We do not want you to be like whose who have no hope – A Reflection on Modern Christian Attitudes Toward Dying

042413At a recent meeting wherein an elderly relative was preparing advanced medical directives, a friend of the family, a secular Jew, expressed the discomfort the speaking about dying brings something to most people.  I happened to mention in passing, that for a Christian, the day we die is really the greatest day of our life.  She looked to me with some surprise and while I expected her to articulate that she thought that heaven was a dubious reality, instead she Said something quite different.  She said, “Perhaps there is heaven for the faithful who believe after death. And perhaps then, to die is the greatest day of one’s life. But I do not observe the Christians live this way. It seems that they are just as anxious as anyone else about dying, and earnestly seek to avoid death just as much as anyone else.”

A very interesting observation, and one that I found mildly embarrassing, even as legitimate explanations quickly entered my mind. But even after giving her some of the legitimate explanations for this, I must say some mild embarrassment still 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.  I have remarked on this before, but in today’s conversation this concern once again came home to roost.

There are of course some legitimate reasons that we do not rush towards death as well as some lesson illegitimate reasons. Briefly, I’d like to speak of a few legitimate reasons that we drawback from death, but also articulate some other reasons that are less legitimate and frankly a bit embarrassing.

As for some legitimate and understandable reasons we may draw back from dying, and may not at first think of dying is the greatest day of our life, there are some of these:

1. There is a natural fear of dying which is certainly 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 and animal, has a strong instinct for survival.  Without this instinct, strongly tied to the hunger instinct, as well as to sexuality, We might not only die as individuals, but as a species. Further, the instinct also helps us to look not merely to the moment, but also to the future as we work to procure survival, even a thriving for our children and those who will come after. So this is a basic instinct for the human person and we ought not expect, even for believers, but this will simply disappear, since it has necessary and useful aspects.

2. Other things being equal, most of us would like to finish certain important things before we leave here. It makes sense, for example, that a parent would like to see their children well into adulthood before, as parents, they meet their demise. Parents rightly see their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence we love life here and cling to it, but not only for our own sake, but because we understand that others to depend on us to a greater or lesser degree.

3. The Christian is called to love life at every stage.  Most of us realize that we are called to love what we have here, and to appreciate it, 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, somehow 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 trouble. And yet, without hearing words, I understood in the sort of infused way, 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 an escape from life, rather than 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 for an strive for life that we do not yet fully comprehend, a life which eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him.

4. 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 prepare in a fitting and growing way to meet God.

5. And finally, it is not necessarily death that we fear, but dying.  Dying is something none of us have ever done before, and we tend to fear the unknown. Further, most of us realize the dying 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 could be taken from him. Manfully though he embraced Father’s will, and our benefit rather than his.  Still, he did recoil humanly at the suffering soon to befall him.

So then, here are some reasons that explain and make understandable why we do not run toward death.

But it remains true, that for a faithful Christian, the day we die is the greatest day of our life.  And while it is true that we go to judgment, a day  that we ought to regard with sober reverence, nevertheless if we die in Grace, with joyful hope we go to the Lord who loves us and for whom we have longed. And that day of judgement, awesome though it is, will , for the future saint, disclose only that which needs final healing in purgation, not that which merits damnation.

But I wonder of my family friend’s observation that Christians do not seem to live as though dying is the greatest day of our life. I am not speaking here of the cheesy slogans and attitudes at Catholic funerals these days of how Uncle Joe is in heaven now playin’ cards with Jesus and Moses! But rather, of a serene and joyful march through life that rejoices that every step brings us closer to going home to live with God.

Instead we hear lots of fretting about how we’re “getting older” and lots of anxiety about health, even usual matters due to aging,  and there are such grim looks as death approaches. Where’s 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 often spoke of this life as an exile, and expressed a long for God and heaven. But few of our prayers or sermons ever speak this way today.

Why is this? Perhaps a few reasons are:

1. We live comfortably. Comfort is not the same as happiness, but comfort is very appealing. It is also very deceiving, seductive and addictive. It is deceiving because it tends to make us think this world can be our paradise. It is seductive because it draws and shifts us 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, and we set our whole life on gaining more and more comforts. Comfort here becomes our preoccupation rather than attaining to our truest happiness which is to be with God in heaven.

