Won’t you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can’t see
With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel….
These are lyrics from the widely-known song “O, Death” a haunting melody that became famous after it was featured in the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The song, so expertly sung by Ralph Stanley in what is almost a Gregorian chant to the power of death, is haunting precisely because it expresses so well the natural human fear of death.
But is it true that death something that “none can excel”? Is death really “the final word” over human life? Or is there another word that God has to say on the matter?
In the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), we read that: “It is in the face of death that the riddle a human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction.” Faced with the reality of death, we rightly ask: “What will become of all that I have worked for? What will happen to all those I have loved?” The unavoidable reality of death seems to make human life meaningless. “Why am I here,” we ask, “if in the end, it all comes to nothing?”
In the Scriptures, death is the enemy. It is the companion of sin, and they both must be overcome together. Rather than counseling the faithful simply to accept death as a fact of life, or to welcome death as a gift, Gaudium et Spes tells us that the human person “rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person.” It is thus a very human and very understandable reaction to death for the poet Dylan Thomas to beg his dying father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Go not gently into that dark night.” Why? Because God has put us in the seeds of something eternal: a yearning for Himself.
“Human beings bear in themselves,” Gaudium et Spes tells us, “an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to the merely material.” It is precisely because we are not merely material that we yearn for something beyond the death of our finite human bodies. It is especially when we look at a man or woman in a wheelchair or an elderly grandmother whose body has withered and failed in so many ways, yet still feel in their presence the power of their indomitable spirit, that we know there is something in the human person not restricted to the current weakness of our material bodies.
Human beings know they must face death, but they also have always yearned for something more — a life that transcends the limitations of this world, including even the boundaries of death. The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote about his belief in the immortality of the soul that, “If I err in my belief that the souls of men are immortal, I gladly err, nor do I wish this error … to be wrested from me while I live.”
Spiritual health involves an acknowledgement of the reality and inevitability of death, but it also involves recognizing in ourselves the desire for a life that transcends the life we see all around us in nature: the kind of life that flowers for a time, but then withers and ultimately dies. As humans, we find within ourselves a deep and very meaningful yearning for life in the truest sense, a life free from sin and death: a life we call “eternal life.”
But “eternal life” of the sort Christ promises us is not merely the elongation of years — more years to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” more years to worry anxiously about the ultimate end. This is why, according to Gaudium et Spes, “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy the desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in the human heart.”
When I ask young people whether they want to “live forever,” they often will ask me in return, “Do you mean like this? As I am now?” “No,” they frequently will reply. Perhaps they sense instinctively that merely extending this life would not yet be enough. Perhaps they are merely responding to a deep yearning for something more: a fuller kind of life than even the blessings of youth can provide.
And yet I also worry that this response might stem from an unfortunate weariness with life. Too many of our beloved young people as well as our invaluable elderly consider taking their own lives. As a Church community united in the mystical and living Body of Christ, we must never allow this sad weariness of life to overcome us. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote passionately in his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae about the importance of life and of establishing a “culture of life.” “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message,” wrote the Pope. “Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as ‘good news’ to the people of every age and culture.”
“Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence because it consists it consists in sharing the very life of God,” says the Pope. And yet this calling to union with God must in no way cause us to de-value human life in this world. Rather, as the Pope emphasizes:
The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 John 3:1-2).
Indeed, it is precisely because of this supernatural calling — because the events of our life now have not merely temporal, but eternal ramifications — that, according to John Paul II, life “remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.
And yet, what can give us hope in the face of the utter blackness of death? We cannot see beyond that veil of darkness. Death remains a mystery, and its ceaseless presence can fill us with what is sometimes called “existential dread.”
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
So wrote Andrew Marvell “to his coy mistress.” Marvell may only have been interested in a romantic tryst when he wrote those lines, but they’re powerful (even if improperly used) precisely because they witness to something authentic in the human condition: an inescapable awareness (“But at my back I always hear”), sometimes dim, sometimes less so, of the inevitable approach of death. Death … and then what? “Deserts of vast eternity?” “The grave’s a fine and private place,” Marvell warns his young paramour, “But none, I think, do there embrace.”
Aging and death can make us feel deeply alone in the universe. It seems as though it is a burden we must carry alone. No one go through this process for us. No one can take our place in death. It is something we ourselves must do.
