The certainty of death.
On this Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, St. Alphonsus offers two chief thoughts for meditation - death is certain and the time of death is uncertain.
A cheering and uplifting thought as we close this month of the Sacred Heart, yet Ligouri's words are in many ways a blessing for us in drawing our attention to eternity. For just as Christ commanded the disciples to put out their nets and draw in fish, so we are commanded to do the same, to win souls and perform good works, by which we can merit eternal life. For our eternal life depends upon the moment of our death and the manner in which we are prepared for it. Heaven is to be won or lost depending on how we follow the call to "launch out into the deep". (Luke 5:4).
"We must all die. This truth we not only believe, but see with our eyes. In every age houses, streets, and cities are filled with new inhabitants: their former possessors are shut up in the grave. And, as for them the days of life are over, so a time shall come when not one of all who are now alive shall be among the living. 'Days shall be formed, and no one in them.' (Ps. 138:10) 'Who is the man that shall live, and shall not see death ?' (Ps. 88:49 ) Should any one flatter himself that he will not die, he would not only be a disbeliever for it is of faith that we shall all die but he would be regarded as a madman. We know that all men, even potentates and princes and emperors, have, utter a certain time, fallen victims to death. And where are they now? 'Tell me,' says St. Bernard, 'where are the lovers of the world? Nothing has remained of them but ashes and worms.' Of so many great men of the world, though buried in marble mausoleums, nothing has remained but a little dust and a few withered bones. We know that our ancestors are no longer among the living: of their death we are constantly reminded by their pictures, their memorandum books, their beds, and by the clothes which they have left us. And can we entertain a hope or a doubt that we shall not die? Of all who lived in this town a hundred years ago how many are now alive? They are all in eternity in an eternal day of delights, or in an eternal night of torments. Either the one or the other shall be our lot also."(1)
These are the words with which the saint wishes to draw attention to our certain end, for death is a certainty which we can never avoid no matter how much one might wish. And yet so much is done, so many terrible actions are committed as if there is no death or end to this life with an eternity to follow it. The great and powerful, along with the meek and lowly all come to the same, final end and have to face their Maker in judgement. Why then does society pretend that we shall not die, or seek to encourage wanton licentiousness as if there is no judgement to fear? St. Alphonsus mentions this when remarking on the fact that this life is to be spent preparing for the next: "And are not you on the way to death? Why then do you seek only the gratification of the senses? Why do you not think of preparing the accounts which you shall one day, and perhaps very soon, have to render at the tribunal of Jesus Christ? Souls that have faith, leave to the fools of this world the care of realizing a fortune on this earth; seek you to make a fortune for the next life, which shall be eternal. The present life must end, and end very soon." (2)
But to the second point then, regarding the uncertainty of death. Even though death itself is certain, the time of it is not and hence preparation for death must be a constant thought throughout life. Perhaps the lovers of the world mentioned by St. Bernard would not have loved it quite so much, had they known the day of their upcoming demise. Indeed, even for each individual soul, how different might their approach to life be, if they knew in days and hours the time which remained in order to attain eternity.
"Many Christians are lost, because many, even among the old, who feel the approach of death, flatter themselves that it is at a distance, and that it will not come without giving them time to prepare for it. 'Dura mente' says St. Gregory, 'abesse longe mors creditur etiam cum sentitur.' (Moral, lib. 8.) Death, even when it is felt, is believed to be far off. O brethren, are these your sentiments? How do you know that your death is near or distant? What reason have you to suppose that death will give you time to prepare for it? How many do we know who have died suddenly? Some have died walking; some sitting; and some during sleep. Did any one of these ever imagine that he should die in such a manner? But they have died in this way; and if they were in enmity with God, what has been the lot of their unhappy souls? Miserable the man who meets with an unprovided death! And I assert, that all who ordinarily neglect to unburden their conscience, die without preparation, even though they should have seven or eight days to prepare for a good death; for as I shall show in the forty- fourth sermon, it is very difficult, during these days of confusion and terror, to settle accounts with God, and to return to him with sincerity. But I repeat that death may come upon you in such a manner, that you shall not have time even to receive the sacraments. And who knows whether, in another hour, you shall be among the living or the dead? The uncertainty of the time of his death made Job tremble. 'For I knew not how long I shall continue, or whether, after a while, my Maker may take me away.' (Job 32:22) Hence St. Basil exhorts us in going to bed at night, not to trust that we shall see the next day." (3)
What then does St. Alphonsus wish to be the focus of todays liturgical texts? - a healthy and lively understanding of our own mortality and the brief time which we have to attain salvation. Duc in altum - launch out into the deep! We cannot afford not to take the plunge and not to commit wholeheartedly to the work of attaining salvation. Death is both certain yet uncertain: the question remains as to how we respond to the call to put out into the deep. If we respond with the light of faith then we can allow Christ to guide our daily lives, leading us where He wills and living each day in preparation for our final end. The time of preparation is now, nor should this be a frightening prospect but a joyful one. For now is the time when we can respond to grace, perform good works and win souls. It is a time wherein one might, with the grace of God, determine whether to love or reject God and thus to be properly prepared for death or not.
St. Alphonsus summarises his thoughts thus: "If, when the tree of your life is cut down, you fall to the south, that is if you obtain eternal life, how great shall be your joy at being able to say: I shall be saved; I have secured all; I can never lose God; I shall be happy for ever. But, if you fall to the north that is, into eternal damnation how great shall be your despair! Alas! you shall say, I have erred, and my error is irremediable! Arise, then, from your tepidity, and, after this sermon, make a resolution to give yourselves sincerely to God. This resolution will insure you a good death, and will make you happy for eternity".(4)
1: St. Alphonsus Ligouri, Sermons for All the Sundays in the Year, Sermon 23 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: "Death is certain and uncertain". All further references are from this work.