A Priestly Perspective upon Dying
Augustine Hoey FAITH Magazine November-December 2009
Fr Augustine Hoey, an oblate of the Benedictine order and an author, meditates upon the role of the priest as minister of Christ's death.
The ultimate purpose of my priestly life is to prepare people to die: to live immersed in this world, while continually lifting our eyes beyond. I, regularly when reciting the Office, take on my lips words of Psalm 116 "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." In the Anima Christi I say "...in the hour of my death call me..." Each time I seek the support of Mary in reciting the Hail Mary I ask her to be near me when I die "...pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." How do I apply this to myself? As a priest, how often do I preach about death or reflect on my own dying?
Thinking About Death
The Christian gospel (good news) can be summed up in three words, Christ is Risen (not Christ is crucified!) The Resurrection is at the heart of the Apostolic preaching (Acts 2:22-36). It immediately gives everything in this world an eternal perspective. All the problems and issues of our day, which are so vividly presented to us on our TV screens, must be seen in the context of Eternal Life. St. Vincent de Paul says, "We can only be truly Incarnational when we have an eternal perspective about the whole creation". We are before the unfathomable strangeness of Easter where human perception touches the very frontiers of the Eternal
Many shudder at the thought of death and don't want to talk about it. Yet it is so vividly and daily brought before us on the TV screen in the violent war-torn world in which we live, and so close to us in the scourge of abortion. At one time dying usually took place within the context of the family, within the home, but now it is often moved to a hospital or hospice, surrounded not by our families but by the paraphernalia of the medical profession.
My priestly vocation means I shall frequently be at a death bed. Thomas a Kempis tells me, 'If thou hast seen anyone die, reflect that thou wilt pass the same way thyself. There is a tremendous emphasis in the gospels on being always prepared and ready to die. Death may come unexpectedly 'like a thief in the night'. The foolish bridesmaids were not ready (Mat 25:1-13).The man who built bigger barns was not ready (Lk 12:13-21)
Preparing for Death
The Lord's Prayer sweeps us up to Heaven in its opening words, 'Our Father who art in heaven'. This sets the right context for the rest of the prayer. There are very few hymns we sing in which we do not say how much we are looking forward to our life in Heaven e.g. 'O Salutaris', 'O grant us life
that shall not end in our true native land (Heaven) with Thee'. The early Christians spoke of death as our 'dies natalis', that is our birthday. Dying, like being born, is something no-one else can do for us. It is done alone,
We are born,
Love, beget children, make friends,
Stay single, strive for mastery or fame
Or simply go on living.
To each, in turn comes the unavoidable ending
Death the ultimate solitude, which no-one can share.
Am I convinced that death is a new birth? Life is changed, not taken away. It is birth into an endless life. "I do not die, I enter into life", writes Therese of Lisieux. For the Christian, death establishes our final end and there are no second chances.
I must frequently reflect on the fact that I have been created by God for Eternal life and all my earthly existence is meant to be a preparation for it. The days of preparation are tumbling away behind me. Eternity is coming towards us in great strides (cf. Therese of Lisieux)
Peter Abelard said
"Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
I for that country must yearn and must sigh,
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through my short exile on Babylon's strand"
Heaven is the full Vision of God. Occasionally I have a tiny glimpse of what it will be like. It will be a state of perfect love. All the loves I have on earth which have been spoilt and tarnished by my selfishness, will be put right. Human words cannot express these great realities. When mystics have caught the slightest glimpse, they have been beside themselves. Thomas Aquinas said that his monumental theological works were nothing but straw by comparison with the Reality. The Psalms tell me "I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living.... I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord." St. Paul says, "Life to me, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain" (Phil l:20) and "What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, what the mind of man cannotvisualise; all that God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9).
I shall enter into contemplation of God's great wonder and masterpiece of creation, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Death will bring me to my final state. I know that during my time on earth I am unstable and often cry out with St. Paul "in my disordered nature I obey the law of sin" (Rom 7:25). Temptation lurks on every side, "Everyone, no matter how firmly he thinks he is standing, must be careful he does not fall" (1 Cor 10 vl3). Death will bring final faithfulness.
