The Whys of Life and Dying a Good Death
A Meditation for Lent
Reference: Fr H J Coleridge SJ: "Return of the King", discourse on the Latter Days
During this Lent we should pause, take stock of our life, exactly where we are: why are we here and where do we think we might end up, putting firmly aside the liberal idea that God is so good that all shall be saved, even the most wicked, including those who crucify His Son every day.
Fr Coleridge's leads us in his prophetic "Return of the King" to understand the state of the World as it is, even today, even though he gave these homilies in the late 1800s, and how we could achieve a blessed, even happy death. If we wish to have an invaluable meditation for this Lent which will most certainly change our life and increase our chances of getting to heaven, we could do no better than to download his book from Internet Archive: Digital Library.
The quotes have been taken from "Return of the King" and dovetailed to form a comprehensive whole; however they do not do justice to a highly complex subject requiring many pages to explain, over 200 or so!
The Great Whys?
“Why do we not know whether we are in grace or out of the grace of God? Why are even the servants of God afflicted with the perpetual doubt whether they shall be saved?
Why are the wicked, the heirs of misery, not forewarned of the doom that awaits them?
Why do we not know when we have to die and how long we have to live?
The hour of our death is the one most important moment for us, on which eternity depends, and why do we not know when it is to come?
Why do the wicked prosper in the world?
Why are the just afflicted in the world?
Is it not the world of God, and has not our Lord come down for the purpose of redeeming it, and why then is vice rampant and sin unpunished and virtue persecuted and humility laughed at and the whole favour of the world given to the enemies of God?
Why do the good die young, when they might live on and be so great a benefit to the Church and to the world, and on the other hand the wicked live to a green old age, prospering all their lives, and by their prosperity, leading others to blaspheme, and loading the earth with the moral and physical ruins which they cause all around them?
Why are children snatched away even before baptism, why do they suffer for the sins of their parents, while hoary-headed sinners are spared to live out their days ?
Why is the grace of perseverance denied or not granted to many who have begun well, and many others who have offended God for many long years, saved at the very last by a deathbed repentance?
Why do the servants of God themselves fall, and why are any, whom God has made capable of eternal happiness, plunged forever into Hell?
Such are some of the questions which are constantly arising in the minds of men as they speculate on the action of God in the government of the world, and though we know much about God, there is much more that we do not know.
Now, it is easy to see that if men knew now what their eternal lot was to be, the just would run the risk of greatly diminishing their glory by carelessness or presumption, if they did not altogether forfeit it, and the wicked would be deprived of their one best hope of diminishing their punishment in the next world by carefulness and the endeavour to do some works of penance, and by the restraint which their conscience now exercises over them.
In the case of the uncertainty of the hour of death, we can see again that all the blessings which our Lord attached to the virtue of vigilance and holy fear would be taken away, if the moment of death were revealed to us beforehand. And indeed the revelation would defeat itself, for as it is the just are secured a holy death by being always uncertain of the moment when it would come, and the wicked are preserved from an immense number of additional sins by the fear of death.
In the case of the prosperity of the wicked and the afflictions of the just, the very fact that so it is in the world which is governed by God, is a proof that the good things of this world are not true goods, that God desires His elect to win their crowns by suffering. God desires His elect to win their crowns by suffering and by the practice of all the virtues which make up the character of our Lord, despised and rejected and afflicted, and the whole light which His example has shed on the path to Heaven would be thrown away if virtue was to be rewarded here and if God was to be served by the hope of temporal goods. Where would be the great Christian truth of the Cross?
Do the just die young when their life might be of so much good to the world, and do the wicked live on to the end of a long life, causes of mischief and of ruin? But we are told in Scripture that the good are often taken away lest the beauty and purity of their souls should be marred, and the wicked are left to live on and prosper partly because they have a few good works which can be rewarded in no other world but in this, and partly because God uses them for the chastisement and correction of His own children.
