Rorate Caeli

“Meditations on Death” - Part 2: A Lenten Series by Father Konrad zu Loewenstein - 2: The Hour of Death

A Lenten Guest Series by 
Father Konrad zu Loewenstein

‘It is given to man once to die, and after follows the judgment’ (Hebrews 9.27)


‘Nothing is more certain than death’, says the Idiota, ‘but nothing is more uncertain than its Hour’.

a) The Certainty of Death

In 150 years from now all those who are at present alive will have passed out of this world: all those who now fill the bustling streets of our cities, who fill our houses, who inhabit the countryside, who sail the sea, or fly and travel, who wake and sleep: all these will havedeparted. “Days will be formed and no-one in them” (Ps. 138.16). In the same way, of allthose who lived 150 years ago, not one is still alive. “Yesterday for me: to-day for thee” (Eccl. 38. 23).

What foolishness, then, to live on this earth as though it were to be our eternal dwelling – what foolishness for a traveller passing through a country on an important mission to spend all he possesses on a house that he must soon abandon, or for a man crossing a desert to settle at an oasis and advance no further. What eminent wisdom, by contrast, to live as though each day, each act, were our last; to fill each day and each act with an ever more perfect love of God: to prepare us for our passage into Eternity.

b) The Uncertainty of the Hour

“And you like men who wait for their Lord, when He should return from the wedding, that when He cometh and knocketh, they may open to Him immediately. Blessed are those servants who the Lord, when He cometh, shall find waiting.... And if He shall come in the second watch or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants… “But this know ye”, says the Lord, “If the owner of the house had known in which watch of the night the thief was coming, he would surely have kept watch and would not suffer his house to be broken open. Be you then also ready, because at an hour that you think not the Son of Man will come. ‘But if that servant will say in his heart: My Lord is long a-coming, and shall begin to strike the manservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink, and to be drunk; then the Lord of that servant will come on the day that he hopeth not and at the hour that he knoweth not, and shall separate him and shall allocate him his portion with the unbelievers”. (Lk 12. 35ff.)

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (Thess.5.2). In the night because it is the time that we least expect him, because we have slumbered off and drifted into oblivion: into the oblivion of God, the forgetfulness of our Heavenly homeland, the forgetfulness of our Creator. The Bridegroom of our soul has delayed, and we have slumbered off and fallen asleep: we have drifted off into the night of sin, our minds dulled and confused by the flickering fantasies of our imagination, like shadows of a fire playing on the wall; our minds blinded by the deceitful patterns of habitual sin, asleep in the night, secure in our wandering dreams. When the shout is heard: “Behold the Bridegroom cometh!”

Death comes as a thief, because death robs us of all that we possess on this earth: all our possessions, all our friends, all our earthly and purely human delights, yes, even our bodies themselves.

“For as a snare shall that day come upon all that sit upon the face of the earth” (Lk 21.35). “As fish are taken by a hook, and as birds are caught by the snare, so men are taken in the evil time, when it shall suddenly come upon them” (Eccl.9.12). ‘As a tree fall, whether to the North or the South, so shall it lie’ (Eccl 11.3).

And when the poor, unwitting animals are taken, there is no escape: they are taken by the hook or in the snare, and that is the end. The good fish will be put in baskets, and the bad will be thrown away. And so we men too are taken from the sea of this world, from the labyrinthine pathways of that sea by the hook of death, and then the end will have come. The “evil time” is the time of mortal sin: if we are taken in this time we shall be thrown away, cast away from the sight of God, useless, worth only to be burnt and reduced to cinders.

The hour is uncertain. “Even the elderly... flatter themselves that they shall live 3 or 4 years more. But how many people have we known to die unexpectedly?” asks St Alphonsus. “It is certain that not one of these imagined that he should die so suddenly, and on that day on which he died. I say moreover that of all who have gone to the other world during the present year, no-one imagined that he should die and end his days this year...’

c) Vigilance

Dearly beloved Christian, if you died at this very moment, where would you go? Or if your lot for eternity were to be decided before nightfall, would your accounts be ready? Oh! How much would you not give to obtain from God another year, a month, or even one more day, to prepare for judgment? Why then do you not, now that God gives you this time, settle the accounts of your conscience?

If you are now living in sin, you must give it up before death. But if you must give it up at some time, says St. Augustine, why not give it up now? What purpose does it serve to put off your conversion? - except to put at risk your eternal salvation? That money lent to you which you never returned; that money you obtained by deceit which you have confessed but not restored; that sin of impurity which you continue to commit without confessing as if it’s not really a sin, or, if it is, God will make an exception in your case; that sin so personal and embarrassing that you have never dared to confess it, and so it has never been forgiven?

Is it perhaps impossible that this shall be the last day for you? ‘Thou fool’ says Our Lord in the parable, ‘this very night shall thy soul be required of thee’ (Lk 12.20). You have made provision for your life, but what provision have you made for your death?

When any-one borrows a large sum of money from you , you take care to obtain a written security for it. Who knows, you say, what may happen? But when Eternity is at stake, why do you not say: Who knows what may happen? If you were to lose a sum of money, all would not be lost, even if it amounted to all you had... But if at death you lose your soul, then truly you will have lost all things.

Imagine a person told that in a short while a trial shall take place, on which will depend his life and his whole property: With what haste he seek an able counsel to plead his cause! How little time he would lose in adopting every means to secure a favourable result! But what of us? We know for certain that the most important of all causes – the affair of eternal salvation - will shortly be decided: indeed it may take place any hour, and still we spare it no thought.

The time of this life is the time for preparing. “Death is not the time for preparing, but for finding ourselves prepared’, says St. Alphonsus. And St. Theresa of Avila says: “the true life consists in living in such a manner as not to have any reason to fear death. As a fellow sister of St. Faustina told her, when the saint came to visit her on her death-bed: ‘I have been preparing for this moment my whole life long’. St Gregory says that for our good, God conceals from us the hour of death, that we may be always prepared to die. ‘Since, then, says St. Bernard, ‘death may take away life at all times and in all places, we ought, if we wish to die well, and save our souls, to live always in expectation of death. ‘Walk while you have the
light’, says the Lord (Jn 12). ‘We must walk in the way of the Lord during life, now that we have light; for at the hour of death this light is taken away.’

Since you know that you must necessarily die, consider yourself already dead, says St. Lorenzo Giustiniani. Place yourself on your death-bed and ask yourself what you would regret looking back on your life now. Then use the rest of your life to do that: to confess your sins, to settle your accounts, to love God better, to love your neighbour better, to do your duties more perfectly, to pray with greater fervour, to remedy and expiate the past. Do not put off the time of your conversion.

‘Watch and pray!’ says the Lord, ‘lest you enter into temptation’. St. Peter, to whom these earnest words of the Lord were addressed in the Garden, did not heed them nor watch and pray, but slumbered and fell asleep, later recalling the Lord’s words with his own: “Be sober and watch, vigilate, because your enemy the devil circles around, seeking whom he might devour”. “He sleeps not”, says St. Augustine, “but labours untiringly for your perdition, and will you slumber when your eternal happiness is at stake?”
Therefore keep watch”, says the Lord, “because you know neither the day, nor the hour.” (Mt