A Good Death
My death is a unique event. There can be no rehearsal or repetition. It is the final choice for God; it is the culmination of all those myriad choices I have made for Him during my life. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit". If I keep saying these words through out each day, my familiarity with them will make it easy to say them for the last time.
My dying, when united with that of Jesus, will give me a share in the wonder and mystery of redemption. I will deepen the understanding of my incorporation into Jesus at my baptism and how this brought me into a living relationship with all my fellow baptised in Heaven and on earth. So whatever I do, when united with the doing of Jesus, however small the effort or hidden the suffering, makes its impact felt throughout the whole church, militant, expecting and triumphant. Like a stone thrown into a pond the ripples are wide and far reaching.
Our Lord became obedient to and accepting of his death on the cross. If I accept my dying in union with his acceptance, I shall make reparation for all human infidelities and rebelliousness, including my own.
My death may be accompanied by physical pain and discomfort. I hope I may be able to unite these with Our Lord's suffering on the' cross to make amends for my own sins of sensuality and in reparation for a world addicted to sex and the cult of the body.
Our Lord hung naked on the cross, stripped of everything. As I lie dying I hope to be able to reflect on the fact that I brought nothing into this world and I can take nothing out and so make reparation for all the times I have bowed the knee to a society dominated by materialism. Perhaps in the process of dying I may be able to penetrate more deeply Our Lord's words, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends". I hope it will help to reconcile the deep distrust, envy and suspicion of each other which haunts the human race.
I, as a priest, am a living symbol of Eternity. I am a sign of contradiction: whenever I appear passions immediately crystallise, coalitions are formed, love and hatred spring up instantaneously and concentrate around me. I am a touchstone of consciences. I am never ignored. My very nature makes me a living witness to the 'other world'. My mere presence speaks of that 'here-after' which so many would like to forget. I should be a concrete visible sign of Heaven. Yet what are the deep motives which prompt so many priests today not to be a visible sign, not to be men marked out in the middle of the crowd, or to dress in such
a way so as not to be recognised as one whom the finger of God touched at ordination? Why am I hiding in disguise? What am I afraid of?
Does all my priestly ecclesiastical activity cloud my vision of Eternity? Each morning, on rising, when I make an oblation of myself to God, I should always remind myself that I am one day nearer Heaven...one day nearer the goal and end of all my conflicts. "I long to be exiled from the body and to be at home with the Lord" says St. Paul (2Cor 5:7). This longing is no form of escapism from the daily round. I shall find that the more I prepare to die, the more my zeal to bring many people to glory will be quickened. A new edge will be given to my labours, which, in one sense can be described as "preparing people to die".
Preparing myself daily for death will help me to see everything against the background of eternity and to have a right perspective about the tumult, the activities, the fashions and issues of this 21st century. It will give me a bright judgement. This is what I must teach, day in and day out. If I have prepared, here below, by a life of union with Jesus and with all my brothers and sisters, to live a final community life in Heaven, I shall be able, like St. Francis, to welcome death as a sister who opens the door of our Father's house... "In the hour of my death call me and bid me come to you."
A French priest sums it up very well:
"A priest must aim to fulfil the ideal of death, the death of a victim united with Jesus crucified. But let us not wait until the last hour to prepare to make this act of union. Perhaps we shall at the end be absolutely unconscious; perhaps surprised by death. At any rate we shall be weakened by suffering. Then we shall have neither time nor strength to improvise the great act of a fully Christian and sacerdotal death. Our whole life should be a preparatory exercise for the great act of our death, the act of our supreme sacrifice with Jesus. Perhaps in growing old, we shall be frightened by the emptiness, by the poverty of our sacerdotal life: a life which will seem to us a blank and a failure. The final supreme act can repair much (like the penitent thief). Let us prepare for this act ofreparation. Let us not waste the greatest, the most fruitful moment of our life... the real final 'handing over'."
Dying is my last and greatest priestly function when in union with the victim of Calvary. It is my last offering of myself, however unworthy it may well be and I want to make it for the greater glory of God and for the benefit of the whole Church. It is my last Mass.