Do children suffer for the sins of their parents? Yes, they do (think of AIDS in babies, the impact of contraception, IVF and Genetic Engineering on future generations or cancers caused today by the pollutions, including the impact of nuclear radiation fall-out from nuclear testing in the 50s), and it would be a lesson lost to fathers and mothers if this were not so. Yes, they may suffer even eternal loss of banishment from the presence of God in Heaven; and yet it is not the doctrine of the Church that any one will be punished in Hell for sins not his own, or that those who lose the supernatural happiness of the saints of God, without any fault of their own, will know what it is they have lost.
Do the just often fall, and are the life-long sinners sometimes saved? Certainly, and if the just never fell through their own negligence, where would be, again, the truth of the necessity of continual vigilance and prayer? And if the sinners were never saved at their end, where would be the glory of God in the salvation and sanctity of Peter or Paul or Magdalene or that blessed thief on the Cross, the first trophy in the world of spirits of the power of the redemption of Jesus Christ?
The government of the world by God then is a scheme of infinite beauty and magnificence, and the answers of the saints are but the sign-posts which point out some of the principles in which it is conducted. All shall be made manifest in the last day, and all will begin their eternity with the full knowledge of this, as of the other great things that shall then be revealed. Now we know that He is good, wise, merciful, all powerful, all holy, but not how good, how wise, how holy.
Every death testifies to the truth of God and the falsehood of Satan
And every single death of a child of Adam, of the babe of an hour of life, or of the aged sinner of a century, testifies to the truth of God and the falsehood of Satan. But again, when man chose to sin, he rebelled against his Lord, and from that moment that beautiful Kingdom of God which He had made for Himself in man became a Kingdom divided against itself, a scene of rebellion and discord and warfare against God.
Pride rose up to defy God. Sensuality broke loose, and degraded and debased and defiled the nature which He had made pure and upright. Avarice, selfishness, greed of temporal goods, hardened, perverted, blinded, man, and bent him down. Charity was extinguished, anger and cruelty were raised in its place. These are the enemies of God; in man, and in death God acts like a great King, who by a single word or touch tumbles in the dust all who have lifted themselves up against Him.
The soul has sinned against Him, by the use it has made of the body, of the objects of the senses, of the world in which it was set to serve Him. The soul itself is indestructible, but at the moment of death it undergoes a complete humiliation before the Majesty of God. All human pride is brought to nothing, and those things which have been the instruments or the occasions of sin are reduced to dust. The world of sense vanishes. The strength of the mighty, the wealth of the rich, the greatness of noble race, knowledge, or talent, or power, or beauty, or grace, or excellence of any kind of which our poor human nature can plume itself all are cast down and come to dust at the foot-stool of the throne of God.
Death ends all falsehoods and pretence
The moment which brings the soul into His presence puts an end to all false greatness, to all pretenses and shams and impostures. All become nothing, emptiness, vanity, corruption in His Presence.
Men may make even gods in this life of money, or pleasure, or power and when the touch of death comes, these idols which they have worshipped are broken to pieces before them.
The flesh which has been indulged, is chastised by falling to dust and becoming food for worms, and all things else that men have delighted in and set their hearts upon are annihilated. The slave of avarice becomes poor, naked, miserable, and has to leave all his goods and possessions.
God's Justice Prevails
The justice of God falls on everything which has been His enemy in the soul of man, everything that has been set up in His place, everything for the sake of which His law has been forsaken and His rights despised. You may remember how in one of His parables, our Lord describes the King who returns from a far country to take account of his servants, and how He makes him say, “As for those mine enemies, who would not have me reign over them, bring them in hither and kill them before.” This is what takes place at death.
God, the Master of life and death, sometimes takes weak men and women like ourselves, He has taken them from all ranks and ages and conditions, and without requiring in them beforehand any consummate sanctity, but simply Christian faith, and then He has put them to the test, to confess their faith under pain of mortal sin, and by confessing it, to suffer excruciating tortures and to die. This sacrifice, which He has actually exacted of some, He might exact of all, just as the service of the country may require the sacrifice of the life of every single soldier in the ranks as it does actually require the sacrifice of the life of many.
An Accepted Death is a Sacred and Holy Act, giving Glory to God and ourselves
But what God does not actually require of us, though He might, that it is our wisdom to voluntarily to offer to Him, and we do this by accepting our death whenever it comes, and however it comes, willingly, and making it a free sacrifice to Him in perfect conformity to His holy Will. Then indeed death is made a sacred thing, it is not merely sacred in itself, and independently of us, in all those ways of which we have been speaking, it becomes an act of worship and of religion, it gives glory to God by this beautiful act of submission, of resignation, of love for Him and His glory, by which it is accompanied.
