Until the Choir Sings “Amen” – One Easy Secret to a Happy Death
–St. John Chrysostom
It’s that time of year when we ought to have been focused on the eleventh and twelth articles of the Nicene Creed:
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.
I prefer, however, the expression of latin in Credo IV (as if anyone hears this anymore… but I won’t digress into the sad state of Gregorian chant in America):
Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam ventúri sæculi.
I can still hear the pipe organ played by Don Barrett… and the rough and tumbled “Amen.”
What do those words mean to you in daily life? Are Catholics meant to live differently because the day will come when Jesus will resurrect everyone from their graves?
Have you thought about that? We live in a world where people have a greater expectation of a zombie apocalypse — what are they saying? It’s almost as if they want everyone to think that we will be zombies at the second coming. Not so! Jesus told us to expect a future life with Him, even for sinners who repent, right from the Cross!
Remember me, O Lord!
It started right on the Cross. The gospels tell us the good thief said that he deserved to die on the cross but Our Lord did not deserve such a death. Then he turned to Our Lord and said: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom” (Luke xxiii 42). And Our Lord promised him that he would be with Him. (!)
That promise is echoed to all of us with the same simple condition: repent. The creed, by referencing an expectation of resurrection, reminds all of us that death, although inevitable, is not the end — Jesus made more to the story. It is the first of what St. John Chrysostom calls “the journey to eternity.” He was referring to the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell.
All men must die, because death is the consequence of original sin.
It is strange that there is discussion of so many other ways to live forever today. There’s even a guy who says that by 2045, he wants to upload himself into a computer, and wants to offer the same to everyone else. Color me unimpressed. Nonplussed, even. I trust more in the Guy Who did this without a computer 2000 years ago — on the first Easter.
What does it tell us, though, that there would be so much discussion and effort towards mankind trying to make its own immortality? Several things, but the first is that everyone dies. The second is that people don’t want to die. The third is that people don’t understand or believe that God already made a way for us to upload our entire life, body, soul, spirit, memories, and all to a real existence! et expecto…
We don’t need a computer charlatan in a future development to live forever… Catholics already have the keys to that.
But let’s explore this first last thing: death. What happens?
So far, there are only two people on earth that did not die when a normal life would expect it: Henoch [Enoch] (Gen. v 24) and Elias (4 Kings ii 11) BUT they are to return before the Last Day, and then they will die. So, they have only delayed the inevitable. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that even those who survive until the Day of Judgment shall die (probably at the blast of glory that will precede His arrival). Christ alone was not under the law of death because He was free from all sin. Thus, His death for us was a purely voluntary act. Caused by 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. Remember that guy above who is trying to make immortality in a computer? That’s right… I think he might be trying to be something he can’t be. Let’s hope he isn’t knowingly trying to be God. But his efforts are folly.
Death is not metamorphosis, but the separation of the soul from the body
At death the soul is separated from the body, and enters the world of spirits. Meanwhile, 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 into its new life. St. Augustine said, “The soul is freed from its prison at death.”
Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return. 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). St. John Chrysostom therefore says, “Death is a journey into eternity.” Hence it is wrong to believe with the ancient Egyptians, popularized today by shows like Ancient Aliens, or the numerous new age shysters among us, that the soul is joined to other forms, whether human or animal. For them, and for many other pagan cults, death represented some sort of metamorphosis. Even today you hear such nonsense rambled about that we can reincarnate to become something better, and repeat until perfect. Nonsense! These people, seduced by error, think perfection is something they can do to themselves. The error is subtle, but they want to be like God — to make their own eternity (sort of like that guy above and his computer). Similarly, the others around us today are mistaken who think that the soul enters into a sort of sleep until the day of judgment. No… you’re going to be VERY AWARE — (but we’ll discuss that later). After death the body returns to the dust from which it came (Gen iii 19).
(N.B. there are only two bodies that didn’t return to dust: the bodies of Christ and of His Blessed Mother. Also, the bodies of some of the saints have been preserved free from corruption to the present day. For the Blessed Mother, her death was a sort of sleep — as tradition has referred to her death as a Dormition which means sleep. The rest of us, well… that’s the point of this post)
At the last day our bodies will all rise again. (et expecto!) 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 (ciii) 14-16).
