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To Die is Gain, But Most of Us Aren’t in a Hurry to Go

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A reflection on the Christian view of death

In the month of November, we remember the souls of the faithful departed and our obligation to pray for them. November and into the early part of Advent is also a part of the Church year during which we begin to ponder the last things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In the northern hemisphere, the days grow shorter. In regions farther north, the once green trees and fields shed their lively green, and after the brief, golden gown of autumn, a kind of death overtakes the landscape. Life changes; we grow older, and one day we will die.
 
It is fitting at this time that we ponder the passing glory of things and set our gaze on Heaven, where joys will never end. There is a beautiful prayer in the Roman Missal that captures this disposition:
 

Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis, id disiderare quod promittis, ut, inter mundanas varietates, ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.

 

O God, who makes the minds of the faithful to be of one accord, grant to your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the changes of this world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are (21st Sunday of the year).

 
So here we are, well into November. Summer has passed and winter beckons. Ponder with me the fact that this world is passing. And I have a question to ask you:

How do you see death? Do you long to one day depart this life and go home to God? St. Paul wrote to the Philippians of his longing to leave this world and go to God. He was not suicidal; he just wanted to be with God:
 

Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit (Phil 1:20-23).

 
These days I am struck by the fact that almost no one speaks publicly of their longing to depart this life and be with God. I suspect it is because we live very comfortably, at least in the affluent West. Many of the daily hardships with which even our most recent ancestors struggled have been minimized or even eliminated. I suppose that when the struggles of this life are minimized, fewer people long to leave it and go to Heaven. They set their sights, hopes, and prayers on having things be better HERE. “O God, please give me better health, a better marriage, a financial blessing, a promotion at work, … ” In other words, “Make this world an even better place for me and I’ll be content to stay here, rather than longing to go to Heaven.”

Longing to be with God was more evident in the older prayers, many of which were written just a few generations ago. Consider, for example, the well known Salve Regina and note (especially in the words I have highlighted in bold) the longing to leave this world and be with God:
 

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope. To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To Thee do we send up our sighs, mourning, and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, Thine Eyes of Mercy towards us, and after this our exile, show us the Blessed Fruit of thy Womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
 

The prayer acknowledges in a very realistic and sober way that life here can be very difficult. Rather than ask for deliverance from all of it, for this world is an exile after all, the prayer simply expresses a longing to go to Heaven and be worthy to see Jesus. It is this longing that I sense is somewhat absent in our modern world, even among regular Churchgoers.

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