What follows are a series of vignettes I’ve written on death and fear and the appropriate perspective we should have on these in light of Christ.
Death - absent Christ - is soul-sucking. In November, when we pray in an intensified way for those who have died, we find an opportunity to be reminded that death will someday come for us too, and the Christ to Whom we commend our beloved dead can help us find meaning in our eventual death and properly prepare for it. In fact, because of Christ, death is God’s gift. Rather than a drop into the abyss of nothingness, death is an exit to communion with God. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Philippians 1:21-23).
The year 2020 has laid bare the civilizational rot that has been spreading for quite sometime. Ours is undoubtedly a post-Christian society. The emergence of COVID-19 has forced us to confront our mortality en masse; in our pride we think we can prevent death by it, and regardless of the cost; in our despair we feel hamstrung by our vulnerability, and rage because we’ve long ago denied the only satisfactory solution to the realities of our human condition - Christ. While we know, at least abstractly, that death is inevitable and that it comes in many forms, we’ve anesthetized ourselves to its lessons by hiding it to a great extent from sight; by presuming that pretty much everyone goes to heaven and if there is a hell it is only for those particularly nasty few (insert the name of a dictator or serial killer here); that God, if we think of Him at all, is just a distant “Nice Guy” who’s indifferent to our behavior and gives us treats when we demand them. The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness…While claiming to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18; 22).
Who of us can honestly say, together with St. Francis of Assisi, “Praise be to You, my Lord through Sister Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your will. No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility.” If we can’t, we are in essence dead before we’re dead, not living the way it really matters. Let us thus ask St. Francis for the help to see death as he saw it, for such a vision will lead to a manner of living in accord with the will of God.
"Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning” (St. John Henry Newman). Our desire for deathlessness is only met by loving the things of this earth and also of letting go of them. It is about submitting to time, realizing that it is God’s creation and that our attempts to evade its imperatives are sinful. Time teaches us that we cannot hold onto our lives, no matter how tightly, and so the only proper response is to pour ourselves out into the world. In imitation of Christ we must give ourselves so that others may live. If we all engage in self-giving we are all enriched by well-lived lives. Each of us can do this - it is not contingent on our station in life, or our education, or our wealth, “Remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy” (the centaur Roonwit to King Tirian of Narnia in The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis). This quote is from a fictional character but the message is certainly not a fiction: a life well-lived leads to noble death.
Fear has its place, not as a fetish, where we masochistically suffer a multi-month Halloween fright-fest, nor as a straight-jacket immobilizing us from living life. Fear is an emotion that should lead us to positive action. Yes, difficulties can cloud our minds and we don’t always feel the Lord’s presence. We may even wonder, as Jesus verbalized on the Cross, if God had abandoned Him, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Jesus gives the assurance that God has not, that God will, in His own good time, deliver us from the darkness that confounds us, And I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought (Psalm 22:1; 32). “As Christians and Americans, in this our awkward duality of citizenship, we seek to be faithful in a time not of our choosing but of our testing. We resist the hubris of presuming that it is the definitive time and place of historical promise or tragedy, but it is our time and place” (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus). We learn that it is not necessarily the results that count, but the will to try to do what is right. And if the rewards don’t come immediately, there is no need to despair, for by God’s grace there will be heavenly glory.
David J. Conrad