But are we really alone? Our Christian faith tells us that Christ died for us, and thus we are never truly alone. We read in Gaudium et Spes:
Although the mystery of death utterly beggars the imagination, the Church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery. In addition, bodily death … will be vanquished … when man who was ruined by his own doing is restored to wholeness by an almighty and merciful Savior. For God has called man and still calls him so that with his entire being he might be joined to Him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption. Christ won this victory when He rose to life, for by His death He freed man from death. Hence to every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him. At the same time faith gives him the power to be united in Christ with his loved ones who have already been snatched away by death; faith arouses the hope that they have found true life with God.
God made us for Him — to love and serve Him and our neighbor in this life and in the next. Perhaps one reason we weep at the death of our loved ones is because we think they are “going away.” Too often we think of heaven merely as a place: a place far away, like New York or Paris or the moon. We comfort ourselves by saying: “They’ve gone to a better place.” And yet, we still miss them.
As Catholics we believe in the communion of saints. We are promised that the love we have for God and in communion with his Son in the Body of Christ, the Church, can never die. We do not lose our loved ones, nor they us. Rest assured, our Christian faith tells us, your loved ones are not simply “gone.” They abide — with God, and through God, with you. They continue in their essence as before — loving us, praying for us, being with us. Indeed, in union with the eternal Divine Love, their love for us can be even more intimate. They are no longer merely “beside us” or “across the table” from us. Now they can be also “above us” and “inside us” — knowing us, as God does, “better than we know ourselves.” And we can rejoice in that love and continue to be comforted by it even during the dark times, whether we face death or someone we love.
My own mother died on a cold clear night shortly after the Easter Vigil mass would have finished, although I was at her bedside instead of mass. I was an adult convert, and this was my second Easter as a Catholic. I was filled with deep sorrow at her passing, even as I was convinced by my faith that the Lord would be with her. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” sings the Psalmist, “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
And yet, however much we believe in Christ’s promise, we weep at the death of a loved one. This is truly human. In this life we must walk by faith and not by sight. We cannot see what is on the other side of the great darkness. But we know that God is there, and that He —with all His saints in whose lives His love was reflected upon us as light is reflected by a clear mirror — will be there to accompany us, as He has been with us our entire lives, even during those times when He seemed most absent.
There is a lovely little poem written, it is said, by Sir Walter Raleigh in his Bible as he was in prison awaiting execution. It goes like this:
Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.
We begin the season of Lent with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, and we hear the priest recite the words: “From dust you have come and to dust you will return.” We end the season with the celebration of Easter, with Christ’s victory over death, whereby we are raised up with Him to that glorious communion of saints who rejoice in the loving presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sharing their divine nature and their eternal communion of love. During this season, we reenact the entire journey of human life, “from dust to dust” and then beyond, in the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, beginning at the liturgy of the Easter Vigil as we sing the lines from the great Exsultet hymn:
This is the night
when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
Yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return. We cannot (as we so often do in our youth-obsessed culture) ignore the reality of aging and death. It is part of the reality of human life. And to live lives that are fully human, we must face the human reality of death. Too often we try to keep it away from us: we hide it away in hospitals and hospices, not keeping it at home. A culture that has not faced up to the reality of death will usually fail to understand the importance and precious nature of life.
Mary weeps at the foot of the cross, and we weep with her. But we also must not stop there. For beyond the cross of Good Friday is Christ’s Resurrection on Easter morning, His ascension to God’s right hand, and His continual sending of the Holy Spirit to lead us back to Him. If we die with Him, we will live with Him. And the good news is, we can begin that resurrected life with him now. But only if we put to death in ourselves all that brings spiritual death — cruelty, hatred, selfishness, and pride — and live in Christ with the new life made possible by the grace of the Holy Spirit by which “charity is spread abroad in our hearts.”
Socrates told the friends with him at his execution that all of a life is a preparation for death. Socrates was right, but not in the way he thought. Life is a preparation for death; but not merely the death of the body which liberates the soul, as Socrates seems to have thought. Life should be a constant death-to-self so that we can become in our own way, like Christ, a selfless gift of self to others. Christ’s promise is that this is the sort of life that even death cannot triumph over.
If we spend our lives in the love of God and neighbor then, as St. Paul tells us, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “In all these things,” St. Paul assures us, “we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.”
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so …why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Such a message is good news indeed, for those willing to accept it, to those of us who live, as we do, “in the valley of the shadow of death.”
(This essay was originally posted on the CWR site on Good Friday, March 25, 2016.)
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