Thursday, November 7, 2013

Some Thoughts About Death

November is the Month of Remembering the Dead.
I was visiting Boston a few years ago and taking the Freedom Trail I came upon the Granary Burial Ground, that city’s third oldest cemetery. As I looked through an iron rod fence I had a slight shock. I saw this gravestone:
Of course I’m not the only John Phillips in the world, but it was a bit eerie because this John Phillips, first mayor of Boston, was born on November 26 and I was born on November 25. I quickly did the math to see how old Mayor Phillips was when he died: (born) 1770 minus (died) 1823 equals 53 years old. I felt relief that I had already passed the age of 53 at the time.
We all know that we are going to die one day. Our modern society doesn’t usually deal with death very well and doesn’t like to talk about death personally, though it does depict death in great detail in the media and in video games, particularly.
Yet someday, someone is going to read our gravestone or our name on a mausoleum or columbarium marker. Does such a thought make me sad? I actually can visit where I am going to be buried one day. The Priests of the Diocese of St. Augustine are usually buried in the San Lorenzo Cemetery in the city St. Augustine. I visited there this past year after Easter and walked among the graves of the deceased priests, noting and praying for those priests who I have known. It actually gives me comfort to know that I will one day be among my brother Priests who are buried there.
The Mortuary Chapel called "the Bishops House" where are buried 4 Bishops of St. Augustine
The Priests graves are around this chapel
I was telling a friend recently that the longer I live, the more loved ones I know who have died. My mother and father, an aunt this past year, friends, even some priests I knew in our younger days in the seminary (2 died both at age 50 of heart attacks). It tends to make the after-life more familiar and desirable. I certainly am inspired by the Church’s teaching about Heaven and the Communion of Saints:
"This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity - this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed - is called ‘heaven.’ Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness." (Catechism#1024)
I can barely imagine what a "state of supreme...happiness" will be like. It will be lived, however, in the company and communion of the Virgin Mary, and the angels and saints and all the blessed of heaven–including I am certain those beloved dead of my own family and friends. Our supreme happiness is to be happy with others. "The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone.’" (Genesis 2:18)
If heaven is so wonderful, why do we want to stay here on earth as long as we can? We seem to have a certain ambivalence about death. I was thinking about this lately and it seems to me that while we remain on earth, death is our enemy; but when we enter the after-life, death is the way to eternal life.
Death is an enemy in this life. After all it robs us of the physical presence of our loved ones, and we grieve not having them with us in visible form. We can’t even converse with them as we would by telephone (the sound of their voice is still physically produced). As to our own death, perhaps we fear we will suffer too much; or even if we believe we will live forever, it’s not provable by any scientific method. The unknown can unnerve us.
So while we are on earth, death is our enemy, as St. Paul writes: "Then the end will come, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." (1 Corinthians 15:24-26)
However, from the side of "the after-life," death is the door into the life of the world to come. If our end (goal or destination) is, we fervently pray, heaven then we enter heaven through death. If we need purification and final conversion, then we go through Purgatory, but it is the "porch" to heaven, after the gates of death have been entered. "The Christian who unites his own death to that of Jesus views it as a step towards him and an entrance into everlasting life..." (Catechism #1020)
There is nothing wrong with wanting to live a full life on earth and trying to avoid disease and illness. God, after all, created us with the instinct to preserve our lives. But one day we must let go of this life...and it helps me at least to meditate upon this death and what it will lead to in God’s mercy and salvation: heaven and the joys of heaven.
From a vison of St. Faustina:
"November 27, 1936. Today I was in heaven, in spirit, and I saw its unconceivable beauties and the happiness that awaits us after death.
"I saw how all creatures give ceaseless praise and glory to God. I saw how great is happiness in God, which spreads to all creatures, making them happy; and then all the glory and praise which springs from this happiness returns to its source; and they enter into the depths of God, contemplating the inner life of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whom they will never comprehend or fathom.
"This source of happiness is unchanging in its essence, but it is always new, gushing forth happiness for all creatures. Now I understand Saint Paul, who said, 'Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, not has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love him.'
"And God has given me to understand that there is but one thing that is of infinite value in His eyes, and that is love of God; love, love and once again, love; and nothing can compare with a single act of pure love of God. Oh, with what inconceivable favors God gifts a soul that loves Him sincerely! Oh, how happy is the soul who already here on earth enjoys His special favors!"
(Diary 777)