Thank God for hospice care providers.

    1. Amen. Over 20 years ago, a hospice nurse came to our home once a week to help take care of our dying mother for four months. I will never forget her kindness and care and compassion. It is at a time like this when you discover who your true friends really are …

  10. I am a Pastoal Care worker in Hong Kong, I am going to give a talk to nurses whose work in Hospeic Ward, it maen i Need to share about how Church’s view on Death, so may I ask you to help me by sending me more about Death on the view of Church’s view . Thank you in advance.
    May God bless you.
    Your brother in Christ.
    Peter Wan

  11. Curious timing for this post i.e. when a lot of politicians will suffer political deaths.

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