IN ALL THY WORKS remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin" is the advice of Sacred Scripture (Ecclesiasticus 7, 40). This present book is written to help you remember your last end, and hence to help you live a better life. It is written mainly for you young people, teen-age boys and girls, young men and young women, who I am sure would welcome some simple thoughts on this important subject of the last things.
The things I say in this book are the age-old teachings of the Church. It is my aim to present these teachings in simple language which you can easily understand. Much has been written about this subject, but not much has been written specially for young people. This book is for you young people. Surely if you listen to the advice of Sacred Scripture and remember your last end, you will find it easier to keep out of sin and consequently be more sure of saving your souls. But just how can you remember your last end if you do not know very much about it? This little book will explain many things about the last things that you no doubt have often wondered about.
Do not be upset if all your doubts are not settled by reading this book. Many things about the life after death are shrouded in mystery and darkness. God wants us to rely on faith. He has seen fit to leave us in the dark about many things of the next life. God has, however, revealed some facts about the next world. These truths are both terrifying and consoling, and when thought about seriously help us to keep God's law. I want to pass on to you these truths, lest you forget your last end and run the risk of meeting death unprepared.
You older people will also find this book useful. Although written for the purpose of giving teen-agers and other young people clear and correct views on the last things, it will serve equally well for older readers who may wish to refresh their knowledge on the subject, or even at this late hour, to learn some of these truths for the first time.
In writing this book I relied heavily upon the Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae of J. M. Herve as my guide and authority. I am in debted also to the Theologiae Dogmaticae Compendium of H . Hurter, S.J., to A Companion to Scripture Studies by John E. Steinmueller, to the text and notes of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine revision of the New Testament, to the Catechism of the Council of Trent, to A Companion to The Summa by Walter Farrell, O. P., and to various other works. The doctrine contained in this present book is, of course, to be found largely in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, to whom we all owe acknowledgement and thanks.
May this little book be of service to your soul. May it help you live a better life. And may we all meet in the next world as fellow citizens with the saints to enjoy our God, who has prepared such glorious things for those who love Him. Come, Lord Jesus!
WE ARE ALL interested in the next world. We ought to be. It concerns each one of us. It is moreover very mysterious. A dark cloud hangs over that region beyond the grave. There are many things in this present life that are baffling enough, but when we begin to ponder the life after death, we are thrice bewildered.
None of us can escape death. Each one of us will have to enter the mysterious world of the great beyond. Death and what follows must then be of vital and personal concern to each one of us.
Death is the entrance into the next world. Death is the separation of soul and body, the disintegration or coming apart of a human being in such a way that the visible part of man, the body, lies helpless and dead, while the spiritual part of man, the thinking, knowing, feeling, conscious soul passes on, still alive, into the shadows of life's night.
How often we have paid our respects to the departed! You probably have stood before a
casket and gazed thoughtfully on a face of death. A face that once was lit by a human smile, now wears a mask of death. Those features, once so supple and vibrant, are now cold and rigid as if carved from eternal rock. A face that once responded to our every word and emotion now lies there motionless and cold. If we touch the immobile features, a cold chill runs through our veins. We stand in the presence of death.
No one doubts the reality of death. It is a fact so certain as to convince one sceptical of almost everything else. A scoffer might reject a life after death, might even question the reality of this present life, but in the presence of death he can do little else but admit it .
It is Catholic doctrine that in death the human body and soul are separated. As long as both are united, the person lives. As soon as they are separated, the person is dead. The Moment of Death Priests and medical men rightly wonder at what precise moment the soul leaves the body. It is difficult to say. Motion is a pretty sure sign of life. Putrefaction or decay is a sure sign of death. But in between evident motion and putrefaction there may be quite a span of time in which actual and complete death is reasonably doubtful.
A person whose heart has ceased to beat and whose breath can no longer be discerned is apparently dead. There are the recognized signs of death: lack of pulse, no breath, dilation of the pupils, no reflex action when the eyeball is touched. The physician may pronounce him dead. No means at present known to science can revive him. He will before long be actually dead. But in the meantime the soul may still be lingering in the body. That is why a priest called to a Catholic seemingly dead will give conditional absolution and conditional Extreme Unction. If the person is not yet fully dead and if, before losing consciousness, he has been rightly disposed, the sacraments will aid him. If death has already taken place, the sacraments cannot touch the soul which is already far off in eternity, beyond the reach of the sacraments, which are for wayfarers on earth.
