The great woman Doctor of the Church. Saint Catherine of Siena stated: “The two most important moments of our life are now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Of course this reminds us of the prayer that the Blessed Mother loves so much—the Angelic Salutation commonly known as the Hail Mary.
Given that the moment we die is of the greatest importance for every living human person, and that our eternal destiny depends on how we die, how we finish our brief earthly sojourn, we must all make a sincere, calm, serene, but also sober and serious effort to arrive at the end of our lives in the grace of God. Saint Alphonsus Liguori, one of the most prolific writers in the Catholic Church, actually penned a spiritual masterpiece on the topic of death, the book’s title: “Preparation for Death.” The same saint asserted: “The grace of all graces is to die in the state of grace.” That is our hope as well as the basic purpose or thrust of this short essay—that all of us will live our lives to the fullest extent possible in the service of God and neighbor, persevering and growing in grace and finally, and of the greatest importance, dying in the state of sanctifying grace!
Therefore, let us converse calmly, serenely, and confidently on the all-important topic of our mortality, on the reality of death that nobody in this earthly residence can avoid.
1. WHAT IS DEATH? There is a clinical-medical definition of death. However, we would like to offer a succinct and to the point theological definition of death as the following: “Death is the separation of the soul from the body.” That is to say that the moment the soul departs from the body, theologically we have died and passed from this world to the next, from time into eternity, from temporal existence into eternal reality.
2. WHO DETERMINES DEATH. Unfortunately, politicians and governments are intervening to determine the death of certain individuals. The misnomers or euphemisms utilized for this are many: euthanasia, mercy-killing, death with dignity. All of these misnomers have missed the mark totally. The reason is clear: God and only God has the right to give life to the human person; only God has the right to take the life of the individual person. The Book of Job could not be clearer on this point: “Naked I came forth from the womb of my mother and naked I return to the earth. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. If we accept good things from the hand of the Lord, should we not also accept evil.” (Job 1) Nobody, absolutely nobody has the right to take the life of another human being. Nor do they have the right to take their own life. That right and privilege is reserved to God alone as the origin, the author and sustainer and determiner of all life.
3. HUMAN LIFE AND OTHER FORMS OF LIFE AND DEATH. As a result of Original Sin, death entered into the world. (Letter of Paul to the Romans). All living beings are destined to die on one day, hour, minute, second. However, the death of a plant, insect, tree, or animal cannot be compared to the death of a human person. Why? Because only the human person created in the image and likeness of God is endowed with an immortal soul, a spark of God that was infused in the moment of conception, and that will live for all eternity. Animals have rights and importance but none can be compared to the human person—in his innate dignity as well as his destiny!
4. SHORTNESS OF LIFE. The Bible, as well as the saints, emphasize the short, transitory, ephemeral character of human life. All must be seen and interpreted in the light of eternity—meaning forever and ever and ever! The Psalmist expresses the fleeting character of life with these words: “Our life on earth is like the flower of the field that rises its head in the morning and withers and dies as the sun goes down.” (Ps 103:15-16) Saint James presents another familiar image: “Our life is like a puff of smoke.” (Jas 4:14) All of us have seen a puff of smoke from a cigar, from a chimney, from a smoldering fire. It appears and dissipates and disappears in no time! The eloquent Father of the Church, the Great Saint Augustine expresses our life in these powerful terms: “Our life on earth in comparison with eternity is a mere blink of the eye.” Try it now: blink! Time terminates; eternity just begins!
5. JESUS ADMONISHES AND WARNS US ABOUT THE REALITY OF DEATH. Time and time again Jesus admonishes and warns us about the precarious as well as uncertain character of death in both His words and His Parables. Jesus says that death will come like a thief in the night, at the moment that you least expect it. He also says that death will come as in the time of Noah when people were eating and drinking and living it up, and then the deluge descended upon all of humanity, and all was engulfed and drowned respecting no person, no plant, no animal except for the few who found refuge in the Ark.
6. JESUS’ SHORT BUT POIGNANT PARABLE: THE RICH FOOL! (Lk. 12:16-21) This rich fool had an abundant harvest and his grain bins filled to the max. Therefore, he decided and reasoned that he would have a long life ahead and an abundance stored up for years to come. But Jesus states starkly that he will pass from this life to the next with a sudden death that very day! Where will all the abundance end up?
7. VIGILANCE. This being said, the essential teaching of Jesus on this point is the one word: VIGILANCE! BE ALERT, BE PREPARED!!! Jesus insists on not putting off our conversion until tomorrow—perhaps we have no tomorrow! Rather, Jesus insists that we do God’s will right now with no procrastination, no excuses, no delay, no dragging of one’s feet!
