[Recall this underlying text was printed in 1921]: Every day some eighty-eight thousand men die; that is, one death per second.
1. At death the soul is separated from the body, and enters the world of spirits; the body decays, and falls into dust.
St. Paul speaks of death as a dissolution (2 Tim. iv. 6), and St. Peter calls the body a tabernacle of the soul (2 Pet. i. 14). The body is, as it were, a shell through which the soul breaks to enter in its new life. “The soul is freed from its prison at death,” is the expression of St. Augustine. The body, deprived of the soul, is no longer alive, because it has no longer the principle of life. At death the spirit returns to the God Who gave it (Eccles. xii. 7). “Death,” says St. John Chrysostom, “is a journey into eternity.” Hence it is wrong to believe with the ancient Egyptians that the soul is joined to other forms, whether human or animal; and those too are mistaken who think that the soul enters into a sort of sleep till the day of judgment. After death the body returns to the dust from which it came (Gen. iii. 19); exception was made, however, in the case of the bodies of Christ and of His blessed Mother; and the bodies of some of the saints have been preserved free from corruption to the present day. At the last day our bodies will all rise again. Death is represented symbolically as a skeleton carrying a scythe, with which he cuts short our lives as the reaper mows the grass of the field (Ps. cii. 15); he is also represented carrying a key to open to us the gates of ever lasting life.
2. All men must die, because death is the consequence of original sin,
Our first parents lost by their sin the gift of immortality, and as a consequence we all have to die. “By one man sin entered into the world and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Rom. v. 12). Death is the punishment of man’s ambition to be as God. Henoch (Gen. v. 24) and Elias (4 Kings ii. 11) alone were removed from earth without dying, and they are to return before the Last Day, and then die; St. Thomas teaches that even those who survive till the Day of Judgment shall die. Christ alone was not under the law of death because He was free from all sin; His death for us was a purely voluntary act. “Life,” says St. John Chrysostom, “is a play in which for a short time one man represents a judge, another a general, and so on; after the play no further account is made of the dignity which each one had.” We are all like so many chess-men, who at the beginning of the game have our fixed places on the board, but at the end are all tumbled into a box. The rich man cannot take his riches along with him (Job xxvii. 15). After death many who have been the first on earth shall be last, and the last first (Matt. xix. 30). Our days upon earth are but a shadow (Job viii. 9); our years shall be considered as a spider’s web (Ps. Ixxxix. 9); life is a vapor which appeareth for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away (Jas. iv. 15). The hour of our death is unknown to us. We shall die when we expect it not (Matt. xxiv. 44); death will come like a thief (Matt. xxiv. 43). To use the expression of St. Ephrem, death is like the pounce of the hawk, or the spring of the wolf. St. Gregory of Nyssa compares life to a torch, which a slight puff of wind may put out. To some of the saints the hour of their death has been revealed, but from most men it is hidden. We see in this arrangement the action of God’s wisdom and goodness. Since we do not know the hour of our death, we should always be ready to die: “Wherefore be you also ready, because at what hour you know not the Son of man will come” (Matt. xxiv. 44). The parable of the ten virgins (Matt. xxv.) is another warning on this subject. “Death is a great lord,” says St. Ephrem, “waiting on no one and demanding that all wait upon him.” As a man lives, so he dies. Those who put off reforming their lives are like those students who begin to study when the examination is already upon them.
3. Death is terrible only to the sinner, in no wise to the just.
To the sensual and self-seeking only is death fearful, for it means the end of their enjoyment and the beginning of woe. “The death of the just man,” says St. Vincent Ferrer, “is like the pruning of a tree preparing it to bear nobler fruit in the future; while the death of the sinner is the uprooting of the tree before it is cast into the fire.” “For the just man there is no death but a passing into ever lasting life.” The saints rejoiced in death, desiring like St. Paul to be dissolved and to be with Christ (Phil. i. 23). St. John Chrysostom compares the desire of the saints for death with that of a traveller for the end of his journey, or a farmer for his harvest; in another place he speaks of death as of a change from a tumbledown cottage to a beautiful mansion. “O how sweet it is to die, if one’s life has been a good one!” exclaims St. Augustine. It is not the kind of death, but the state of the soul that is important: “As the tree falls so shall it lie,” says Holy Writ (Eccles. xi. 3); so it is with man: as his will was directed on earth, so shall it be directed after death. Happy the man whose will has been always fixed on God; in other words who has in his heart the love of God and sanctifying grace; he will see God. Unhappily, many are bent solely on things of the earth, those, for instance, who love the world and are not in the state of grace; they remain separated from God forever.
4. In order to secure a happy death, we should in our daily- prayer ask God to grant us a happy death, and of our own accord detach ourselves now from earthly goods and pleasures.
He dies a happy death who is reconciled with God, and has put his worldly affairs in order. We ought often to pray that God may give us the grace to receive the last sacraments before dying. It is also a duty to make a will in good time; to do this is to behave like a prudent captain who heaves his cargo overboard to avoid ship wreck. A sudden death is not a thing to be desired, for we cannot then, put into order our spiritual or temporal affairs; hence we pray in the Litanies: “From a sudden and unprovided death deliver us, O Lord.” The Church often recalls the thought of death, on All Souls, Ash Wednesday, by the passing-bell, etc. The thought of death is useful for keeping us out of sin: “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin” (Ecclus. vii. 40). Whoever thinks seriously of death will take as little pleasure in the things of the world as the condemned criminal in a good meal; he is another Damocles, with the sword hanging over him by a hair. Every day’s sunset is a reminder from God of death, and sleep is an image of it. We ought to detach ourselves even now from earthly goods and pleasures. After death our eyes will no longer see, nor our ears hear, nor our tongues speak; and we should prepare for that state by our voluntary restraint now. We should crush the curiosity of the eyes and the ears, our unruly speech and inordinate enjoyment of good, following the counsel of St. Basil: “Let us die that we may live.” The good works which the Church imposes on us, such as prayer, fasting, and almsdeeds, are nothing but a loosening of the heart from earthly ties. Only those who have this detachment shall see God after death: “Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God” (Matt. v. 8).
This article, 1. DEATH is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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