And Death is Gain….A Reflection 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 here we are well into 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 publicly 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:

24 Replies to “And Death is Gain….A Reflection on the Christian View of Death.”

  1. My attachment to sin hampers my longing for God. I pray God deepens my faith, hope and love of God.

  2. Dear Msgr Pope,

    Just yesterday one of my home-bound communicants and I expressed our readiness and desire to be home with God! Thank you for your insightful words!

  3. My caution with sharing how I feel about dying and entering God’s eternal presence is based on that likelihood of being misunderstood which you mention. I so much desire my friends and family to live wholly for Christ, and for us to see His kingdom come! So, I often take the risk anyway by comments made to highlight my hope, but I rarely (almost never) meet with interest in pursuing the conversation on a deeper level.

  4. Your comments on our youth centered culture bring to mind the popularity of vampires in modern fiction. People of all ages devour these fiction books that feature eternal youth here on earth. I think that is absolutely the opposite of longing for heaven, and it reflects our misplaced priorities.

    In terms of longing for heaven, when I walk outside now on a beautiful fall day, when the sky is that beautiful blue and the trees brilliantly colored, I do not long to leave this world, but then it strikes me–that nature is a reflection of God the creator. If that beauty is manifest here on earth how much greater must the beauty of heaven be,

  5. “But for a Christian there should be a deepening thirst for God that begins to erode the fear and aversion to death.”

    There should, shouldn’t there?

    From what I see and hear, the way heaven is framed now, it is the place where we will get to see our loved ones again, so it is offered as a comforting idea to those still here on earth.

  6. Great piece Msgr. I am a deacon, nearly 65 years old with an illness that will predictably shorten my life. When I tell my Catholic Christian friends that I not only have no fear of death but anticipate it many of them seem to have a “deer in the headlights” look to them. Sometimes further conversation brings about some understanding but I never have the feeling that they accept my view of death as “normal.” Adding references to Paul’s statement on looking forward to being with the Lord doesn’t seem to help much.. I feel so free but have a hard time communicating that to others.

  7. Wow!
    One of the irrational fears I have of dying too soon is not being ready for God. He knows better than I when to call me home and still I can’t shake that one. I am thankful for every day I get to prepare.

  8. Thank you Msgr.
    What a wonderful explanation of what our Church and the great Saints have shown us to be the right attitude towards death. Difficult as it is in this present world we’ve made, we should try to remember the hope in our journey as you so beautifully put. St. John of the Cross wrote these words about his longing and hope to be with God:

    I live without living in me
    and thus hope
    for I die because I don’t die

    and then finishes with:

    I shall already weep my death
    and I’ll lament my life
    In so far as it is held back by my sins.
    O my God! When will it be
    when I can truly say:
    I already live because I don’t die?

    That we could all try to build our hope and longing as you have explained and St. John showed as best we are able. But the ease and self wanting to be comfortable are like a fog ever present in this modern world. Could I ask that you pray for me and my children as we lost my wife last year under terrible circumstances.

    1. I am not sure if you are distinguishing primary causality and secondary causality in your question. In terms of primary causality, God is the first cause of ALL that happens. In terms of secondary causality one may assert that God allows things for a purpose and that knowing of her heart attack God permitted it and did not intervene in order that she should be brought to him. Generally I would urge caution before we simplistically try and answer questions such as you have asked but rather that we should attribute things to the mystery of God’s providence.

  9. Your thoughts are so appreciated Msgr. God Bless you.
    I long to go tho the house of the Lord especially when I find myself offending God I feel so sad when I am not in the state of grace. Thanks God for confession. I think the troubles with the flesh is want made St Paul desire to be with the Lord, not only experiencing what eye has never seen or ears have not heard, but knowing the we cannot offending HIM anymore and that we are eternally out of reach from the snares of the enemy.

