How to Think About Death Without Ruining Your Day
Sandwiched between the month of the rosary and Advent, the month of November starts off with a liturgical bang. The Solemnity of All Saints (the highest grade of a liturgical feast) on the 1st and the feast of All Souls on the 2nd. Through the end of the month, the Church reminds us to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory. By doing so, the Church in her wisdom invites us to pray for our beloved departed and remind us of our own fate. The purpose here is not to focus on Purgatory, though the Catholic Church’s teaching on it has a history that goes back to 1 & 2 Maccabees and is taught by the Church Fathers. Want to help the souls in Purgatory with prayer? Check out how to gain the special All Souls plenary indulgence.
One result of the focus on the holy souls is the indirect reminder of our own death. Talking about death is not meant to cause despair. It is quite the opposite! If Jesus’ resurrection means anything, it means hope over death. St. Paul tells the Romans that “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:8-9). Our Lord came to open the gates of heaven; death is a doorway to eternity and not an end unto itself.
So why does death still sting? Even Jesus Himself cried at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). It is an ordinary thing to not want to think about death, and it is part of our wiring to avoid it. And when we lose a loved one, it is difficult to be without someone’s physical presence. Unfortunately, it does no good to avoid thinking about death. It comes for us in a time entirely not of our choosing. The Church recommends including a contemplation of death in prayer. In the Catholic tradition, this is called memento mori, “remember that you die.”
How Do I Think of My Death Without Ruining My Day?
The great saints in our tradition looked forward to death, though not in a sinful way. They maintained great confidence in the promises of Jesus. For those of us who are not great saints (yet!), what can we do to develop that confidence? The most important factor is staying in a state of grace which necessarily entails going to confession. Fr. John Hardon defined “state of grace” as “Condition of a person who is free from mortal sin and pleasing to God. It is the state of being in God's friendship and the necessary condition of the soul at death in order to attain heaven.” A soul in the state of grace may fear to die, but they should not fear for their eternal home.
“These souls [those who die in friendship with the Lord] wait for divine judgment with gladness, not fear. And the face of my Son will appear to them neither terrifying nor hateful, because they have finished their lives in charity, delighting in me and filled with good will toward their neighbors. The different appearances of his face when he comes in my majesty for judgment will not be in him but in those who are to be judged by him. To the damned he will appear with just hatred, but to the saved, with mercy and love.” God the Father to St. Catherine of Siena, quoted in Ralph Martin’s Fulfillment of All Desire pg. 60
Go to confession! Leave the baggage of sin behind and ask Jesus, the Divine Physician, for healing. Good confessions come from honesty, a love of the Lord over our own sin, and a good examination of conscience. A little bit of searching and the internet will come back with examinations for moms, dads, parents, and children. Find one that fits, add any missing questions, and ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to know all your sins.
Going to Confession
With a good examination in place—I usually write down my sins so that I do not forget—it’s now time to enter the confessional. Be open and honest with the priest, even if it is painful! We should not fear Our Lord in the confessional. Where we may get tripped up on confessing sin, Jesus reminds us that our fear should have the right object: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
With a thorough examination of conscience and Jesus’ own divine power being exercised by the priests, the words of absolution become the sweetest words on earth: “through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Looking at Death with Confidence
We cannot see beyond death, but we follow in the ways of the Master who did. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26) Our Lord also promised life to us in the Eucharist:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:47-51)
We also have St. Paul as a witness for seeing beyond death:
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Paul’s confidence in Christ lifts him to the point of view where he scoffs at death—perhaps in part because he had been on death’s doorstep multiple times. He was nearly stoned to death, shipwrecked twice, and run out of cities under the cover of night. He was the Rocky Balboa of the New Testament; no matter the hits Paul took, he got up swinging at evil. Paul fought for the gospel until his dying breath. He saw clearly the outcome of the spiritual battle: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ ...But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:53-58
The fight is worth it for the Christ already won the victory over death. The sufferings, prayers, and other “work of the Lord” are meant for our sanctification.
Remember That You Die
Take a healthy view of death, add in confession, and scriptural reasons for confidence, and I hope death takes on a different picture. Follow the Lord, pursue holiness, and gain the divine life of grace from the sacraments. What awaits us on the other side of death is too great for even the wildest imagination:
“I went across the garden one afternoon and stopped on the shore of the lake; I stood there for a long time, contemplating my surroundings. Suddenly I saw the Lord near me, and He graciously said to me, ‘All this I created for you; know that all this beauty is nothing compared to what I have prepared for you in eternity.’ Oh, how the infinitely good God pursues us with His goodness! It often happens that the Lord grants me the greatest graces when I do not at all expect them.” St. Faustina, quoted in What the Saints Said About Heaven, pg. 82