2. Comfort leads to worldliness. Here worldliness means that the whole of our attention is to make the world more comfortable, and any notion of God and heaven recedes to 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 the promotion…etc.” And while it is not wrong to pray about these things, the cumulative effect of them plus our silence on more spiritual and eternal things give 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, because the world is not the point, it is not the goal, Heaven is, being with God for ever 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 talk of heaven or even long for it. They’d rather just have the new cell phone, or the Cable upgrade with the sports package. Some say they never hear about Hell anymore in sermons, and that is regretfully true (though NOT from my pulpit thank you). But it is also true that they almost never of heaven either (except in the cheesy funeral moments mentioned above which really miss the target altogether and make heaven seem trivial rather than a glorious gift to be sought). Heaven just isn’t on most folks’ radar, except as a vague abstraction for some far off time, certainly not now, thank you.

And here then is the perfect storm of comfort+worldliness leading to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. Thus, when I utter 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 I say that I can’t wait to meet God….people look at me strangely and wonder if I need therapy for depression or something.

No, I don’t need therapy, at 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 hearts greatest long and we cling to passing things and (I would argue, as does my family friend) we seem little different from those who have no hope. Put most regretfully, 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!”

As stated, there are legitmate reasons to be averse to dying. But how about even a glimmer of excitiment from the faithful as we see the journey coming to an end.  St Paul wrote to the Thessalonias regarding death We do not wnat you to be like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13).  Do we witness to the glory of going how to be with God or not? It would seem not. Or am I just crazy?

This song says:

The golden evening brightens in the West,
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest
Sweet is the calm of paradise most blest. Alleluia!

33 Replies to “We do not want you to be like whose who have no hope – A Reflection on Modern Christian Attitudes Toward Dying”

  1. In reading your meditation, Ignatius of Antioch came to mind,
    “I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body…” So he wrote to the Romans.

    The blood of martyrs WAS the seed of the Church.

    Today, such thinking is “morbid” and “unhealthy”.
    There _are_ other ways to be a martyr, and Pope Francis is showing everyone how. But how many want to witness THAT way either. (Service is a little death, after all.)

  2. Thank you, Monsignor, for writing about death, heaven, hell, etc. It seems to me that it is impossible to understand our Christian faith fully without a solid grasp of these matters, yet not enough is said and taught about them even in Church. We try to live as though death were not inevitable for each of us, as though we could do away with the reality by choosing not to pay attention to it. It is refreshing and a relief to me to read your articles, which reinforce my own desire to remain in contact with the realities of my life before God.

  3. Hi Msgr,

    I appreciated this article and, by the way, you choose excellent videos.

    Would you mind talking about the importance of good works and virtues for a Catholic and how they relate to God’s justice and judgement in one of your threads? I rarely any sermons about God’s justice. Until I read Revelation I had a dark understanding of the afterlife – I think this was because of the way Hollywood protrays the end times, Hollywood concentrates on the destruction of earth and not on the glories of Heaven; even the word “apocalyptic” has taken on negative connotations.

    Also I was wondering if being loving is our task here on earth (as it will be in Heaven) how do the sacraments help make us to be more loving and how are they necessary? What is the difference between a loving Catholic person and a loving non-Catholic person? Will God bring both people to Heaven?

    If it is not possible or appropriate to write a thread on these subjects perhaps you could just send me an e-mail.

    Thanks in advance.

  4. Sorry I forgot to mention – it is God’s justice that I currently find most attractive about God.

  5. “For the fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretense of knowing the unknown; and no one know whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is not this ignorance of a disgraceful sort, the ignorance which is the conceit that a man knows that he does not know? And in this respect only I believe myself to differ from men in general, and may perhaps claim to be wiser than they are: that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know…” Socrates

  6. 108 people liked it


    “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.” Socrates

  7. There are serveral issues that make my believing very difficult; one of them is life after death. Often I believe nothing wil be awaiting for us, so I have nightmares and despairing thoughts.

