Plane crashes, car accidents, ships sinking, oil refinery explosions, miles long forest fires—many of these sudden and unpredictable disasters terminate with the loss of human life. How easy it is for us to look at these disasters from a distance and discard the fact that one day, one hour, one minute, one second will be the last of our short life on earth.
Even though not the most popular of topics, it is very advantageous and propitious for our spiritual well-being to read, meditate, and reflect upon the reality of our own mortality and death and the precarious and uncertain nature of our short sojourn or pilgrimage on earth.
NOVEMBER: THE MONTH TO REFLECT ON THE LAST THINGS. Eschatology is the branch of theology that focuses on what are called The Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell, and for Catholics the reality of Purgatory. In addition to these 4/5 Last Things we should add to the equation the reality of eternity—which means forever and ever and ever! One of the reasons for this meditation on these serious topics is precisely because the Church Liturgical Year is winding down to its normal end with the celebration of Christ the King, and then the New Church Year commences with the Season of Advent.
A CALM REFLECTION ON THE REALITY OF DEATH. Therefore, we invite all to enter into a brief reflection on the reality of death: what it is, how to accept its inevitability, and what concrete steps we can take to be prepared. The great woman Doctor of the Church, Saint Catherine of Siena asserts: “The two most important moments of our life are now and the hour of our death.” Sound familiar? Think about the last part of the Hail Mary.
1. HOLY AND HEALTHY REMINDERS OF DEATH. As a whole the American society, and the modern world in general, strives to do all that is possible to eschew and circumvent thinking about the reality of death, even though, as mentioned above, we are constantly being bombarded by blatant news of death, from an individual or collective perspective. What then are holy and healthy reminders of death??? There are many and may they gently lead us to prepare for the eventual and inevitable key moment of our life—the moment of our death!
a) THE CRUCIFIX. This points to the death of Jesus on the cross for love of us and for the eternal salvation of our immortal souls. Contemplating Jesus hanging on the cross—for love of you and me—can elicit within our souls and our practical lives a desire to be converted from evil and sin, and to love what Jesus really loves—His Eternal Father and the salvation of souls!
b) THE CEMETERY. Upon passing any cemetery—be it Catholic or non-Catholic—we should always say at least a short prayer for the eternal repose of those whose bones lie in peace in that burial ground. Who knows how many souls can be alleviated from their sufferings in Purgatory, or even delivered from Purgatory, as a result of these short, fervent, and frequent prayers.
c) FUNERAL MASS. For priests in busy Parishes, Funeral Masses are frequent. However, for the priests who preside at these Masses, as well as those who attend to grieve a loss, we must make the connection between the person laying in the coffin and ourselves, in that one day we will be the one laying in the coffin at our own funeral Mass. None of these ideas are pointed at scaring us, but rather at waking us up to the reality of our own mortality—that is to say, that one day we all must face the reality of death, and we know not the day nor the hour! (Mt. 25:13)
d) ALL SOULS DAY. Every year in the Catholic Church calendar there is the Liturgical celebration of All Souls Day. The priest is actually allowed to celebrate three Masses on that day: 1) for the intentions of the Pope; 2) for the sake of all the souls; 3) for the priest’s own private intentions. Rarely is a priest allowed to celebrate in a day Three Masses! This highlights the fact of the importance and dire need to pray for the souls in Purgatory, and of course the greatest prayer that can be offered is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Even though it is not a Holy Day of Obligation, as in the case of All Saints Day on the day before, it is highly recommended to assist at Mass on All Souls Day and receive Holy Communion, providing your soul is in the right disposition.
e) LOCAL, NATIONAL, AND INTERNATIONAL TRAGEDIES. Even though exceedingly painful, when there are tragedies on a local, national, or even international level in which several deaths have occurred, these moments should also be a holy reminder of the sober truth of our own mortality.
Now let us move into concrete ways that we indeed can be well-prepared for our own death so that we can encounter Jesus, not so much as our strict Judge, but rather as our merciful and loving Redeemer and Savior!
