Death. The darkening days of winter bring to mind the end of life, even as we prepare to celebrate the Birth of the One who brings an end to death.
Even for Catholics, death can be a fearful thing, because we are human. We know about loss and grief, we understand pain and suffering. Our society does not support the contemplation of our own death – whether as a future abstraction or, depending on the state of our age and health, a more-or-less imminent prospect. Yet we also recognize that we live in a world where, as Jesus reminds us in the Advent Gospels, our own ending will most likely come as a thief in the night.
It’s a blessing, then, that the Church’s treasury of prayer offers us words of comfort and preparation for those times when we run up against the fearfulness of death. Here are five such prayers, and a few additional suggestions from familiar prayer and Scripture.
1. Turn to St. Joseph
Tradition tells us that Joseph died peacefully in the arms of his beloved wife and foster son. Who better to turn to for intercession that we might make so blessed (which means “happy”) an end?
Prayer to St. Joseph for a Happy Death(traditional)
O Blessed Joseph, you gave your last breath in the loving embrace of Jesus and Mary. When the seal of death shall close my life, come with Jesus and Mary to aid me. Obtain for me this solace for that hour – to die with their holy arms around me. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I commend my soul, living and dying, into your sacred arms. Amen.
2. Ask for grace to overcome the enemy
The fear of death is one of the Devil’s greatest deceptions. Praying for the grace to resist the enemy’s lies throughout our lives can strengthen us for the final battle.
Prayer to Christ for Grace(from iBreviary)
O Lord Jesus,
pour into me the spirit of your love,
that in the hour of my death
I may be worthy to vanquish the enemy
and receive the heavenly crown. Amen.
3. Place yourself within Christ himself
If we die with Christ (as we have in Baptism), we are assured that we will rise with him. When the fear of death haunts us, this beautiful litany reminds us of our refuge.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Your wounds, hide me.
Never permit me to be separated from You.
From the wicked enemy, defend me.
At the hour of my death call me, and bid me to come to Your side,
that with Your Angels and Your Saints, I may praise You for all eternity, Amen.
4. Make friends with Sister Death
St. Francis of Assisi closes his beautiful praise of God’s creation with a prayer addressed through Sister Death. When we meet her and recognize her as our sister, we can prepare ourselves to be ready when she welcomes us home.
From Canticle of the Creatures (St. Francis of Assisi)
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your will!
The second death can do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks.
And serve him with great humility.
5. Rest in the surety that “all shall be well”
The medieval English anchoress known as Julian of Norwich came through the gates of death – experienced as a dreadful illness and depression – with a vision of the true reality of God’s everlasting love. Repeating this prayer based on her writings can be a means of comfort in any fear or anxiety.
Prayer for Comfort (based on the writings of St Julian of Norwich)
God, you are my help and comfort; you shelter and surround me in love so tender that I may know your presence with me, now and always. Amen.
Beyond the 5 prayers mentioned above, be sure to take advantage of traditional prayers like the Hail Mary (“pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”) and the Prayer to the Guardian Angel. As a repeated invocation, use Jesus’ own words on the brink of death: “Into Your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit,” from Psalm 31 – a good resolution for every day. You may also find comfort in three favorite psalms: Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”), Psalm 46 (“God is our refuge and strength”), and Psalm 91 (“You who live in the shelter of the Most High”). Reading the psalms aloud often brings new levels of meaning home.