  10. Several years ago I have completely lost my fear of death. Interestingly, it had happened before I returned to the Church. At that time I was deeply influenced by Islam which is thoroughly – and, may I say, much more than modern Catholicism – suffused with the “contemptus mundi”. The famous saying by Muhammad, “Die before you die” had struck a deep chord within me. In any case, Pascal’s wager is what convinces me most: after all, even if there is only nothingness after death, isn’t it still preferable to this sorry mess we know as the world? Saint Teresa of Avila called this earthly life “a night spent in a bad inn”; Gerard de Nerval was even more eloquent: “This life is a hovel and a place of ill-repute. I’m ashamed that God should see me here.” But I am also certain that we are all here for a reason and this reason is to be the soldiers of Christ – so we must hold this dump for God until death liberates us.

  11. This time last year I prayed to God to take me home. I was so terribly ill. But it was in bed, that I finally learned to pray, with every tear shed. I began to unite my suffering to othes and Christ’s. Even though I’m better now, and love my family, I still long to be with Jesus. I no longer have the same attachment to people and things like I used to. Our parish priest gave a beautiful homily for All Souls and one sentence struck me: God is so good He have us death as a release from the burdens of this life. Yet, I hope that God gives you a long life here for all the good you do. God bless you always, Father.

  12. Thank you, Msgr, for your article. I have been praying for God to have mercy on me and to not keep me here too long since my husband died last year in Afghanistan. I try not to tell people this though because I do not want them to think that I am suicidal or depressed. I had to switch my mindset from counting how many days it was since I got the knock on the door, to simply focusing on being one more day closer to no longer being here. It is horribly painful knowing I’m still considered young (28) and that I supposedly have “my whole life ahead of me.” It’s hard when you realize the happiest days of your life are officially in the past – but it’s good to know that life is about more than simply being happy. Despite the sorrow though, I am still aware of the many blessings that God continues to give me. Also, I have noticed that my whole perspective of the Eucharist and attending mass has shifted. While before, I considered church to simply be where I give God the worship He is rightfully due, I realized the Sunday after my husband’s death, that celebrating the mass is the closest I can get to heaven while on earth, to join the angels and saints in praising God. I am incredibly grateful for daily mass and opportunities for Eucharistic adoration. I pray with all my heart for God to have mercy on me sooner rather than later, while I also ask that He give me the strength and guidance to continue to do His will.

  13. I also long to go home. However, it worries me that in my case this might reflect ingratitude for the very fortunate/blessed life that I do have; and/or a form of cowardice – dreading and fearing trials to come, and wishing for peace and ease, rather than actually wishing to be with God. I wish to be comforted. Nothing wrong with that. But not so noble either. Lord have mercy.

  14. Like so many others, I am eager to “Go HOME”, but afraid that in this world, this sentiment would be seen as suicidal ideation. [Ironically, during a bout of severe depression, the fact that as a Catholic I was forbidden to take an innocent life~even my own~kept me from truly considering the depraved act!]

    I always prayed to see my children to adulthood, which the Lord granted. Perhaps due to my years as a Hospice nurse, death holds no fear for me (I only fear pain). My husband and I freely talk about our funerals, and remarriage should God send the one who remains another partner. Death is a part of life, and ignoring that fact is a sign of lack of faith, or over involvement in this world.

    I have been present at many, many deaths. Most people, as they pass through the veil, get a look of joy and surprise on their face, like a five year old seeing the decorated tree and all the gifts on Christmas morning in what had been an empty and boring living room. Several of my more devout patients reported angels hovering in the hours before biolgical death.

    And for those who doubt the reality of Hell? I had a lonely, bitter man as a patient, who had no friends or family (he had driven them away) and he BOTH did not believe in God, but also hated Him. The look of total HORROR on his face at the moment of death had me praying in fear for Divine Protection. I do not know where this man was going, and pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that I never, EVER, find out.

  15. Nothing seems farther from the life-affirming Gospel of Christ than the will to die, no matter if it is couched under the euphemism, “longing to leave this world and go to God.” Christ did not want to die – He wept on account of His death! He prayed that he might avoid the trial – He longed to live, loved life, affirmed life. The prohibition against suicide – does it not take on a quality of merely a malicious and arbitrary torment if our longing should be to depart this life?