In death we can be come priests, martyrs and confessors
We are not all priests, we are not all ministers of the altar, we are not all called to the life-long martyrdom of consecration to God by vow in an apostolic and penitential life. No, but once at least in our existence we may make ourselves priests, and martyrs, and confessors, and consecrated to God, when the time comes for us to pass out of this world, and we rise up, as Abraham did, in the strength of faith, and take our life and being in our hands, as he took his one child Isaac, and present ourselves on the holy mountain of sacrifice, ready to give up our life for His glory, bidding Him take back what is His own, rejoicing in the triumph of His glory, in the destruction of all that has rebelled against Him, in the humiliation of the proud human flesh, in the reducing to dust of all that has hindered His perfect service in the existence of His creature.
This type of death is the holiest and most blessed sacrifice of which our poor humanity is capable. It requires no priestly unction, no apostolic mission, no religious consecration, no martyr's vocation. Yes, and so meritorious is it, so full of love and of conformity and of imitation of our Lord, that I do not fear to say that such a death may be made so sacred, as to have a marvellous power of expiation from the Sacrifice of our Lord.
In the old Christian times when the Catholic religion penetrated every department and corner of life, it used to be considered that those who died by the hand of justice, with all the spiritual aids which religious charity could provide, wiped away, by that involuntary sacrifice, the guilt of the crime for which they suffered, and died holy deaths.
The place of execution, the act of execution itself, both were considered holy. And no doubt it has often been true that such sufferers, when they have been perfectly contrite and resigned and submissive in their suffering, may have been heirs of the crown of that blessed penitent who hung by our Lord's side and said, “Lord remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom”, and who heard those gracious words, “This day thou shalt be with Me.”
Accepted suffering and death is our submission to God's Justice and Mercy
The death-bed of every Christian is the place of solemn submission to God's justice, and all who render up their souls to God may do that last act of their lives with faith, hope, confession, and contrition, and resignation, and love, before which the gates of Paradise will roll back at once, through the merits of Him Who has tasted death for all men.
Death may be willingly accepted and embraced, and that when we accept and embrace it we have an opportunity of winning from God the very highest graces, such as those which make the words true, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints”, and that this is true, not of what we call heroic deaths only, or rather, every Christian death may be made heroic by the exercise of the virtues which belong to that blessed moment which is the end and crown of life. My brethren, what is the lesson of this truth, but that we should strive and pray for ourselves, and others, that we may have intelligence to see all the opportunities that are offered us, and grace and will to use them?
This I take to be one true reason why God so constantly warns us of death, and yet leaves it uncertain, and why we are so continually urged by the Church to prepare ourselves for that last moment. It is not only that we may be in a state of grace when we come to die, that we may persevere to the end in the faith and the service of God. That is an ineffable grace, but it is not all. Our Lord would have us miss no beauty, no perfection of virtue, of which life and death are capable. And so we may take this third truth and apply it thus. As, from the sacredness and loneliness of death we learn to live in God's presence, as from the consideration of the glory which death gives to Him, we learn to mortify ourselves in the practice of virtue, so also, from the thought of the sanctity of which death is capable, we may learn to practise ourselves in heroic and special exercises of resignation, humility, mortification, and charity, such as may make our death most precious and most holy. (This why suicide or assisted suicide is so terrible because it robs the soul of the cleansing action of a Sacred death, including its Holiness. Above all, it robs God of His glory in this final act to life.)
God foresees when our lives ought to end to save us from ourselves
God foresees that this or that person, who is now dear to Him, will, if he lives longer, fall away, it must also be true that many sinners may be cut off by death, when God knows that if they lived longer they would offend Him more. And as it is the mercy of God, in the case of the just who are snatched away while yet undefiled, that saves them, as it were, from themselves, so it is the mercy of God, in the case of the wicked, who, if they live, will be still more wicked, which saves them from themselves. And in this way we come to see how that may be true, which some of the saints of God have said concerning His providence in death, that every one, even the sinner, is called away by death when it is better for him to die than to live.
