Wednesday 10 November 2021

Reflecting on Death

November is a month when the Church asks us to pray for the faithful departed, and in doing so to reflect upon death. We may not relish contemplating our mortality, but doing so is an essential element of a well-lived life, a Christian life, realising that our life on earth will decide how we spend eternity. St Benedict in his Rule tells his monks, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily”. Cardinal Basil Hume, when abbot of Ampleforth, was asked once by a prospective parent what the school could offer his son, and replied that the school did not prepare boys for life, but for death. St Therese of Lisieux expressed the same sentiment in a different way: “The world is a beautiful bridge, but do not build your home on it”.

Catholic tradition and culture has always kept death before our eyes, but the secular world — despite the ghouls and ghosts and skeletons of Halloween — has worked hard to bury death deeply in the vaults of history. Society cannot deal with death, ignoring it, hiding it in hospitals and hospices, seeing it as an enemy that must be fought at almost any cost. And the reason is fear. We fear what we cannot see — what we do not understand. It is the fear of the unknown, of what is hiding under the bed. When we are faced with fear, the natural tendency is to push it away: we pretend that death will not happen or can be cheated.

There is a danger, however, in this cover-up. We forget one of the most profound truths of life: that it is finite. The death of a loved one will always be a terrible experience, and no amount of preparation will make the pain go away more quickly. But if we have lived a life of silence about death, if we have not thought about it, confronted it — even made friends with it — we are ill-equipped to deal with grief, to know what to do, or how to console others. We keenly sense that we are alone inside an experience that the world will not recognise; yet it is going to be experienced by everybody.

We can talk about death because we believe in the Lord who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live. Anyone who lives and believes in me, will never die”. The Kingdom of God is not a place of fear, because it has been opened for us by a God who descended into the worst fears of human reality for our sake. He shared human pain and human fear. As we contemplate the fearful unknown of human death, he embraced it for us, that we might live in eternal life with him.

Cardinal Hume was able to face the news of his own terminal illness with the assurance of faith, despite his fears:

As we approach the last bit of the journey there are days when we fear that we face an unknown, unpredictable, uncertain future. That is a common experience. But do not worry; because the time comes when we no longer carry heavy bags and all those possessions. We shall travel through the cold, grey light of a bleak… morning into God’s spring and summer. Death is the only way which leads us to the vision of God.

He had earlier in his ministry as a bishop reflected that

Death is a formidable foe until we learn to make it a friend.
Death is to be feared if we do not learn to welcome it.
Death is the ultimate absurdity if we do not see it as fulfilment.
Death haunts us when viewed as a journey into nothingness
rather than a pilgrimage to a place where true happiness is to be found.

The human mind cannot understand death.
We face it with fear and uncertainty, revulsion even;
or we turn away from the thought for it is too hard to bear.
But faith gives answers when reason fails.
The strong instinct to live points to immortality.
Faith admits us into death’s secrets.

Death is not the end of the road, but a gateway to a better place.
It is in this place that our noblest aspirations will be realised.
It is here that we will understand how our experiences of goodness,
love beauty and joy are realities which exist perfectly in God.
It is in heaven that we shall rest in him and
our hearts will be restless until they rest in God.

It is said that when the Cardinal informed his successor as abbot of Ampleforth that he was dying, the response was: “Congratulations! That’s brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you.”

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