It is an all-too-frequent experience in my own spiritual life that when I have resolved to go to confession — particularly if my need for absolution is pressing — all manner of obstacles present themselves to prevent me from keeping my appointment with the sacrament. Distractions arise that avert my eyes from a close watch on the clock, causing me to miss my chance; errands take longer than they reasonably should, keeping me from being near a parish in time; traffic is worse than it usually is, delaying my arrival, and so on. Surely some of these are mere coincidences, though it is not unreasonable to assume that there are, at times, impious forces working to effect the inexplicable appearance of impediments to reconciliation.
Worse is the way in which, having resolved to confess my sins and do penance some days prior to the scheduled time for the sacrament, I find myself suddenly assailed, in the hours leading up to my visit to the confessional, with a fresh round of temptations, particularly those against which I have the weakest defense. Amidst these, the thought arises, “You already have to confess one sin of this kind, why not make it two and start fresh tomorrow?” So ensues a spiritual battle against presumption and further “last-minute sin,” which, were I to give in, would surely be an abuse of God’s mercy, and a sin of its own.
A small epiphany during my most recent trip to the confessional revealed that this fight is in all likelihood a preview of — and perhaps a preparation for — the hour of death. The thought was more than a little terrifying in the face of my own weakness. It also made me realize that despite our frequent repetition in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” I didn’t actually know much at all about what the Church teaches on the temptations we may expect to face in the waning moments of our lives.
It was then that I found the book, The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven, written by a 17th century German Cappuchin priest by the name of Fr. Martin von Cochem. In the opening chapters, we learn precisely what we may expect at the moment of death, and the hours leading up to it:
With regard to the assaults of Satan, know that the all-just God permits him to have great power to assail us at the hour of death; not indeed for our perdition, but for our probation. Before expiring the Christian has yet to prove that nothing can avail to make him forsake his God. For this reason the evil enemy employs all the power he has received, and brings all his forces to bear upon a man when he is dying, in the hope of causing him to sin, and thrusting him down to hell. During our whole lifetime he attacks us fiercely, and neglects no means whereby he may deceive us. But all these persecutions do not bear comparison with the final onslaught with which he endeavors to overcome us at the last. Then he raves and rages, like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
This we learn from the following passage in the Apocalypse (xii. 12) : “Woe to the earth and to the sea, because the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time.” These words bear a special application for the dying, against whom the devil conceives a great wrath, and whom he makes every effort to seduce. For he knows full well that if he does not get them into his power now, he will never again have the chance of doing so. Hear what St. Gregory says on this point : “Consider well how terrible is the hour of death, and how appalling the remembrance of our evil deeds will be at that time. For the spirits of darkness will recall all the harm they have done us, and remind us of the sins which we have committed at their instigation. They will not go to the death bed of the godless only, but they will be present with the elect, striving to discover something sinful whereof to accuse them. Alas! how will it fare with us hapless mortals in that hour, and what can we say for ourselves, seeing how innumerable are the sins to be laid to our charge ? What can we answer to our adversaries, when they place all our sins before us, with the object of reducing us to despair ?” The evil spirits will tempt their unhappy victim at the moment of death on various points, but especially in regard to the sins into which he has most frequently fallen.
In a word, the spirits of evil assail mortals at the moment of death most fiercely at their most vulnerable point, just as a skillful general will storm a fortress on the side where he perceives the ramparts to be weakest.
But the devils do not always confine themselves to tempting a man in regard to his chief failings and predominant faults; they frequently tempt him to sins of which he has not hitherto been guilty. For these crafty foes spare no pains to deceive the dying, and if they fail in one way, they attempt to succeed in another. These temptations are of no ordinary character. They are sometimes so violent that it is impossible for weak mortals to resist them without supernatural assistance. If it is all that any one in good health can do to withstand the assaults of the devil, and even such a one is often overcome by them, how difficult must it be for one who is enfeebled by sickness to struggle against foes so formidable! On this point a pious writer says : “Unless the dying man has, previous to his last illness, armed himself against these attacks, and accustomed himself to do battle with his spiritual adversaries, he stands a poor chance of prevailing against them at the moment of death. If he does so, it will be only through the assistance of almighty God, of our blessed Lady, of his guardian angel, or of one of the saints. For our merciful God and His angels and blessed saints do not abandon the Christian in the hour of his direst need; they hasten to his help, that is, provided he is deserving of their aid.”
