I have some news for you. You’re going to die. We all are–not now, maybe, not in the near future, but one day, all of us will physically cease to be.
This isn’t meant to be depressing or frightening; it is a condition of life that it must cease, or otherwise it isn’t even scientifically considered ‘life’. Rocks don’t die, but rocks aren’t living organisms, either. In acknowledging our mortality, we join with the great mass of life on the planet. All birds, beasts, trees and flowers will eventually pass from this mortal coil. The difference with humanity, of course, is our immortal souls.
Should Catholics Fear Death?
In Memoriam: Death In The Past
Generations ago, before antibiotics, life-preserving drugs and advanced medical science, death was frequent and swift. As recently as the early twentieth century, something so simple as a scratch could become infected, turn septic, and prove fatal. You certainly could ‘catch your death’ from a cold.
The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 affected the entire globe and is tragically evident in any visit to an older part of your local cemetery–look for the number of gravestones from that year. Note the ages; most of the casualties were infants or young adults. Sulfa drugs and penicillin–two important, life-sustaining antibiotics–weren’t even developed until the 1920s and 30s. Death, you might say, was a part of life.
Modern Problems: Death In the Current View
Now, antibiotic-resistant bacteria aside, we have extended life expectancies some twenty years beyond what they were in the early part of the last century–at least in countries with the medical resources to do so. We do not fear a sore throat or mere scratch, and giving birth is not nearly as terrifying as it must have been in the days before antiseptics and safe pain medication were readily available.
We’re often able to put off thinking about our own deaths until the very last possible moment, and in most cases we’re afraid to even discuss our own demise except in financial terms–none of us want to burden our families with hospital or funeral expenses, and there is a whole death-related industry concentrated on making us feel bad about how much it costs to die. Everything must be as easy and pain-free and cheap as possible in the commodity of our own deaths. Bodies are embalmed or–much more frequently–cremated and the remains scattered, so that no sign of life (or death, or sorrow) remains beyond a shiny plaque or (worse) a keepsake manufactured out of human ash. Death is rendered clean, antiseptic, and painless.
Still, we eventually die, and despite the onset of technology, cryogenics, and supposed consciousness-uploading strategies, there’s nothing we can do to change that fact.
As Christians however, we believe in the immortal soul. It’s a condition of being a Christian, in fact, and one we recite to remind ourselves every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” That’s not easy to remember in our busy day-to-day lives, nor does it offer much comfort when we are accustomed to the here-and-now. We fear what we do not know, and as living creatures, we do not know death or the life beyond it, except what we have been told by Christ and his disciples.
Preparing Yourself for Eternity: What Does The Church Teach About Death?
How then should one prepare for this inevitable sloughing of our physical self? Should we ignore it until we can’t evade the fact? Should we merely focus on ‘putting our affairs in order’ so that we’re not a financial burden? Should our worries be only material considerations–last wills and testaments, do-not-resuscitate orders, organ donations, the disposition of our store-rooms and closets?
It would seem that the disposition of our immortal souls would have the greater importance than the state of our much more impermanent lives. The Church in her wisdom teaches The Four Last Things–perhaps the most important things to consider when considering one’s own death (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1020-1065). They are: Judgment, Heaven, Purification (Purgatory) and last but certainly not least, Hell.
If we are Christian–if we believe Christ is who He says He is, then we are who He says we are–nothing becomes more paramount than these Four Last Things. When we take time to prayerfully contemplate our own judgment – both particular (immediately after death) and final (after the resurrection of all the dead), it tends to put the business of day-to-day in perspective, certainly in the matters of sin. Is any immediate gratification worth the loss of one’s eternal soul? When we consider the prize (Heaven) and what we may need to undergo to attain it (Purgatory), mere physical distractions and satisfactions seem ridiculous and pathetic in the efforts to avoid the last dreadful Thing: Hell.
The old line “Where do you want to spend eternity?” comes to mind. Because death is certain, though certainly not the end of existence, we are given the tools to contemplate and direct our personal spiritual journeys–through the grace of God, without whom we can do nothing on our own.
RECONCILIATION AND ETERNITY: How’s Your Soul Doing?
Finally, if we are truly concerned with the disposition of our eternal soul, we should make a regular habit of confession. We’re always concerned with our physical bodies; we make time to visit the dentist and to have check-ups with our doctor, so how about a monthly cleansing of our souls? With our true contrition and through the priest in the sacrament of confession, Christ grants us absolution and pardon for our sins–mortal and venial. No matter how physically healthy we are, we honestly don’t know when the end will come “like a thief in the night.” (Th 5:2). All our planning of wills, life savings, and careful thought for some imagined future can’t stave off the inevitable. Moreover, we don’t want to be taken unawares, weighed down with sins. As my mom always (so helpfully!) says, “you could get hit by a bus!” There’s no reason to be afraid of death if you put your spiritual house in order. Consider the Four Last Things, seek reconciliation with Christ in the sacrament of confession, and never forget what Jesus himself says in John 5:24: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life.”
More Catholic Resources
Photo credit: Ayo Ogunseinde / Unsplash.com