Rorate Caeli

"Meditations on Death" - Part 6: A Lenten Series by Father Konrad zu Loewenstein

Part 6
A Lenten Guest Series by 
Father Konrad zu Loewenstein


a) The Death of the Sinner
St. Francis Borgia helping a dying impenitent (Goya)

‘My life is cut off as by a weaver; while I was yet beginning, he cut me off’ (Is 38.12). How many have been overtaken and cut off by death, while they were arranging worldly projects devised with so much labour. Others are given a time to prepare, by a shorter or longer illness.

Imagine yourself at the bed-side of a negligent Christian, overpowered by a malady with but a few hours yet to live. Behold him oppressed by pains, swoons, and suffocation; by want of breath, by cold perspirations; his reason so impaired that he feels but little, understands little, and can speak but little. We see by experience that such persons think only of their illness, of the physicians to be called to attend them, and of the remedies which may restore their health.

‘They are incapable of having any other thought than that of themselves’ says St. Lorenzo Giustiniani, and none of their relatives or friends has the courage to announce to them the advent of death, and to advise them to receive the Last Sacraments. If some-one does so, the dying man soon grows weary, and begs to be allowed to repose. He complains of a head-ache, and says it pains him to hear any-one speak. Or else he makes some reply, but is confused and knows not what he is saying.

If he does believe at all, what peace can he enjoy when he sees that in but a few moments he shall appear before the judgment-seat of Jesus Christ, Whose law and friendship he has till then despised? His sins will encompass him around, and say, in the words of St. Bernard: ‘We are your works, we will not desert you’.

To conquer bad habits, St. Augustine had to fight against them for 12 years. How will the dying man, who has always lived in sin, be able, in the midst of the pains, the stupefaction, and the confusion of death to repent sincerely of his past? His mind is darkened and his heart is hardened. ‘He that loveth danger shall perish in it’ ( 3.27). St. Jerome teaches that of 100,000 sinners who continue in it till their death, scarcely one will be saved. St Vincent Ferrier writes that it is a greater miracle that such a one should be saved than to raise the dead to life.

Furthermore the devils will gather together and exert all their strength to assure the perdition of his soul, if indeed it is in doubt. They know that they have little time to gain it, and if they lose it at death, then they shall have lost it forever. ‘Behold the devil is come down upon you, with great wrath, knowing that he has but little time’ (Apoc 12.12). Not just one, but innumerable devils will assail him. One will say: ‘Fear not, you will recover’; another will say: ‘For years you have been deaf to God’s inspirations: how do you expect Him to have mercy on you now?’ Another will ask: ‘How can you ever repair the damage to the character of your neighbours?’ Another will say: ‘Your confessions were all invalid.’

The attacks of the devils, the certainty of his coming death, the thought of being obliged soon to take leave of everything in this world, the remorse of conscience, the time lost, the want of time present, the impossibility of conversion, the rigour of the divine judgment, the thought of eternal damnation: all these things will form a horrible tempest in his heart. And meanwhile his reason wavers, his mind darkens, and his whole frame is assailed by the pains of approaching death and the onslaught of the devils, and thus, full of confusion and terror, the dying sinner will pass into the other world. ‘The people shall be troubled and they shall pass’ (Job 34. 20).

‘Ah my God!’ exclaims St. Alphonsus, ‘Had I died on one of those nights known to Thee, where should I be now? I thank Thee for having waited on me; I thank Thee for all the time which I should have spent in Hell from the first moment that I offended Thee. Give me light and make me aware of the evil I have done Thee in voluntarily losing Thy Grace, which Thou didst merit for me by Thy death on the Cross!’ Amen.

b) The Death of the Repentant Sinner and the Saint

i) Confidence necessary at Death

God, Who is by nature Infinite Goodness, as St. Leo says, has an infinite desire to impart His own happiness to us, and therefore desires not to punish, but to have mercy on, us. ‘Return to Me,’ says the Lord, and I will receive thee’ (Jer. 3.1); ‘Turn to Me... and I will turn to you, says the Lord of Hosts’ (Zac 1.3).