Death Reveals the Folly of the World
While here, so many people get confused as to the important things. Despite all the wealth and means, the rich man cannot take his riches along with him (Job xxvii 15). Despite whatever prestige and importance one obtains during life, Our Lord reminds us that after death many who have been the first on earth shall be last, and the last first (Matt. xix. 30). So that guy trying to upload himself into the computer may in fact be trying to preserve his importance here on earth?
Age and experience begins to reveal a different picture. Autumn after autumn show that the trees and nature understand the vanity and a fleeting one at that. Our days upon earth are but a shadow (Job viii 9). Worse yet, our years shall be considered as a spider’s web and our lives are but a sigh (Ps. lxxxix (xc) 9). A sigh! No matter how many years pile up, time shows it all as but a sigh! The idea of it all being like a breath is pretty strong in the prophets. “Life is a vapor which appear for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away” (James iv 15). As I get older, I really begin to see the wisdom in that expression! You’re never really sure when the breath is out — when it’s time to sing “Amen.”
Death, the thief in the night
The hour of our death is unknown to us. The Gospels remind us that we shall die when we expect it not (Matt xxiv 44) but rather, death will come like a thief (id. verse 43). St. Ephrem says “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. Only a few saints had the hour of their death been revealed. St. Mary of Egypt, for instance, knew and prepared. They were unique, though because from almost all men it is hidden. God’s wisdom and goodness hides it, or we’d be like the lazy servants the master caught (and beat, no less). Rather, 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).
If you think Our Lord didn’t mean that literally, then check out the parable of the ten virgins (Matt xxv). St. Ephrem commented on this though saying: “Death is a great lord 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. Thus, God hides the moment from us that we might be motivated to be ready!
There is an answer to this issue of Death
Death is terrible only to the sinner, in no wise to the just.
St. Vincent Ferrer tells us, “The death of the just man 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.”
This exposition of the obvious may sound like doom and gloom to some readers, but to others, they should be nonplussed because they are already ready. In a world overcome with doomsday preparation, where it seems that everyone is getting ready for some awful events to happen, I wonder how many started at the confessional. In a world overrun with the hyper-sensual and self-seeking, only for them is death fearful because it means the end of their enjoyment and the beginning of woe. St Vincent Ferrer also said, with the quote above, “For the just man there is no death but a passing into everlasting 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. I’m always taken aback by these quotes — are you that secure in your future?
Do you believe the et expecto?
If you have second thoughts, consider that it is not the kind of death, but the state of the soul that is important: “As the tree falls so shall it lie.” (Eccles xi 3) and 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. (!) (more on this later, too)
For anyone that has a pang of conscience, chin up! Tell Our Lord you are sorry and want to be with Him forever — like Dismas, turn to Him now, and ask Him, “Remember me, O Lord!”
We don’t need to be Uploaded into Computers, but this secret to a Happy Death is EASY!
In order to secure a happy death, we should, in our daily prayer, ask God to grant us a happy death! Also, of our own accord, we must detach ourselves now from earthly goods and pleasures.
Reconcile with God, Put your affairs in Order
I’ve read this advice in old Catholic texts many times over, “He dies a happy death who is reconciled with God, and has put his worldly affairs in order.” It seems like the easy implication to that quip is that 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. If death is like a thief, and if it is the things and attachments that can hold us back, then settling and giving all those things away in a will is to behave like a prudent ship captain who heaves his cargo overboard to avoid shipwreck. That’s assuming we can get that done before the unknown moment. It’s trickier for sudden death. 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.” St. Joseph has traditionally came about as the patron of a happy death, and for the grace to avoid a sudden death.
The point of the morbidity is to keep you focused on the importance! “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.” (Eccles vii 40). St. Ignatius Loyola impresses this thought so firmly in the spiritual exercises that Pope Pius X had an image of himself made and placed in a casket — and when he had an important decision to make, he’d go to the casket, look at himself, and confer with Our Lord as to which choice they’d be happy with when considered at his death. The secret then, is to remember that we’ll all be in that place someday. Whoever thinks seriously of death will take as little pleasure in the things of the world as a criminal with a death sentence will have in a good meal.
Every day’s sunset is a reminder from God of death, and sleep is an image of it. It is a lot like Damocles, the sword is right over us! 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!”
At the end of the Creed, we therefore remind ourselves of all these points: Time flies, our life but a sigh, and here we are ending yet another year. What are you waiting for? When they sing amen for you, do you want to go into the dust caught surprised, or singing alleluia?
So much for Death. We still have three more last things to discuss…
This article, Until the Choir Sings “Amen” – One Easy Secret to a Happy Death is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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