My grandmother passed today.
In her last few days, she told her nine children, “I remain in the will of God. God’s will is love and mercy. What do I have to fear?”
In a word, she got it. She got what life was all about: she had a friendship with God that helped her to understand his identity and to recognize death as the vehicle that would bring her eternally to him.
The grace with which my grandmother understood her last days is uncommon. Death usually seems to surprise or horrify. We don’t think about it too often in our culture, either because it makes us uncomfortable or we’re often focused on earthly things.
As a teenager, I experienced a lot of family deaths in a short period of time. During an incredibly formative period, I attended many funerals, said many prayers, visited several hospitals, and travelled often unexpectedly. Life seemed incredibly uncertain and precarious, and I found myself often asking, “Who’s next?”
Death was real, and it seemed to be everywhere. Though I felt like an adult at the time, I was still unable to comprehend the greatness and depth of what was occurring. It is normal for human beings to dislike death. Death is ugly, unnatural, and uncompassionate. It visited my grandparents, aunt, and cousin. It tried to visit my own father.
In those teenage years, death and I were at war. It took my relatives and did not ask my permission. As a method of self-preservation, I attempted to turn off my feelings and approached life with a blasé attitude. If it was all going to end, I thought, then what was the point? What was the point of feeling if feelings are heartache and tears? What was the point of getting too close to someone who would ultimately slip away?
It was an immature but perhaps understandable reaction for a teenager. And since then, it has taken many years for me to be able to “feel” again and understand death’s role in the spiritual life.
If we start researching the saints and their perspective on death, we quickly find a completely different understanding of death than the one the world gives us. “Tomorrow will be a wonderful day” Blessed Solanus Casey said to a fellow priest, prophesying his own death the next morning. He and many of the saints saw death as a friend, a door, a wedding banquet, a bridge welcoming man into reality—eternal life. “Death is no phantom, no horrible specter as presented in pictures,” Therese of Lisieux said. “In the catechism it is stated that death is the separation of soul and body, that is all! Well, I am not afraid of a separation which will unite me to the good God forever.”
The saints also understood that life on earth is a pilgrimage, not our final destination. As a girl, Therese of Lisieux found inspiration in the quote: “The world is thy ship and not thy home.” We are pilgrims on a road hopefully leading back to God. Every decision we make leads us either closer to this end or farther from it.
I believe mankind has such an aversion to death because we were not created for it. In the beginning, death did not exist. Death was the consequence of sin: separation from God. In order to not leave us in this state of separation permanently, God worked throughout time and intervened in human history in order to bring mankind back to himself in a state even greater than we experienced prior to the Fall. He now invites us to share in his very life—the trinitarian life of love, of complete gift of self—in heaven which “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC1023).
Because of God’s work throughout salvation history culminating in the Passion, death and Resurrection of his Son, death no longer is the last word. As Paul wrote to the early Church in Corinth: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is taken away—transfigured. God took the ugliest and most unnatural consequence of sin and transformed it into the passageway that leads us back to him. This is the Christian perspective of death, what the saints understood, but what we have such a hard time truly grasping. We often only see the life taken too soon, the pain and suffering of the dying, the wrinkles, the tubes, the bloodshed. Christ offers us more: resurrection, transfiguration.
St. Paul says that if we but understood the eternal, we would willingly suffer on earth—calling tribulation “momentary light affliction.” He says, “We are not discouraged…although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.” 1 Cor 4:16-18
I believe my grandmother, in her final days, understood what St. Paul and the saints did: death was simply the vehicle that would bring her into the loving arms of the Father. She understood God’s identity in two words—love and mercy—and surrendered to this truth in order to live eternally in God’s love. I look to her example and see incredible strength and faith, and I pray, as I visit her tomb in Mexico, that I can have the grace to remain in God’s will and see death as a momentary light affliction producing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
“She competed well; she finished the race; she kept the faith” (cf 2 Tim. 4:7).
May we all do the same.