With what love and tenderness does not God embrace the repentant sinner? The Good Shepherd lays the lost sheep on his shoulders rejoicing, and, coming home, calls together his friends and neighbours telling them: ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep who was lost.’ The Father runs from afar to meet and to embrace the prodigal son, and says to his other son: ‘This thy brother was dead and has returned to life; he was lost & is found’(Lk 15).

God, says Origenes, is more solicitous for our salvation than the devil is for our perdition, for the Lord loves our souls far more than the devil hates them. If the devil comes on death to tempt the dying Christian, the guardian angel will resist him together with the man’s his holy patrons; St Michael whom God has appointed to defend His faithful servants in their last combat will come, as also the divine Mother protect her child, and to drive away the devils from him. Above all Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself will come to guard that innocent or penitent sheep for whose salvation He has given His life on the Cross.

At death, the judgment of God excites fear for all, but if sinners pass from terror to despair, the saints rise from fear to confidence. ‘God does not permit us to be tempted above our strength’ (1 Cor 10.13). ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’ (Ps. 26) ‘The Lord is my helper’ (Ps 29). When St. Bernard was tempted to despair, He said to the Saviour: ‘Thy wounds are my merits’; St. Hilarion, similarly tempted, said: ‘Go forth, my soul, what do you fear? Have you not served Christ for 70 years? And are you now afraid of death?’

But how can any-one be certain that God has forgiven his sins? ‘He can be certain’, replies St. Basil, ‘if he says: I have hated and abhorred iniquity.’ St. Claude de la Colombi`ere held it morally impossible that the man that had been faithful to God during life, should die a bad death; and St Augustine writes: ‘He who has lived well cannot die badly.’ What is true of the saints who have always lived well is also true of penitent sinners who have made a sincere conversion after grave sin. The Church teaches dogmatically that only the mortal sinner will be condemned. To have complete confidence in salvation at death, all that is necessary is, then, to be in the state of Grace.

ii) Joy of the Saints at Death

Death of St. Francis of Assisi, Giotto

‘Who’, asked the Apostle (Rom 7.24), ‘shall deliver me from the body of this death?’’If, says St. Cyprian, you lived in a house the walls, roofs, and floors were close to collapsing, how ardently would you not desire to fly from it. In this life, everything menaces the ruin of the soul: the World, Hell, the passions, the rebellious senses: all draw us to sin and to Eternal death.
How great, then, will be the consolation, then, on hearing these words: ‘Come my spouse, depart from the land of tears, from the den of lions that seeks to devour you’ (Cant 4.8). How great will be the joy of the soul to come face to face with her Beloved.

St. Theresa of Avila, hearing the bell chime the passing hours in her latter years was wont to say: ‘One hour closer!’ Fr. Suarez died with so much peace that he exclaimed: ‘I could never imagine that death would be so sweet!’ St John Fisher, approaching the place of his execution, said: ‘O my feet walk fast; we are not far from Paradise!’

How great will be the joy of the one who has often visited Our Lord Jesus Christ in the tabernacle, says St. Alphonsus, and has often received Him in Holy Communion, when he sees the Lord entering the room in the Most Holy Viaticum, and coming to accompany him into His Kingdom. What consolation will the just man receive at the hour of death from the devotions performed in honour of the Mother of God, from the rosaries he has recited, from his visits to her images. A dying person confided to the assisting priest: ‘O my Father! If you knew the happiness I feel on account of having served this Mother. I am unable to express it.’

St. Thomas teaches that the gift of Grace surpasses every gift that a creature can receive, since it is a participation in the Divine nature; while the peace of a soul that is united to God surpasses all the pleasures that the senses and the world can give: ‘the peace of God which surpasseth all understanding’ (Phil 4.7).

‘Eternal Father! may it please Thee to preserve me in Thy Grace and peace until the end. Chastise me as Thou willst, I deserve everything that it may please Thee to send me, but preserve me only from being deprived of Thy Grace. My Jesus! Recommend me to Thy Father. Mary, my Mother, recommend me to thy Son: obtain me perseverance in His friendship: to love Him to the end of my days on earth, and then forever in Heaven’. Amen.