There’s a very unsettling line in St Benedict’s Rule for Monks which reads: “Every day, remind yourself that you’re going to die.”
Cardinal Basil Hume, who was Abbot of Ampleforth (Benedictine) Abbey in the UK, was someone who would have strongly related to St Benedict’s Rule. When he was Headmaster there, a prospective parent asked Hume what the school could offer its pupils. He replied: “We do not prepare our boys for life. We prepare them for death.”
Unsettling as this may be, such a view lives at the heart of the Christian life. St Therese of Lisieux puts it another way when she says:“The world is a beautiful bridge, but do not build your home on it.”
In a very few places in the world (including in the western world) death is a word people can say without hushing their voices. In the acclaimed documentary ‘Francesco’s Italy, as he descends into the ‘morbid’ catacombs of a city, Francesco Da Mosto suggests that the British close their eyes and ears at this point, because they cannot deal with death. In Ireland, the UK, America and indeed much of the western world, it remains one of the greatest taboos. Even in this ‘inclusive’ age, where we are able to discourse on topics that would have been impenetrable only 100 years ago, death mustn’t be talked about. Our culture even shuns anyone who is comfortable speaking on the subject as ‘ghoulish’, ‘weird’ or ‘wrong in the head’.
The reason is that we are frightened. And, like with all the greatest fears, we fear what we cannot see – what we do not understand. It is the ‘what’s round the corner’ fear, an adult-version of the dark shape hiding under the bed at night.
When we are faced with fear, the natural tendency is to push the issue away. We cloak the root cause with more palatable rendering. In the case of our society, we pretend that death will not happen. Graveyards become under-the-carpet kinds of places, out of bounds to anyone who has no business there.
There is a danger to this cover-up. We forget one of the most profound truths of our life on earth: that it is finite. We start believing that life will just go on. As we get older, and we begin to slow down, the deceit of life without death begins to gnaw away at those who practice it. Cracks in that pristine (or at least convenient) rendering start appearing. When the death of a loved one occurs, it will always be a terrible experience, and no preparation will make the pain go away. But, following a life of silence about death, we are ill-equipped to deal with grief, to know what to do, how to console others. We keenly sense that we are alone inside a taboo that the world will not recognize. Yet it is going to be experienced by everybody.
Pondering one’s death allows us to recognize the beauty and fragility of the present moment. Writing on the death of his brother Satyrus, St Ambrose wrote: ‘There should be in us a daily habit and disposition towards dying so that our soul may learn to cut away all carnal desires and take on itself the likeness of death, by seeing things as from the height of heaven, out of reach of the lusts of the world.’
The utterances of the saints, on their love of God beyond all worldly experience, are traced directly back to Christ: ‘I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live. Anyone who lives and believes in me, will not die for ever.’Through Scripture, the Holy Spirit exhorts us: ‘Do not put your trust in riches, nor your hope in warriors’ strength.’
Can we, like the soul of Gerontius in Blessed Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius, exclaim: ‘My soul is in my hands, I have no fear.’?
The Kingdom of God is not a place of fear. Its messengers always begin by saying ‘Do not be afraid.’ We hear it over and again: the Angel Rafael in the book of Tobit, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, and the Angels addressing the shepherds at Christ’s birth. Christ, too, told His disciples to be not afraid when the storm was about to capsize their boat.
We must stop for a moment and ponder just why the Kingdom of God has cause to tell us ‘Do not be afraid’. It is because we are, indeed, afraid of the mysteries of God. It isn’t just that we are afraid of the bad things, and anticipatory of the good things. To have such a view would be a form of playing the part of supreme judge. In the opaque landscape of faith in God, we are travelling an unknown journey, and God has to remind us that we are on the right road, despite the darkness, despite the fear, despite our sometimes lack of faith.
At the very business-end of the Christian life is a grace-filled trust in God. This trust wavers. It wavered for the great saints, and it wavers for us. Sometimes, we must trust when we do not. The now famous prayer ‘Footprints’ is based on this beautiful truth: that He carries us. In other words, Christ is our driving force even though we are doubting Him, even when the darkness is too much, even when we are so tired and frightened that we do not recognize Him in our midst.
It is the same with fear. Sometimes, it is all we can do to say: ‘Yes, I am afraid, but I know that You are with me, I know that Your presence is the beginning of eternal peace. I am frightened, but I continue coming to You.’ Charlotte Elliot’s famous hymn of 1835, Just as I am, puts it this way:
Just as I am – though toss’d about With many a conflict, many a doubt, Fightings within and fears without, – O Lamb of God, I come!
We have in Christ a Saviour who descended into the worst fears of human reality for our sake. Did His divinity shield that bitter fear, anguish and pain from his human nature? No, it did not. He begged that the cup must pass Him by, if it was His Father’s will. He writhed and shouted from the cross. He died an outcast nailed to a tree, jeered at by selfish know-it-alls. In our pain, He came before us. In our fears, He was there first. As we contemplate the fearful unknown of death, He embraced it for us, that we may live in eternal life with Him in heaven.
Cardinal Hume wrote: “As we approach the last bit of the journey there are days when we fear that we face an unknown, unpredictable, uncertain future. That is a common experience. But do not worry; because the time comes when we no longer carry heavy bags and all those possessions. We shall travel through the cold, grey light of a bleak… morning into God’s spring and summer.” Here was a man, shaped by the Gospel, convinced that death was the only “way which leads us to the vision of God”.
When Cardinal Basil Hume told the abbot of Ampleforth that he was dying, the response was: “Congratulations ! That’s brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you.”