    I think this death-longing (Schopenhauer, anyone?) is a sickness in Christian spirituality that is explicitly un-Christian. I can think of no better example than Julian of Norwich, who prayed, even longed, for suffering and death. But this is a perversion, a misunderstanding. We have nothing to fear from death, for sure. This is far different than to long for it. We should long for union with God and Christ, for sure. But do we forget the union that is offered us here, in the present moment? The pervasive quality of grace that inhabits creation, that is shot through creation, that shines out from it, in the words of Hopkins’ poem, “like shining from shook foil,” is it not reason to rejoice in life, to embrace it, to look forward and strive and – here is the difference – live in Christ?

    In other words, perhaps it is a good thing that death-longing has ceased to be such a popular meditative practice. Perhaps there is even something life-affirming about not worrying about the afterlife, in not indulging in the phantasms of Hell or Heaven (didn’t Plato forbid teaching that the afterlife was filled with such pains, so as to not produce cowardly souls who act – or rather, who don’t act – for no other reason that fear), and instead in focusing on the possibilities of today and give no heed to tomorrow. There is something Christian about living in the present and therefore loving in the present, and if we do this, how much more sweet our union with Christ at the end of our days, when we have lived with our focus on life rather than death.

    1. You demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of both the article and the comments. It is not a longing to die it is a longing to be with God. And there ARE distinctions despite your all or nothing thinking. That is one thing you are very consistent about Scotty, your all or nothing thinking and seeming complete refusal to appreciate distinctions.

      1. I do appreciate distinctions. I made use of them in my reply (i.e., “We have nothing to fear from death, for sure. This is far different than to long for it. We should long for union with God and Christ, for sure. But do we forget the union that is offered us here, in the present moment?”). However, there are such things as false distinctions, or an attempt to use an apparent subtlety to cover up or obfuscate (not intentionally; I don’t think any of this is intentional, at least not on your part).

        I think it is euphemism, or an attempt in this case to cover up something that really has been an unfortunate sickness in Christian spirituality and which still persists. “Do you long to depart this world and be with God” is truly a euphemism of this type, which in substance (though not in connotation, perhaps) is identical with, “do you long to die?” You speak of much that reveals a death longing: a weariness of suffering, fatigue, longing for rest, in the sense of eternal rest. I know that your connotation for these thoughts is that of joyful return, but this only serves to obscure something that I fear is very life-negating: that the Christian must want to “die,” either physically (a wish that some saints and heroes have actually expressed explicitly throughout the ages) or spiritually, in the sense of an inwardly turned death of asceticism. This desire has had its more extreme expressions, which at last the Church squelched (very few today wear the hair shirt as St. Thomas More did, or flagellate or starve themselves, though there are still). But this same desire still hides in more sickly sweet formulations: at the very moment when the Church should pick up the banner of life (yes, even life here in the “passing age”) and carry it on courageously, preaching life, affirmation of the present, affirmation of our energies and the possibilities which charity has put in our path, I have heard too many people take up the old call: the call to a kind of escapism, a weary longing for elsewhere (does it matter heaven? Nihilist suicides, notwithstanding the fact that your are not calling anyone to suicide, have similar hopes of escaping the troubles of life, and in their cases joining with…nothing.).

        I admit that I am responding somewhat in hyperbole, and I hope you will forgive this: I have somewhat poor eyesight in spiritual matters, as you are probably aware, so I have to draw exaggerated letters in order to see. I have reached a crisis in my faith because of matters such as these. It seems as though so much in the actual embodied practice of Christianity is quite life-negating, quite inwardly-turned, even to the point of being a sickness; I want to believe that Christianity is not like that, that it is in fact an affirmation of humanity, that God’s decision to become man (even a man living his life in the same temporal age, filled with the same sufferings) ennobles us, affirms us in the present, and so forth; but too often I here the refrain of the negation of the present in exchange for eternal rest in the future. I don’t know what to think of it.