We live in an intensely wicked world
For as it is, the world is intensely wicked. As it is, the fear of God, the voice of conscience, the danger of death, all the terrors of God's justice and all the pleadings of His grace, have little enough power to check even enormous sins, general depravity, the mad revellings of sensuality, cruelty, tyranny, pride, the oppression of the weak, the grinding down of the poor, the hard treatment of those who are unable to help themselves in this life.
If there were no such decree as that of death, the struggle of life would be far more intolerable than it is, and the greatest support of conscience, the one great daily interference of God which reminds men what they are, that dust they are, and unto dust they must return, the one great leveller and equalizer of all under the varieties of human conditions, would be swept away. If the merciful law of death could be abolished and abrogated, the world would become ten times more the ante-chamber of Hell than it is.
Christians, and we have to see how to them death may not only be an occasion of great thoughts and actions, a sacred holy time, when they may give great glory to God, and add immensely to their own eternal reward, but also a happy time, a time of peace and content and rejoicing and exultation.
The body in which we live is marvellously made, but, after all, it is in our present existence often a prison and a house of bondage and even of torture, and among all its great capabilities there is none more striking than its capability of suffering.
We begin to die as soon as we are born, a great part of our life is suffering and pain, and, the older we grow, the more do we rehearse our death, time after time.
Again, another motive which may be assigned for welcoming death, is that it not only puts an end to our bodily miseries, but to our dangers, our temptations, the life-long struggle between matter and spirit, reason and concupiscence, the lower and the higher parts of our nature, the continuance of which struggle implies our continual danger of sinning. And it is only foolish and thoughtless persons who can undervalue this danger, and who in consequence can think it a light blessing when it comes to an end.
Saints have such a horror of any offence of God, that the tidings of their release from the possibility of committing it cannot but be tidings of joy.
It is not Christian to rail against the world, in the way in which satirists and cynics rail against it. There have been and are many gloomy, angry, self-centred, self opinionated men, men of dark, saturnine, fretful, malignant minds, who find no occupation so congenial as that of perpetual fault-finding with everything around them, and this temper and character sometimes infects half a generation, in consequence of the prominent influence of some poet or prophet of despair, sometimes it gives a tone to literature, especially newspaper literature, which is neither healthy nor Christian. These men are angry with God for making the world, and they are angry with all the world for not making gods of them.
Death now as it comes to us in the present Providence under which we live, and so it is arranged, by God's mercy, that even that partial happiness which we can have in the society of one another is dashed to pieces by losses, and estrangements, or separations, or bereavements, by the fleeting fickle instability even of what is best. Those who live the longest know the most truly how uncertain, how unsatisfactory, is life, and they long, as the Apostle did, for the sentence which is to set them free from: the sentence of death in ourselves.
It is better and nobler, and happier, in a Christian sense, to die for the faith, to die for charity's sake, rather than simply to die, so it is far better for us, being what we are, and with the prospect of Heaven before us, to die rather than not to die at all, and thus it is that this enemy is kept by our Lord, as it were, to be executed last. Death has become the servant of God and of His children, the gloom has been taken away, the fearfulness destroyed, the penal character changed into an occasion of merit.
He has taught us how to die. If there were no other value to us at all in His Blessed Passion, there would be in this alone enough to make it our greatest treasure. Well may we spend our Lent in the study of His Passion. There is not a step in the Passion of Jesus Christ, from the beginning to the end, which is not a special lesson to the Christian how to die, how we are to look forward to death, how to prepare for it, how we are to fit ourselves to meet our God, how to take leave of the world, of our friends or of those who are not our friends, of worldly goods and duties and relations, and all around us, how we are to bear the pains which precede it, how we are to pray, and fortify ourselves by the sacraments and the other aids of the Church, what acts of faith and hope and forgiveness, and humility and contrition and conformity and resignation, we are to exercise.”
Jesus's triumphant last strong cry, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit”, should be ours too. In the crucifix is the treasure of the Christian life, and there we can read all that we have to do to live well, but above all to die well: have a blessed and fruitful Lent.