2. LIVE EACH DAY AS IF IT WERE YOUR LAST. The saints are unanimous in this philosophy of life—that is to say: truly try to live each day of your life as if this were the last day of your life. Not to be apocalyptic or macabre, but it actually could be! We do not want to be like the Foolish Virgins in the Parable of Jesus who had no oil in their lamps. When the groom came they were not there to enter in with him, and so were locked outside the Wedding Banquet. (Mt. 25:1-13) The lack of oil in their lamps symbolizes those who lack sanctifying grace in their souls. Saint Albert Hurtado, S.J., the dynamic Chilean Jesuit priest asserted: “There are two places to rest: the cemetery and heaven.”
3. DIE DAILY!!! Our constant daily struggle is that against the reality of sin in our mortal bodies. Saint Paul reminds us that we must put to death the cravings of the flesh and give full reign to the spirit. This indeed is a daily dying in our mortal body so as to give life to the Spirit of God within us.
4. SACRAMENT OF CONFESSION AND OUR DEATH. Another and most efficacious way that we die in a Sacramental fashion is that of having frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Confession. We confess our sins to the priest who represents Christ and we receive absolution, and thereby we die to sin and rise to new life. Indeed, every good Confession is a reliving of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus—His passion, death, and Resurrection!
5. MEDITATE OFTEN ON THE LAST THINGS. If we constantly have before our eyes the reality of our death, the Judgment that follows immediately after our death, and the reality of Heaven and Hell, then this serves as a powerful springboard to be converted daily! As the Biblical proverb reminds us: “Vanity of vanities… all is vanity” if not related to God and our last end. (Eccl 2)
6. FERVENT HOLY COMMUNIONS. Of all the spiritual means or weapons to prepare us for a holy and happy death, Holy Mass and Holy Communion stands at the top of the list. Jesus offers us this most consoling promise: “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever eats my Body and drinks my Blood will have everlasting life and I will raise him up on the last day.” (The Bread of Life discourse—Jn. 6:22-71)
7. UNITE YOUR SUFFERINGS TO THE CROSS AND THE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS. As we age our health becomes more fragile, but at every age God visits us with various forms of suffering—physical, mental, emotional, moral, spiritual, familial, social, etc.—the list goes on! The key to unlock the treasure house of God’s graces is to recognize our sufferings and unit them with Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, most specifically in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. By living and uniting our sufferings and crosses to the Passion and death of Jesus, our sufferings have infinite value for our salvation and the salvation of many others.
8. BEG FOR THE GRACE. Jesus invites us with these words: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened. Whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; and whoever knocks, the door will be opened to him.” (Mt. 7:7-9) Saint Alphonsus Liguori, who actually wrote a literary masterpiece on this topic, Preparation for a Holy Death, states emphatically on this point: “The grace of all graces is to die in the state of grace.” We should beg fervently and frequently for this grace of all graces—to die in the arms of Jesus, Mary, and Saint Joseph!
9. BEG FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF RECEIVING THE LAST SACRAMENTS. Indeed, only God knows the day, the hour, the minute, and the second our life will end and we will travel from time into eternity. We can humbly beg the Lord, if it be within His Holy Will, to grant us the extraordinary grace of being able to receive the Last Sacraments before we die. There is what is called a continual Rite for those who are approaching death: Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, culminating with Viaticum—meaning last Holy Communion or Communion for those traveling from this life to eternal life! Beg humbly for that grace!
10. THE MOST HOLY ROSARY AND THE BLESSED MOTHER. Of course, we conclude our reflection on the Last Things, most specifically the topic of death, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Hail Mary, and the Holy Rosary. Indeed, every time we say the Hail Mary, we are preparing our soul for the most important moment of our death, but with the presence and assistance of Mary, the Mother of God, the Mother of the Church, and our loving Mother—Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Therefore, if we pray the Rosary on a daily basis, we are actually preparing ourselves to die with Mary at our side, fifty times a day! What a consolation to know at the end of our lives that we were faithful to the recitation of the Holy Rosary, and that Mary will be present at our deathbed so that we may die a holy and happy death and be received mercifully by Jesus into our eternal Home! O Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us that we will live holy lives and experience the grace of all graces—the grace of a holy and happy death. Amen.