8. THE TWO GREATEST TRAGEDIES ON EARTH. The two greatest tragedies on earth are both related to the topic of DEATH! The first tragedy is that of having the misfortune of committing a Moral Sin. This tragically deprives us of the state of sanctifying grace—the presence and friendship of God in our soul. However, the Book of Revelation/Apocalypse, warns us of what is termed “The Second Death”. By this is meant dying physically in the state of Mortal Sin. If this physical and moral tragedy occurs then such an individual loses his soul for all eternity. Due to his own free choice in rejecting God, he will have lost God forever and ever.
9. OUR GREATEST DESIRE: TO DIE IN THE STATE OF SANCTIFYING GRACE. As stated earlier in quoting Saint Alphonsus Liguori, the grace of all graces is to die in the state of sanctifying grace. Indeed, this is a grace that we should humbly beg for all the days of our life. Nothing more precious than to die in Friendship with God in the state of grace.
10. PRACTICAL MEANS OR ACTIONS TO PROCURE A HOLY & HAPPY DEATH. We would like to offer a concrete program to reflect upon, pray over, and implement in your daily life so as to attain the crown of eternal glory by dying in the state of grace.
- LIVE EACH DAY AS IF IT WERE YOUR LAST. Yes!!! We should strive to live every day of our life as if it were to be our last. Actually it could be! Call to mind any untimely or unpredicted death that comes to your mind and then apply that to yourself. This is a great wake-up call!
- IMITATION OF CHRIST. Meditate upon the words of the classic, written by Thomas Kempis: “It is not important a long life, but rather a holy life.”
- MORTAL SIN? If you have the disgrace of falling into Mortal Sin, like the Prodigal Son return to God through a good Sacramental Confession as soon as possible. Do not allow the sun to go down on your mortal sin.
- WORK HARD NOW AND REST IN ETERNITY. Among the many virtues or attributes of the saints is that of their hard work ethic to serve God and to save souls. Perhaps the motto of Saint Father Alberto Hurtado can motivate you: “There are two places to rest: the cemetery and Heaven!” While God gives us breath, time, talents, and treasures they should be used to the max!
- DIE TO SIN—LIVE FOR GOD. By frequenting the Sacrament of Confession we are practicing a dying, but a dying in a very good way: we are dying to the reality of sin, which is the only real evil in the world! Saint Augustine compares the Confessional to the tomb where Lazarus was buried for four days. Every good Sacramental Confession is leaving the tomb and the bandages of death and putting on new life!
- PRAY FOR THE DEAD. It is a very salutary practice to pray for the dead in the month of November, but in all times and places. The Souls in Purgatory will then pray for you and the eternal salvation of your soul.
- REMINDERS OF DEATH. Have before your eyes the concrete reality of death and reminders of death. Passing in front of a Cemetery, a Funeral Mass, the sun going down every day, the Crucifix, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in which we celebrate the Passion, suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Lord. Then draw the conclusion that one day it is my turn to die.
- AT THE BEDSIDE OF THE DYING: OFFER HELP! When you have the opportunity to be at the bedside of some person who is in his last moments, perhaps his last agony, then pray the most Holy Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. No doubt, these prayers are most potent tools to expel the devils and attain from this dying person a truly repent heart, disposing him to die in God’s loving embrace.
- BEG FOR THE GRACE TO RECEIVE THE LAST SACRAMENTS. Why not beg this grace for yourself as well as your loved ones—the grace to receive the Last Sacraments before passing from time to eternity? A Catholic priest administering the three Sacraments—Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Communion (Viaticum—food for the journey) without a doubt can be a most efficacious tool for dying in the state of grace. Then if the priest prays what is called “The Apostolic Pardon” the dying can receive what is called a Plenary Indulgence and have not only his sins forgiven, but also all temporal Punishment due to his sins expiated and washed clean. In concrete, that means upon dying, he could have immediate access to Heaven.
- LOVE, TRUST, CONFIDENCE IN MARY. In fact, every day of your life can be a concrete and immediate preparation for the day, hour, and moment that you die, through the intercession of Mary. Indeed, you can prepare yourself for a holy and happy death fifty times every day; or if you like, 100! How? Every time you pray the most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary you are preparing yourself to die fifty times, yes, fifty times! Why? Because at the latter part of the Hail Mary you pray these words that refer to begging Our Lady that she attain for you a holy and happy death: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. If you have the habit of praying fervently the Holy Rosary, beyond a shadow of a doubt Our Lady will be present, very close to you the hour, the minute, the actual moment that you pass from this life to the next, and you stand in front of the Judgment Seat of the Lord. May Our Lady and Good Saint Joseph attain for us the grace to live most holy lives, have holy deaths, and so pass from this life to eternal life in Heaven!