    1. I have the same struggle Pedro. Well maybe not the exact same but the struggle is there. I fear the idea that I will be alive and sense the passing of infinite time but I will not be in the world if that makes sense. Many years ago, my grandfather passed away. He was the first close relative I lost. (in my 30’s by then). We went to the hospital to visit about 30 minutes after he passed. I walked in the room not knowing what to expect but as I walked in I just knew in that instant that he was not there anymore. Not that he had ceased to exist but that he was not in his body and that he had gone someplace. It changed the whole story for me. I am not looking forward to dying but I have arrived at a place where the anxiety that created the despair is gone. “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis is exactly what I think heaven must be like.

      1. I am glad that you shared this experience with us.
        God Bless!

      2. Thank you Steve M for your shared experience and Msgr Pope for his recommended reading.

    2. You’re in very good company, Pedro. St Thérèse of Lisieux suffered the same thoughts at the end of her life – the idea that death is not the door to eternal life, but mere extinction. And yet the graces that have come through her since her death (in my own life, and that of millions of others) seem to prove otherwise . . .

      1. Thank you, Bill M. I’ve been reluctant so far to read something on St Thérèse, but I think I’m begining with her 🙂

  8. Excellent reflection Msgr. Pope! When you make Bishop, I pray you would be assigned to our little Diocese on the bayou! How I would love to sit and have some guidance from you!

  9. A much needed reflection. Thank you…and you are not crazy! This a a totally lucid look at reality.

  10. Msgr. Pope,
    Another analysis of our weakened faith over the rise in Secular culture.

    My mother recently passes with nineteen of her family members at her side, from my father too two great-grandchildren. Those that were at her side(I was unable to make it in time) prayed with her, had the sacrament of penance, and celebrated the Eucharist in preparation for her passing into eternal life and her body, after death was washed by her family in preparation to meet our Savior Jesus Christ. This is a ritual we have performed with many family members as we have been raised to love our Lord and the day we will get to meet him. I pray that I have the willingness to pass from this earthly life to the Heavenly Kingdom of God.

    I have come to the realization that this is a fading tradition for most Catholics as I am amazed that Catholics find this tradition a little dated. So I ask if they would rather die a Happy death, being with the sacraments at their time of death, or just depart this world unprepared. I pray for a Happy death so I will not be caught in death unaware and I pray I will have a death with my family at my side celebrating my life and the eternal life I pray to attain after death of my body.

    Long live Tradition, I pray for the Heart of the Catholic’s that have uncertainty.

    Amen I say to you my Brother Jesus lived on this earth, suffered death, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven so we all could attain eternal life with him.

    1. How beautiful to die surrounded by a faithful family. Thank you for sharing this.

  11. Death is always a sad event. It is the wages of sin incurred in the garden of Eden. The early christians made a great mourning over the death of St. Stephen. But, even as we fear death we have great hope that the Lord Jesus will fulfill his promises so that an end becomes a great beginning.

    Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful servants.
    Your servant, O Lord, i am;
    Your servant, O Lord, i am, (the son of thy handmaid).
    You have loosened my bonds….
    Psalm 116 v 15-16

  12. In The Catholic Encyclopedia On-Line, http://newadvent.org/cathen/12219b.htm, in the entry on St. Polycarp, one reads:

    But there was one Quintus, who of his own accord had given himself up to the persecutors. When he saw the wild beasts he lost heart and apostatized. “Wherefore”, comment the writers of the epistle, “we praise not those who deliver themselves up, since the Gospel does not so teach us”.

    So, we seek to accept martyrdom with the the courage of St. Ignatious of Antioch if given to us, but not to seek it as Quintus did.

    I agree that you choose good videos.

  13. I really enjoyed reading today’s post. There are many nights I go to bed and think to myself, “Another day done – one day closer to God and Heaven.” I get very weary of the problems of this life, but I desire to be here for my husband, my children and my aging parents.

