Death. It’s something we all experience, something that will always come. It is unavoidable, uncharitable, unalterable. When man reaches the end of his life, and his soul is torn from his body to its judgment, death not only takes place but engulfs any reality that we knew. How many of us really contemplate the reality of death? How many of us mediate on our own death in light of the Holy Scripture? How many of us daily examine our conscience and strive to practice virtue so that we may die a holy death?
In this article, I would like to examine the concept and reality of death from the great theological scholar of the 20th Century – a man whom I believe to be a saint – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.
Fr. Lagrange is known today by most traditionalists as a staunch defender of orthodox “Strict Thomism” in the twentieth century against the rising theological problems of the New Theology. His arguments against this movement are on point and are still extremely effective today. However Fr. Lagrange contributed so much more to the science of Theology and Philosophy than just a critique of novel errors. He wrote six massive commentaries of St. Thomas Aquinas’s famous Summa Theologica. These commentaries represent the best of the Thomistic tradition, bringing together all of the venerable Thomistic commentators, such as Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, the great commentator of the Summa and opponent of the heretic Luther. Also John of St. Thomas, Fr. Domingo Báñez (Confessor of St. Teresa of Avila), and many more. These were not dry academic textbooks, however. Rather, they expounded beautifully on the text of the Angelic Doctor, while simultaneously attacking the modern errors such as Rationalism, Modernism, Protestantism, and Liberalism.
He is also known for writing De Revelatione, a two-volume work establishing the credibility of divine revelation. Three Ages of the Interior Life, meanwhile, brought together many writings of the great saints to teach the universal call to holiness. Overall, his works are vast and much needed today, especially to navigate the crisis in the Church from a more academic perspective. One such work that pertains to our discussion is the great book Life Everlasting. This work treats of the Four Last Things, our theme for this Advent.
Let us now look at his treatment of death with a sober judgment and listen to his wisdom. Fr. Lagrange treats under the subject of death three themes: final impenitence, the grace of a happy death (the gift of perseverance), and the immutability of death. We will examine all three and draw from the text several lessons that pertain to this subject.
Fr. Lagrange begins by defining what is meant by the word “Impenitence.” He states:
Impenitence is the absence, the privation, of that contrition which alone can destroy in the sinner the moral consequences of his revolt against God. These consequences are destroyed by satisfactory reparation, that is, first, by sorrow for having offended God, secondly, by an expiatory compensation. As St. Thomas (ST III Q.84, a.5; Q85) explains, these acts of the virtue of penance are demanded by justice and charity toward God, and also by charity toward ourselves.
This is a terrifying reality that we should strive for through holy fear. The Soul that dies in a state of final impenitence is damned to hell for eternity. However, people do not just “fall into final impenitence,” as someone falls into a hole that was not seen. Rather a soul gets into the state of final impenitence through a continued hardening of the heart, a refusal to act on God’s graces. This is where Fr. Lagrange speaks of the cause of this ill: temporal impenitence.
Temporal impenitence is the cause of final impenitence. Final impenitence presents itself under two different forms: impenitence of fact, the simple absence of repenting, and impenitence of will, namely, the positive resolution not to repent. In this last case, we have the special sin of impenitence, which, in its final development, becomes a sin of malice. In the illustration, think of a man who signs an agreement to have no religious funeral.
There is certainly a great difference between these two forms. But, if a man is seized in death in the simple state of impenitence of fact, this state is for him one of final impenitence, even though it has not been directly prepared by a special sin of hardening of the heart.
Temporal impenitence of will leads directly to final impenitence, even though at times the Lord, by special mercy, preserves the soul from final impenitence. The soul on this road perseveres in sin, deliberately and coldly. It repels all thought of penance which might deliver it. Thus, as St. Augustine says, it is not only a sin of malice, it is also a sin against the Holy Spirit, that is to say, a sin which contradicts directly that which would save the sinner.
No one wants to die in a state such as this. Denying the grace of God which leads men to repentance and to give into the despair and evil. You might be reading this text and questioning if you or maybe someone you know is in spiritual state as has thus been described. Is there any hope for a soul in such a state? YES!
Fr. Lagrange gives the sinner a remedy to avoid such a death:
Hence we must not put off the time of repentance. Scripture urges us to do penance without delay. “Humble thyself before thou art sick.” St. John the Baptist unceasingly urges the necessity of repentance. Jesus, too, from the beginning of His ministry, cries out: “Repent and believe the gospel.” “Except you do penance, you shall all perish.” St. Paul writes to the Romans: “According to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest up to thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his works.” In the Apocalypse word comes to the angel of Pergamus: “Do penance! If not I will come to thee quickly.” This is the visit of divine justice, if one has not paid attention to mercy.
If you are in a state of mortal sin my friend, run to confession! You are now in a time where the hands of God are open in mercy, do not spurn the Lord!
The Grace of a Happy Death and the Gift of Perseverance
Did you know that final perseverance is one of God’s greatest gifts to man? If not, it’s definitely a good time to start learning and praying for it.
Perseverance is defined: that gift which makes the moment of death coincide with the state of grace, either continued or restored.
This grace is a gift. This is the key to understanding this theological doctrine.
St. Augustine says that death in the state of grace is a preeminent gift of God, even in the case of infants. In the case of adults, this gift sustains their own voluntary and meritorious choice and hinders them from being cast down by adversity. But while each predestined soul will have this gift, none can know, without special revelation, that he will persevere. Hence we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. St. Augustine adds that this gift is not given to us according to our merits, but according to the will of God, a will very secret, very wise, very beneficent. Only to God does it belong to give it, since He alone determines the end of our life. But this gift, even if it cannot be merited, can be obtained by humble supplication.
This should strike us with a sense of holy fear and hope. God wants us to be saved and live forever with Him in heaven. However, we must realize that to be conformed to the image of Christ means that we hate our own sin, and crucify our evil tendencies. The grace of final perseverance cannot be earned, rather it is given. It is a gift!
St. Thomas Aquinas explains this doctrine. His teaching, generally admitted by theologians, may be reduced to this: the principle of merit, namely, the state of grace, cannot be merited, since a cause cannot be the effect of itself. But final perseverance is nothing but grace, preserved by God up to the moment of death. Hence it cannot be merited. It depends on God alone, who alone can preserve the state of grace or restore to the state of grace. Yet this final perseverance can be obtained by humble and confident prayer, which we address, not to divine justice as in the case of merit, but to divine mercy.
Whence comes it, then, that we can merit eternal life, if we cannot merit final perseverance? The reason runs thus: eternal life, far from being the principle of merit, is the terminus and the goal of merit. We shall obtain it on condition that we do not lose our merits. St. Thomas adds: “Since free will is of itself changeable, even after it has been healed by habitual grace, it is not in its power to fix itself immutably in good. It can choose this good, but it cannot realize it.”
The Council of Trent confirms this traditional doctrine. ‘This succor is a great gift, very gratuitous, which we cannot obtain except from Him who, according to St. Paul, can sustain him who stands and lift up him who falls.’ The Council adds that, without special revelation, we cannot in advance be certain of receiving this gift, but we can and should hope firmly for it, battling against temptation, and working out our salvation by the practice of good works.
…If we cannot be certain in advance of the grace of a good death, we can nevertheless exercise the signs of predestination, particularly those that follow: care to preserve ourselves from mortal sin, the spirit of prayer, humility which draws down grace, patience in adversity, love of neighbor, assistance to those who are afflicted, a sincere devotion to our Lord and His Holy Mother. In this sense, according to the promise made to St. Margaret Mary, those who have received Communion in honor of the Sacred Heart on the first Friday of nine successive months can have the confidence of obtaining from God the grace of a good death. A condition is here understood, namely, that the nine Communions have been made well. The grace of receiving them well is a grace given to the elect by the Sacred Heart.
How do we respond to such a great truth? We do so exactly as the dear father explained, by doing works of grace that are the signs of predestination. One sign of predestination is daily praying the Rosary. The Rosary is made up of the traditional fifteen decades, a bulwark against sin and heresy. Fathers, lead your family every day in praying for at least five decades. Pray more on your own and encourage your family to consider doing so. Would it not be a beautiful reality to die with the Ave Maria on your lips? For in the state you die in, that state you remain forever.
Immutability After Death
When we die, we are transfixed. We stay in that state forever.
Why does the soul become immutably fixed, in good or in evil, immediately after death? This mystery might be studied after that of the particular judgment, because it becomes more clear by what revelation tells us of this judgment. Nevertheless, since the time of merit is finished, we must study this immutability first.
Lets us proceed thus to what the Church has to say about this:
We do not speak here of the question, studied by physiologists and physicians: When does real death, not merely apparent death, take place? It seems certain in many cases, particularly in accidental and sudden death, that latent life can remain many hours in the organism which a moment before was perfectly sound. It can last, it seems, at least a half-hour when death was brought on by a malady which for a long time has undermined the organism. We consider here only real death, the moment when the soul is separated from the body. The ordinary magisterium of the Church teaches that the human soul, immediately after death, undergoes judgment on all the actions, good or bad, of its earthly existence. This judgment supposes that the time of merit has passed. This common doctrine has not been solemnly defined, but it is based on Scripture and tradition. There are no merits after death, contrary to what many Protestants teach.
This, too, is manifestly the doctrine of the ordinary universal magistracy of the Church. Although there is no solemn definition on this point, there are declarations of the Church which are to be understood in this sense. The Second Council of Lyons says: “The souls of those who die in the state of mortal sin or with original sin go down at once into hell, there to suffer, though not all with equal pains.” We find the same expression in the Council of Florence, and in the Constitution Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII condemns this proposition of Luther: “The souls in purgatory are not certain of their salvation, at least not all of them, and it cannot be proved by Scripture nor by theological reasoning that they can no longer merit or that they cannot increase in charity.” Lastly the Council of the Vatican [I] proposed to promulgate this dogmatic definition: After death, which is the terminus of our life’s road, all of us must be made manifest before the tribunal of Christ, where each one is to give an account of what he himself did in the body, either good or evil. Nor does there remain after this mortal life any place for penance that would lead to justification.
So how will we respond, brethren? Will we go on living in sin and risk the wrath of God through final impenitence? Or rather will we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, remembering that the God of the Old Testament who swallowed up whole nations in his wrath is the same God of the New Testament who strikes the wicked king Herod for his sins in the book of Acts? Yet this same God who parts the red sea is the same God who loves you and me upon the tree. How will you respond? In this time of Advent, the Church remembers the beginning of the early life of Jesus Christ and his future coming again in glory. Whether that last day comes in our lifetime or not, remember your death and pray for final perseverance.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 51.
 Ibid., 51-53.
 Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 62-63.
Mr. Nicholas Cavazos is a philosophy and theology student at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, currently working on his master’s in theology with an emphasis in Thomistic studies. He converted to the Church through the avenue of the Traditional Latin Mass and runs a show on YouTube called “The Traditional Thomist.” He is also a Third Order Dominican with a Traditional Dominican community.