Death is an unknowable future which requires trust in the Divine, trust that life has meaning beyond life. As Teilhard was fond of saying, God is not above, or beyond us, but in our Future, and calls us from that place. God summons us to our future, but that future is radically unknowable.
Our scripture is the record of the reflections generated by our branch of humanity on their experience of the Divine and God’s relationship to humanity. Belief in something after death was not part of early Hebrew thinking. Much later, it was believed that what God promises is a future in which the human being becomes more fully itself. Mystics throughout the centuries have confirmed this belief.
This understanding of God demands a leap in the dark on the promise that when this leap has been made the as yet unforeseeable and unpredictable future will justify the apparent folly of the present. This concept of divine “vindication” for a life of love first found its expression in the Book of Daniel, and was one of the explanations given for the power of the resurrection story: contrary to the World’s condemnation, God resurrects Jesus as a vindication for his faithfulness and his life of self-emptying love.
Thus, death is a leap across a radical discontinuity, but with the assurance that when we look back, we shall understand the continuity that is present at a much deeper level.
It is possible to see life as a leading up to death. This is not necessarily either a macabre thought or an escapist “pie in the sky when you die.” The truth is: either there is nothing after death, or what there is is truly spectacular. Our faith tends to suggest the latter. Death is the promise of the fulfilment of the relationships which were only imperfectly developed on earth. Our encounter with God in death represents our reaching the stability toward which the continuing dynamism of our life is tending, but which remains beyond our grasp.
The Trinitarian dance in which we already take part as infinitesimal members of the Cosmic Christ, is the dance of Love. Love defines the interior dynamic of the being of the Triune God, and the extent to which here and now we are capable of loving is the extent to which we are already sharing in the life of God, and preparing ourselves to experience that Love in its original Trinitarian form.
In a very real sense, death is the definitive encounter with oneself. The definitive encounter with God is also the definitive encounter with oneself; one meets the person one could have become had one been able to develop all one’s potentialities without the constant failure due to our flawedness. We become acutely aware of the limitations under which we lived due to personal history and circumstances. This is a moment of final judgment where, without artifices or condemnation we measure the gap between what we had the capacity to be and what we became. Moreover, we see ourselves in our fullness, including all the hidden aspects of ourselves which we had been quick to hide, deny or ignore. This encounter with truth and love in their absolute forms would expose us to an intense awareness of all our failings and inadequacies, the dissimulations and hypocrisies, in our repeated failures to love. It is a stripping away of all our ego-defenses. This could be a profoundly painful process.
In this sense, however, death is the culmination of everything we have been working toward in our life, rather than its annihilation. Death is thus something toward which life has been leading, giving meaning to the life it concludes.
The heart of the Christian message with respect to the ultimate destiny of humanity is something like this: we are promised life; this life will be eternal; our bodies are somehow involved in this. And all of this in the context of God’s unconditional love.
Other traditional understandings also include a notion of rest or sleep; at least a cessation of toil; but too much emphasis on that rest may be misleading. In fact, the common understanding of God is more “verb” than “noun,” more relational than substantive. Being “in God” might thus suggest far more activity than passivity! As Theresa of Lisieux was fond of saying as she was dying: “I am going to heaven to do good.”
We are thus offered life in the fullest sense of the word; we are promised something dynamic, something that exhibits fulfilment when the restraints of contingency are removed. The God into which we will be is supreme being, the Ground of all being, and is supremely being, as the primal cause from which springs all the life, goodness and activity of the world. We can expect to share in that form of being. There is something reassuring that our existence “in God” will have a profound incarnational dimension to it. Moreover, the tradition states that we are promised the experience of everlasting supreme satisfaction; and we also have the assurance that we will continue to be human.
This vision of death and life after death, imperfect and tentative though it may be provides grounds for understanding the essence of our life. It invests every moment with importance, as every moment is an opportunity to prepare ourselves for that final encounter with God, and to build a community that fosters such a view for others.
Death is the culmination of life, not its destruction. We thus live our lives in such a way that we school ourselves in ways to make that final encounter and decision as habitual as possible. Saying “yes” to God requires that we understand how to let go of our Ego and move to the point of self-emptying. Anything that fosters our selfishness hinders our ability to be ready for that ultimate encounter with God. And since we are community and live or not, grow or not, depending upon the health of our community, our life must be engaged in creating that kind of community where the process of preparing ourselves for that ultimate encounter is facilitated.
adapted from Nowell, Robert What a Modern Catholic Believes about Death, Chicago: The Thomas Moore Press, 1972
On My Death – A Prayer
based on Nowell, Robert: What a Modern Catholic Believes about Death,
May 1, 2014
© Andre Auger 2014
I am aware that death is an unknowable future
and that this truth requires trust in You;
I believe that life has meaning beyond life.
what You promise through Scripture and the reflection of the mystics
is a future in which I will become more fully myself.
I see death as a leap across a radical discontinuity.
May I have the assurance that when I look back,
I shall understand the continuity that is present at a much deeper level.
What frightens me most, God, is that death is the only experience
in which each of us is truly on our own, without crutches or support.
May I at least feel your Presence within me as I take that lonely journey.
I believe that death is the promise of the fulfilment of the relationships
which were only imperfectly developed on earth.
And I watch my community prepare me for this unique experience of aloneness
in order to fulfil those relationships beyond death.
May I approach death with the vision
of all my relationships
constantly in mind.
I know You are love and the extent to which here and now
I am capable of loving is the extent to which I am already sharing in Your life.
While I am alive, may I constantly expand my capacity to love.
I recognize that death will also be the definite encounter with myself.
The definitive encounter with You is also the definitive encounter with myself;
I will meet the person I could have become
had I been able to develop all my potentialities without the constant failure due to my flawedness.
I know this will be a moment of final judgment
where, without artifices or condemnation, I will measure the gap
between what I was meant to be and what I became.
I know I am not prepared for this encounter.
May I know that Your Love will prevail
over any judgment as to my failures to become what I might have been.
I know I will see myself in my fullness,
including all the hidden aspects of myself which I had been quick to hide, deny or ignore.
I am frightened that this encounter with truth and love in their absolute forms
will expose me to an intense awareness of all my failings and inadequacies,
the dissimulations and hypocrisies, in my repeated failures to love.
Oh! I fear the pain of this honest exposure!
I am aware that it will be a stripping away of all my ego-defences;
and that this will be a profoundly painful process.
May I remember, as I approach this fateful moment,
that, in this sense, death is the culmination of everything I have been working toward in my life,
rather than its annihilation.
As I approach my death,
may I see that death is something toward which life has been leading,
giving meaning to the life it concludes.
Holy Mystery, I somehow know this:
we are promised life;
You offer me life in the fullest sense of the word;
You promise me something dynamic, something that exhibits fulfilment
when the restraints of contingency and time and space are removed.
You promise me the experience of everlasting supreme satisfaction.
And I also have the assurance that I will continue to be human,
and that this life will be eternal;
my body is somehow involved in this, how I don’t purport to know.
May I keep in mind that wonderful vista of new life that seems to await me.
I want to say “yes” to You;
and I realize that this requires that I understand how to let go of my Ego
and move to the point of self-emptying.
I will need help with this: it is so counterintuitive!
And all the forces within me have been designed with the opposite effect in mind.
May I learn earlier than later to provide an honourable discharge to my ego,
so that I might be more ready for You.
As I approach this ultimate event in my earthly life,
may I continue to experience Your Presence deep within me and all around me.
May I be open to Your Love, no matter how strange and painful it might be.
May it be so.