Sobering words of warning about a stark reality. And yet this is only one of several trials of death for which we must prepare ourselves well ahead of our unknown hour and place. Fr. von Cochem tells us that we will not merely be confronted with temptation, but with the very forces of hell themselves:
Besides what has been already mentioned, the terrible appearance of the evil spirits makes death yet more alarming to us. It is the opinion of many of the Fathers, that every one, when expiring, sees the evil enemy, at any rate at the moment of drawing his last breath, if not before. How appalling this sight is, and with what terror it must inspire the dying, exceeds the power of words to declare. It is related of Brother Giles that one day, when he was praying in his cell, the devil appeared to him in so frightful a shape, that the Brother lost the power of speech, and thought his last hour had come. As his lips could not utter a sound, he raised his heart in humble supplication to God, and the apparition vanished. Afterwards, when relating what had befallen him to his brother-monks, he trembled from head to foot as he described the hideous aspect of -the adversary of mankind. Then going to St. Francis, he asked him this question: “Father, have you ever seen anything in this world the sight of which was so horrible that it was enough to kill one to behold it? ” And the Saint replied: “I have indeed seen such a thing; it is none other than the devil, whose aspect is so loathsome that no one could gaze upon it even for a short time and live, unless God specially enabled him to do so.”
St. Cyril also, writing to St. Augustine, says that one of the three men who were raised from the dead told him: “As the hour of my departure drew nigh, a multitude of devils, countless in number, came and stood about me. Their forms were more horrible than anything imagination can conceive. One would rather be burnt in the fire than be compelled to look upon them. These demons ranged themselves around me, and reproached me with all the misdeeds I had ever done, thinking to drive me to despair. And in fact I should have given way before them, had not God in His mercy come to my succor.”
Who wouldn’t shrink in terror from the thought of confronting such a horrible sight? I once had a conversation with a fellow Catholic who told me that they were afraid to become too holy, lest they find themselves forced to tangle with the devil in a more tangible form as so many of the saints had done. Not a wise approach to sanctity, to be sure, but not entirely devoid of wisdom, either. Better to fear Satan than to be too cavalier about the considerable danger he presents.
It was this very encounter with the fallen angels at the hour of death that Bl. John Henry Newman foresaw in his famous poem, The Dream of Gerontius:
I can no more; for now it comes again,
That sense of ruin, which is worse than pain,
That masterful negation and collapse
Of all that makes me man; as though I bent
Over the dizzy brink
Of some sheer infinite descent;
Or worse, as though
Down, down for ever I was falling through
The solid framework of created things,
And needs must sink and sink
Into the vast abyss. And, crueller still,
A fierce and restless fright begins to fill
The mansion of my soul. And, worse and worse,
Some bodily form of ill
Floats on the wind, with many a loathsome curse
Tainting the hallow’d air, and laughs, and flaps
Its hideous wings,
And makes me wild with horror and dismay.
O Jesu, help! pray for me, Mary, pray!
Some Angel, Jesu! such as came to Thee
In Thine own agony …
Mary, pray for me. Joseph, pray for me. Mary,
pray for me.
Gerontius makes the correct choice in the face of this last mortal danger with which he finds himself confronted. To call upon the name of Jesus and Mary in our final agony, in order to be preserved from any sin or despair, is the only certain recourse of the dying. By their assistance we may have confidence that we will be victorious over sin, and thus, eternal death. We should not neglect, however, the invocation of our guardian angel; we should be assisted by the prayers of our family and friends; we should be sealed by the anointing of the priest. Together, all these helps will protect us in our last stand against the darkness which seeks to consume our very souls just as we think we have prepared as best we can for judgment.
Reflecting on these things, it occurs to me that facing the hour of death unprepared could easily be the greatest mistake of our lives. We do not know the day nor the hour, but we do know with iron-clad certitude that death comes for us all. The only logical conclusion to be reached is that we must begin training for this final confrontation today. We must strengthen ourselves against our vices and our attachment to sins, through prayer and penance. We must become dedicated to never losing the state of grace, and to rooting out even the smaller sins to which we have become habituated. If we cannot win a simple battle with our unseen tempters while we are yet strong and in good health, how can we hope to overcome their final, tangible assault as we lay weak and dying?
Fr. von Cochem offers a couple of beautiful prayers that we may pray in preparation for our time:
O Jesus, compassionate Redeemer of mankind, I recall to mind the threefold temptation Thou didst undergo from the evil enemy, and I pray Thee through the glorious victory Thou didst obtain over him, to stand by me in my last conflict and fortify me against all his temptations. I know that in my own strength I cannot contend against so powerful a foe, and I must assuredly be vanquished unless Thou, or Thy blessed saints, grant me timely assistance. Therefore I now earnestly implore Thy help and that of Thy saints, and propose to arm myself to the best of my ability by Thy grace, to meet the temptations that await me. I promise now, before Thee and the holy angels and blessed saints, that I will never voluntarily expose myself to any temptation, of whatever nature it may be, but with the help of Thy grace I will combat it vigorously. Amen.
O my God ! how overwhelming the terrors that will take possession of the hapless individual who lies at the point of death when the infernal dragon appears, full of rage, and threatening to swallow him up in his fiery jaws. In this hour of supreme distress, send my guardian angel to me, O God, I pray Thee, that he may drive away the evil enemy, otherwise I shall infallibly fall into despair and lose all hope of my salvation. O most blessed Virgin Mary! who didst crush the head of the serpent, be with me in the hour of my death and do not permit the presence of the cruel adversary to cause my eternal perdition. Amen.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.