This is the third in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
Yesterday we pondered the fear of death and some understandable reasons for it, but we also considered how a lack of lively faith can lead to a fear of death that is unchristian. As St. Paul admonishes regarding death,
We do not want you to … grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thess 4:13-14).
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. 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 by the fact that almost no one speaks publicly of a longing to depart this life and be with God. I suspect that 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 if not eliminated. I suppose that when the struggles of this life are minimized, fewer people long to leave it and go to Heaven. They set their sights, hopes, and prayers on having things be better here. “God, please give me better health, a better marriage, more money, a promotion at work.” In other words, “Make this world an even better place for me and I’ll be perfectly content to stay right here.”
Longing to be with God was more evident in the older prayers, many of which were written just a few generations ago. Consider, for example, the well-known Salve Regina and note (especially in the words I have highlighted in bold) this longing.
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 towards us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
This prayer acknowledges in a 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—it simply expresses a longing to go 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 churchgoers.
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 of and aversion to dying, but a Christian should have a deepening thirst for God that begins to erode this. St. Francis praised God for sister bodily death, which no one can escape (Canticum Fratris Solis). And why not praise God for death? It is what ultimately brings us home.
In regard to death as gain, St. Ambrose had this to say in a meditation on the occasion of his brother’s death:
Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.
We see that death is gain, life is loss. Paul says: For me life is Christ, and death a gain. What does “Christ” mean but to die in the body, and receive the breath of life? Let us then die with Christ, to live with Christ.
We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body. It must soar above earthly lusts to a place where they cannot come near, to hold it fast. It must take on the likeness of death, to avoid the punishment of death.
The law of our fallen nature is at war with the law of our reason and subjects the law of reason to the law of error. What is the remedy? Who will set me free from this body of death? The grace of God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord (taken from a book by St. Ambrose, bishop, on the death of his brother, Satyrus (Lib. 2, 40. 41. 46. 47. 132. 133)).
As for me, I will say it: I long to leave this world one day and go home to be with God. I am not suicidal and I love what I do here, but I can’t wait to be with Him. I don’t mind getting older because it means I’m that much closer to home. In our youth-centered culture, people (women, especially) are encouraged to be anxious about aging. When I hit forty, I said, “Hallelujah, I’m closer to home.” Now nearing 60, 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!
Even a necessary stopover in Purgatory cannot eclipse the joy of the day we die. There will surely be suffering preceding our death, but deep in our hearts—if we are believers—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: How do you see death? Do you long for Heaven? Do you long to depart this world and be with God? I know that you want to finish raising your children first, but do you rejoice as the years tick by and the goal becomes closer? A prayer in the Roman Missal says,
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 (Collect, 21st Sunday of the Year).
I close with some words from 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 (Psalm, 27:4, 8-9).
As you listen to this spiritual, think about the harsh conditions endured by the slaves who wrote it: