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Advent Reflections on the Four Last Things: Death

Embrace Trad Advent and fast with the Fellowship of St. Nicholas this year. 

Editor’s note: since we have a very short Advent this year, we will begin our annual Advent reflections on the Four Last things today and continue henceforth every Friday until Christmas. 

The World Fears Death, but Catholics Must Remember It

There is perhaps no truth today more shunned, suppressed, and vehemently ignored than the reality of death. Modern man is consumed with indulging his slavery to his passions, proclaiming himself free, and absolutely banishing the thought that he will die. He has invented words to shun even the mention of death: “macabre,” “morbid.” Yet he will murder anyone who gets in the way of his slavery to his passions. The debauchery into which he throws himself keeps his vision blinded to anything but his slavery. He cannot see the one thing in the future he can never avoid or deny.

One could make a reasonable case that the historical decline in religious piety correlates with the decline in death from disease and the general modern advances in technology and comfort which obscure the reality of death. When a man can ignore death, he can ignore God. In the season most dedicated to the Four Last Things – Advent – he keeps himself distracted in his illusion with indulgence and celebrations.

Yet by God’s grace, no man can ignore death forever. Eventually, a loved one dies. Eventually, a man contracts cancer or some other illness. Eventually he is face to face with what he has skillfully eluded his entire life. Then he will be confronted with this stark reality. Perhaps then he will face the difficult questions. Perhaps then he will turn to God and look over his life.

St. Francis de Sales:

Consider that then the world is at end as far as you are concerned, there will be no more of it for you, it will be altogether overthrown for you, since all pleasures, vanities, worldly joys, empty delights will be as a mere fantastic vision to you. Woe is me, for what mere trifles and unrealities I have ventured to offend my God? Then you will see that what we preferred to Him was nought. But, on the other hand, all devotion and good works will then seem so precious and so sweet: — Why did I not tread that pleasant path? Then what you thought to be little sins will look like huge mountains, and your devotion will seem but a very little thing.[1]

St. Alphonsus laments the death of sinners:

They will have recourse to God at death; but he will say to them: Why do you invoke me now? Call on creatures to assist you; for they have been your gods. The Lord will address them in this manner, because, in seeking him, they do not sincerely wish to be converted.[2]

Let not the death of a sinner overtake you. Remembrance of death is remembrance of ultimate reality. Prepare now for the fate of all flesh. Hear the words of the dead: what you are, I once was; what I am, you will become.[3]

The Necessity of Remembering Death

Bergamo writes:

Death is the best teacher of truth; and pride — being nothing but an illusion of our heart — clings to a vanity which it does not recognize as vanity; and therefore death is the best means by which we can learn what vanity is and how to detach our hearts from it.[4]

Are you angry at your brother for giving you some slight insult? Consider your death. What will become of that insult when your body is rotting in the grave and your soul is appearing before the judgment seat? Will you still hold on to your anger? Rather, the Lord says, Unless you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will not forgive you (Mt. vi. 14). Death cuts through your vanity to show you the emptiness of human glory.

Are you distressed about the state of the Church? Consider your death. The Lord says, He who perseveres to the end shall be saved (Mt. xxiv. 13). Soon you will die and face judgment. What will the Lord say you to you at that time? Did you take the talent and out of fear bury it (Mt. xxv. 25), or did you invest the graces given you to produce merit and save souls? Your death is near at hand, when all of these things will be stripped away from you.

As the 15th-century play Everyman shows beautifully, a man can take neither kindred, fellowship, goods, nor strength at death. Only good works can be brought before the judgment seat of Christ. Death causes us to see clearly the reality before us. Death causes us to see the emptiness of created comforts and place all our hope in the Uncreated. Death keeps us safe from lies, vanity, and most of all sin itself.

Are you tempted to sin? Consider your death. Soon this empty pleasure will mean nothing at your death. Soon you will regret having taken momentary pleasure and forsaken eternal life. This transitory delight will last but an instant, while eternity will last for all time and beyond. Do not listen to the Devil, who says to you “It matters little. Tomorrow you will confess.” Listen instead to your Lord who says, Fool! This night your life shall be required of you (Lk. xii. 20), and again, keep watch for you know not the day nor the hour (Mt. xxv. 13). The remembrance of death is victory over every sin.

How to Remember Your Death

Because our modern society is bent on everyone denying his death, it is extremely difficult to remember that you will die. Nevertheless, this practice is so salutary as to cause swift advancement in the spiritual life. One method is the daily remembrance. This consists of arising and making your morning offering with the consideration that you will die that very night. Say before God on the last day of your life:

Remember, O Christian Soul, that thou hast this day:
God to glorify
Jesus to Imitate
The Angels and Saints to Invoke
A soul to save
A body to mortify
Sins to expiate
Virtues to acquire
Hell to avoid
Heaven to gain
Eternity to prepare for
Time to profit by
Neighbors to edify
The world to despise
Devils to combat
Passions to subdue
Death to suffer
And judgment to undergo.[5]

At the end of the day make your examination of conscience while considering that you will die that night. This will bring forth true contrition for your sins, and show you the vanity of having offended your God for a trifle. Say the Miserere.

When lying down to sleep, lie down on your back and look to the heavens. Consider your body on its deathbed, or laid in the grave. Then place your hope in the mercy of God and repeat the prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

Another method is the monthly remembrance. Consider that this month will be your last month to live. The final day of this month will be your final day on this Earth. That night you will die.

Then look at your life and consider what you shall do before your death. Strive after virtue, and overcome your sin.

Shortly before the last day of the month, make a thorough examination of conscience. Then make your Confession as your last before you die. Then look upon your bed and say, “Will this bed be my grave? Lord Jesus I trust in Thy mercy.” Then kneel and pray:

O my God, sovereign Lord of life and of death, Who, by an immutable decree for the punishment of sin, hast determined that all men must die, behold me humbly kneeling before Thy dread Majesty, resigned and submissive to this law of Thy justice. With all my heart I detest my past sins, by which I have deserved death a thousand times; and for this cause I accept death in reparation for my sins and in obedience to Thy holy will. Yes, great God, send death upon me where Thou wilt, when Thou wilt, and in what manner Thou wilt. Meantime I shall avail myself of the days which it shall please Thee to bestow upon me, to detach myself from this world and to break every tie that holds me in bondage to this place of exile, and to prepare myself to appear with sure confidence before Thy judgment seat. Wherefore I surrender myself without reserve into the hands of Thy fatherly Providence. May Thy Divine will be done now and for evermore! Amen.[6]

These daily and monthly practices prepare your soul for the death that you must die. Preparing in these ways will make your inevitable death an occasion not of mourning, but of merit. Then you will do what you have rehearsed by God’s grace all your life. Then you will die a good death.

The saint is not afflicted, like worldlings, at the thought of being obliged to leave the goods of this earth, because he has kept the soul detached from them. During life, he always regarded God as the Lord of his heart and as the sole riches which he desired: What have I in heaven? and, besides thee, what do I desire upon earth? Thou art the God of my heart and the God that is my portion for ever (Ps. lxxxii. 25, 26.).[7]


Originally published MMXIX. 

[1] St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, ch. 13.

[2] St. Alphonsus, Preparation for Death, ch. 6.

[3] This is the Latin adage Eram quod es; eris quod sum, which seems to have originated with pre-Christian Roman authors but has been adopted since by various saints and Catholic orders.

[4] Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo, Humility of Heart (TAN reprint: 2006), 64.

[5] Roman Catholic Daily Missal, “Subjects for Daily Meditation” (Angelus Reprint: 2004), 28.

[6] Dom Scupoli, Spiritual Combat (Catholic Tradition online edition), supplemental chapter “At the Hour of Death.”

[7] St. Alphonsus, Sermon XI on the Death of the Just (Sunday Sermons trans. Callan).

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