When I was seventeen, I fell in love with death. Or rather, I fell in love with someone who had fallen in love with death. I was a pre-postulant in the Daughters of St Paul assigned to the typesetting department (in the days when publishing houses actually retyped manuscripts submitted by authors). The author was Hubert Van Zeller. It was in a footnote in one of his books that I read, “At the age of ten I fell in love with death.”
I was fascinated and have remained “friends” with Van Zeller all my life. And through him, friends with death.
So, as you can guess, November is one of my favorite months. I love the cold crisp air. The trees quickly turning from vibrant colors to faded browns and yellows and stray flaming oranges. The crunching sound as I walk through piles of dead leaves on street corners and the vision of stark and naked trees reaching up into the wintry sky. It is the month also in which we remember why we’re here, where we’re going, and those who have gone before us into eternity who still need our comfort and the compassion of our prayers.
Falling in love with death in my teens helped to set my intention to focus on arriving at my final and eternal destination prepared. But through the years that initial love affair with eternity has undergone quite a metamorphosis. In these past ten years as friends and sisters with whom I have lived have made the great leap of faith into the arms of the Father, the prospect of my own death has become more real. Tonight, when I put down the phone after speaking with my parents, I realized that one day I won’t be able to call them anymore. My body reminds me with its aches and pains that I am older than I was, and an internal alarm keeps reminding me regularly that time is running out. Each November now is also a reminder that one day I will die, I will have said my last word, done my last task, prayed my last prayer, said my last I love you, and I will gently let this life go to begin a new life that will be forever free and full of joy.
I am still in love with death. I don’t know if I have convinced you to take up this romance with eternity, but I pray that the natural aging process with its human fears and uncertainty and surprising sorrows will lose a bit of its edge. I think that God wants us to greet death with joy since Jesus himself has died and risen. In fact, for those who are baptized into Christ, there is no death. We have already died in his death and risen in his life. Life eternal is begun here and we will simply change rooms when we breathe our last. I realize, however, that doesn’t make it easy.
And what about the judgment, you may ask. And the punishment of purgatory and the fires of hell…. I’d like to share with you these paragraphs from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi:
“Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
“Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way, the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgment, we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgment of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgment and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless, grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).”(nos. 46-47, Purgatory specifically mentioned in no. 45 )
As we pray for the souls of the faithful departed that they might rest in peace, we also pray for ourselves that we might live in hope, that we might go to meet Jesus in trust, that even now we might allow his love to “burn” away the dross that we might more purely love him and honor him all the days of our life.
ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE? HERE ARE 5 WAYS TO GO DEEPER…
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