        1. But you don’t appreciate distinctions made by your opponents and refer to us as those who obfuscate, speak in euphemism and as life negating. I am none of these nor are others who have written in agreement.

        2. I realize you were not directing your comments directly towards my post, but since my post had a particularly somber tone to it, I want to clarify the difference between your perception of what is being said, and the reality of what is experienced (for me at least, and I believe for many others who have commented.)

          If it were to be that the person sees no value in life, as if it were only something horrid through which we must suffer until we finally have relief in death, then that would be a problem. But, if the person can still appreciate their blessings, cherishing the people whom one encounters throughout the day and aiming to live their life in ways which serve God, then acknowledging the reality that earthly life is temporary and that eternal life (if with God) far surpasses any joy that can be found in earth (and thus longing for it) is not in any way a sickness or escapism. I do feel as I mentioned in my previous post, but I am also grateful for the incredibly love of my family and friends and cherish every moment I spend with them, as well as others I meet. While I long for God to take me, I encounter the present as best I can, partially because it is what determines where I spend eternity, but also because it is my own feeble means of making God (and my husband) smile. If I do not have one eye on the reality of eternity – then the hard times would be overwhelming.

          Something that I have come to greatly appreciate is the Catholic practice of “offering it up.” This idea is pretty foreign to my generation, only hearing it occasionally from older family members or friends. Yet, offering to unite your suffering with Jesus’ suffering is something from which we are given the grace to get through the crosses, toils, and disappointments of life. Some people find the “problem of pain” to be a counter argument to the idea of a Good God, but people seem to forget that in the Christian understanding, God shares in our pain. Unfortunately, I think that with some parish priests neglecting to address the topic of the afterlife and focusing too much on the here and now, tragedies seems contrary to what fits within faith and can destroy a person’s relationship with God.

          I hope this clarifies things a little.

  16. But Jesus did long for his death. He set his face like flint towards Jerusalem. He was in the world but not of it, as we are supposed to be. He delighted in friendship, healing service, teaching, and prayer. As we do, I hope.
    But he also constantly referred to the Father’s will. I have come to do the Father’s will. The will of the Father was his food. I think the agony in the garden was twofold: the pain and torture he was to endure, which Scripture only hints at. After all, he was in the hands of a bunch of battle hardened Roman soldiers for almost 24 hours. We can’t even imagine exactly what he had to endure in the way of torture. Then there was the even worse heart and soul pain of suffering and dying for every single sin that ever was and ever will be committed by every single human being since time began.
    When the topic of death comes up, rarely, even in my church circles, the focus is on wills, selection of Scripture readings, music choices etc. The topic of preparing ourselves in the only way that matters: are we trying to discern and do God’s will ( love/forgive/deny self/carry all crosses with patience and possibly even joy) and are we trying to build up His Kingdom or do I tear it down in word, thought, or deed? I am blessed to have
    friends, especially a sister, who go right to the heart of the matter of life and death. Even Steve Jobs exclaiimed in his final words: ” Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.” This is a valley of tears, and we have only ourselves and our ancestors to blame. I look at my job as to go around being an answer to a prayer not a cause for prayer.
    I look at my job as being someone who dries tears not causes them. That is a tall order for me.

  17. I see life here much like the 23 rd psalm. I can lose sight of where I’m at at any given time but troubles always lead me back to the bearings of reality. It’s not something I control as much as it is the nature of God’s blessings. Knowing that life does not end with the end of physical embodiment, I welcome the release from distractions that lure my attention away from the One I share my conscience with and find peace at all times.

  18. God, who by the will of one mind and the minds of the faithful, grant to Thy people to love that which Thou dost command, that the commissary in which Thou dost promise, so that, amid the changing times, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to his will.
    It’s a great prayer if first heard it on with the passing of pastor myles monroe; it made me cry so so much.

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