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:
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:
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:
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.
When was the last time you meditated on Heaven? When was the last time you heard a sermon on Heaven? I understand that we all have a natural fear and aversion to dying. But for a Christian, there should be a deepening thirst for God that begins to erode the fear and aversion to death. St. Francis praised God for Sister bodily death which no one can escape (Canticum Fratris Solis). And why not praise God for it? It is what ultimately brings us home.
As for me, I will say it: I long to leave this world one day and go home and be with God. I am not suicidal and I love what I do here. But I can’t wait to be with God. I don’t mind getting older because it means I’m closer to home. Another day’s journey and I’m so glad because I’m one day closer to home! In our youth-centered culture, people (especially women) are encouraged to be anxious about getting older. As for me, when I hit forty, I said, “Hallelujah, I’m halfway home (err … as far as I know)!” Now at 53, I rejoice even more. I’m glad to be getting older. God has made me wiser and He is preparing me to meet Him. I can’t wait!
Story: A couple of years ago a woman here in the parish walked into a meeting a few minutes late. It was obvious that she had been rushing to get there, and she entered quite out-of-breath. No sooner had she entered, than she fell headlong on the ground. She had died instantly of a heart attack. She was dead before she hit the ground. We rushed to revive her, but to no avail. God had called Wynette unto Himself. I remember saying at her funeral, “For us it was one of the worst days of our life, but for Wynette it was the greatest day of her life.” God, for whom she longed, had drawn her to Himself. She had died hurrying to God’s house and you know I just had to quote the old spiritual that says, O Lord, I done what you told me to do … unto that morning when the Lord said, “Hurry!”
Even a necessary stopover in Purgatory cannot eclipse the joy of the day we die. There will surely be the suffering that precedes our death. But deep in our heart, if we are a believer, must ring forth the word, “Soon!” An old spiritual says, “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, going home to live with God.”
So I ask you again, do you long for heaven? Do you long to depart this world and be with God? You say, “Yes, but first let me raise my kids!” I know, but do you rejoice as the years tick by and the goal becomes closer? Do you long to be with God?
I close with the words of Psalm 27:
Msgr. Charles Popeis the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, a vibrant parish community in Washington, DC. A native of Chicago with a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science, his interest in the priesthood stemmed from his experience as a church organist, cantor and choir director during college. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and holds Masters degrees in Divinity and in Moral Theology. He was ordained in 1989 and named a Monsignor in 2005. He has conducted a weekly Bible Study in Congress and in the White House, for two and four years, respectively.