    The only thing that disturbs me from time to time is the thought of a violent death. But I remind myself that God is the author of my life, and therefore I accept the death He has in mind for me. He knows our lives from beginning to end. One thing that comforts me is praying to Our Lady, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

  14. We should meditate on the reality of life after death and eternity often. In my own life this practice of trying to see things in the light of eternity has been a beautiful blessing to me that has helped put things in the proper perspective. Baptism literally makes us adopted children of God and “heirs to eternal life” and grants us that wedding garment necessary to enter into Heaven. To paraphrase a point from one of the Epistles of St. John “our faith is the victory that overcomes the world”. We have to pray for the grace to come into a supernatural worldview, a lens by which we see our lives and the whole world around us in the light of the reality of our faith. So many Catholics today do not have this worldview because by and large it isn’t really taught in the Church in most parishes. The early Christians lived and died in a world where the saints and angels and devils and our Lord and the Theotokos were always right there around them. Modern Christians have lost this and become secularized. This supernatural dimension needs to become a part of us if we are to meet death peacefully. We absolutely must start today, right now.

  15. From the main article, and the responses, I seem to detect a sort of right brain (left brain to the left handed who deserve consideration) feeling that fear of death is not just a fear that we could end totally like a machine that no longer functions and is smelted to make other machines but, also has that entangled with a fear that eternity will be a boring existance with no chance to escape.
    Even the lake of fire is not an escape because it shows an aggressively unpleasant version of trying to escape eternity and failing. I wonder if this is at least part of the purpose of the lake of fire; to show that a desire to escape eternity by dying only leads to an unpleasant version of the mystery of eternity instead of escape.
    Indeed, accepting the mysteries which we can’t understand can be a major struggle.
    Also, I am reminded of something which I encountered during the obsessive/compulsive reading which diverted me from benefitting from the challenges of my teen years. It took a lot of reading in a vain attempt to escape being myself and one book which captured my attention was the biography of General William Booth who founded the Salvation Army.
    As best as I can recall (asbestos probably not being a good protection from the lake of fear/fire) his wife, Catherine Booth, was the first significant member of the group to die and, at that time, it was common for some people to wear a black armband to signify mourning.
    I recall that the members of the Salvation Army wore white armbands for her in order to signify what they called; a promotion to glory.
    Couldn’t resist the corny joke (in brackets)

  16. I visit my Mother in a nursing home. She is wheelchair bound. She has a bed and night stand in a semi-private room; there is hardly space for a chair. My brother and I visit her by standing in the hallway outside her room. There is no visiting or gathering room; sometimes we are able to find space in the dining hall. She has recently gone on Medicaid. Prior to that we were paying $10,000 a month to this institution –it was the best of 3 or 4 we visited. My mom worked all her life, the last 25 years was spent working at the local parish rectory and church. This was a blessing and joy for her. She is 91 years old and knows my brother and me, but remembers little else except some long term memories. Unfortunately, aging has not been good to her mentally. She is angry more than she is content. I am clueless how to be a better son to her. I don’t want to go “out” like this.

    1. Fred:
      I am very sorry for this situation. I have been through hospice with my daughter and mother-in-law. It does not make the situation better or easier but you sound like you are doing what you truly can do. Give her love and respect; pray for her. Her life has much value and about all you can do.

  17. Steve M: Thanks for your kind words. After reading Msgr.’s comments about death I thought of my mother and wished there was something more I could do to comfort her, but as you say the best answer is love and prayer.

  18. Msgr. Pope, are you suggesting that it is a sin to be depressed? I think it is not even necessarily a sin to be depressed with suicidal thoughts (as you sadly had in the past).

    1. I seldom suggest, I usually just say. And here I am saying, quite clearly that Depression can be rooted in sinful thoughts, just like any other feeling can be influenced by. Doesn’t necessarily have to be sin in all cases, but as for me, there were things that, having repented of them, the depression and anxiety went away. I”d avoid all or nothing thinking in regard to the relationship between depression, anxiety or any negative feeling and sin. Sin can certainly tap into any part of our pysche. And depressed and anxious people, like anyone are seldom pure victims, they have, like anyone, repenting to do.

      1. Ok, thank you for your reply and clarification, Msgr. Pope! This makes sense to me now. I stuggle with this often myself, so it is nice to hear that your depression and anxiety got better when your spiritual life improved. I have to work on the all-or-nothing thinking, as you suggested.

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