There is a famous poem by Emily Dickinson which I enjoy quoting from time to time. The opening line is especially evocative: “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”
During the season of Lent, it is perhaps appropriate that we should spend much more time than usual meditating on our last end. When I was reading St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialgoue yesterday, I found myself surprised at how merciful God is with regard to the dying. Indeed, death is viewed by Him as that final chance for us to repent before we go. For those of us that have not turned around yet on the road to heaven, we must think daily about death and what happens when we die.
Thinking about death can have sobering effect on the mind because we think about how little there is that we can actually do and how short our lives are. Our Lord told St. Catherine of Siena that our lives are like a needle. The psalmist writes that our days are like grass. Indeed, our lives are extremely short when looked at from the perspective of eternity. Only God knows when we will die, but it is our place to spend our days as if we would die tomorrow.
St. Alphonsus Liguori, one of the great Doctors of the Church, wrote an excellent book of meditations called “Preparation for Death.” Within its pages, St. Alphonsus talks about what death is and how it is arranged in God’s providence. He talks about the deaths of unrepentant sinners and the righteous. He also discusses other truths of our faith as well within the course of this book including how much the obstinacy of certain sinners offends God greatly. It was his hope that when this book was used in retreat by religious, priests, or laypeople that it would allow them to completely change their lives in view of their last end.
Yet St. Alphonsus was not the only saint to write about death and what happens to the soul after it dies. There are numerous saints that have written about this subject and even more who have made death one of their primary meditations. The Desert Fathers, for example, would sometimes have coffins made for them in which they could lie down so that they could think about death and its consequences. For them, death was something that was ever present and that led them to live in exemplary holiness before their fellow men.
There are other saints, who have been moved greatly by the deaths of high and mighty. St. Francis Borgia, one of the first Superior Generals of the Jesuits, was forced to reconsider the direction in which his life was going. When the Empress Maria of Portugal died and was buried near her grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, the young marquis saw what had happened to the body of the one illustrious Queen Isabella. When he saw how much her body had changed in death and how it had become dust and bones, the young man was moved to completely turn his life around. St. Francis Borgia’s moment of conversion came when he saw his last end.
In our own daily lives, we must think about death as much as we can. With death, everything that happens in our lives ends. We can do no more good works. We cannot merit and receive graces. When we are called from this life, we will have to face the August Judge and account to Him for everything that we have done and failed to do. Our death is the culmination of our life on this earth and it is this to which we are drawn every single day.
Let us meditate on death during Lent and see how we can prepare ourselves to die a happy death.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Francis Borgia, pray for us!