A priest might administer the sacraments conditionally to one apparently dead a half hour after he seemed to die, or even two hours after, if death was sudden. When one wastes away by sickness, actual death probably comes soon after apparent death. But when a man, say, in vigorous and robust condition is suddenly knocked down in an accident, the soul may linger on in his body for quite some time.
Death is an absolute thing. A person is either alive or dead. There is no such thing as being half-dead. However, we can think of a person dying by inches, so to speak. In much the same way as we think of life departing from an amputated arm or leg, so we can conceive of life as receding from the extremities of the body, while lingering still in its more vital parts.
Death is the most important event in the life of a Christian. For as we die, so we will remain forever. As long as body and soul are together we can always change one way or the other. We can fall into sin, or repent. We can get better or worse. Death, however, falls with a terrific finality. It fixes us forever in the condition of soul which we happen to be in at that all - important moment.
No wonder then that the Church has us say in the Hail Mary: "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." If we obtain Mary's help to live a good life now, we will have less reason to fear the hour of death; for as we live, so we shall die.
As long as we are alive and in the state of sanctifying grace, we gain merit by every good action that we perform, even by the ordinary daily actions of life that do not seem to be very important. But death stops all that. Merit ends at death. And as we have lived here on earth, so we will be rewarded. The time of work is over. The night has come in which no man can work. The separated soul leaves its companion, the body. It is immediately judged and assigned to its proper place. But just what can it do or move?
As a matter of fact, it can do all those things, because the soul is a spirit, and a spirit has understanding and will.
The body is, after all, a kind of burden. A spirit does very well without a body. God the Father has no body. Yet He is perfection itself. The Holy Spirit guides and sanctifies the Church without employing a body. The angels have no bodies. But we human beings do have bodies. Our bodies are meant to be united to our souls. And after the resurrection our bodies will be reunited with our souls. Man, since he is made up of body and soul, is incomplete without the body. But even so, the soul as a spirit can live without the body, as it actually does for the interval—who knows how long it will be? — between death and the final resurrection.
The Soul After Death
The separated soul knows what it learned when in the body; it knows also what God chooses to let it know after death. It can communicate with other separated souls in the same way as angels communicate with one another. The separated soul does not know everything. But it can know facts about people living on earth, either by speaking with other souls lately come from earth, or by speaking with angels, or even by listening to the voice of God.
The separated soul will never cease to be. Strictly speaking, God could annihilate a soul. He could make it cease to be, just as he once made it begin to be. But He does not. Once He has created a soul, He keeps it in existence forever. God Himself never had a beginning, and He will never have an end. We have had a beginning at some definite point in time; but once put in existence, we continue on without end.
Death which seems such a final thing to us is not final at all. It is but one episode in our complete life. In death, as in life and as in eternity, the soul lives on. Once in existence it stays in existence forever. Death then has reference to the body. It is the body that is left behind cold and helpless. The soul continues to live on. Even the body is destined for resurrection. Death, then, is the temporary separation of body and soul, while the soul maintains its undying life without the body for a time. All men will die. Death is a punishment for sin. It is the common lot of all men to die. According to God's original plan, man was to live here on earth for a time and was then to be taken alive into heaven. Freedom from death was one of the special gifts given to our first parents. By their sin they lost this privilege for themselves. Adam lost this privilege for all his descendants. Now we must die the death.
There are two interesting characters in the Bible who were taken to heaven alive, Enoch and Elias. Some of the Fathers of the Church hold that these two men will never die. Others, however, think that they will die at the end of the world. As for all the rest of us, we are certain that we shall all die. We cannot expect to be translated to paradise like Enoch, or to be taken up in a fiery chariot like Elias. It is certain that we will die.
But what remains most uncertain is the time of our death. Our Lord says that death will come like a thief in the night. The only wise way to live, then, is to be ready always to die. And as we live, so we shall die. As we die, so we shall remain forever. Holy Mary, Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
When we live in a pagan atmosphere, we tend to imitate the ways of pagans. We get paganistic in our own outlook. This is particularly true regarding the subject of death. People who have no correct view of death, who have no real faith in the reality of life after death, take the attitude that death is something gruesome, something to be ignored as long as possible. When it must be met, let it be met, but let us cloak its reality in a mantle of make-believe. So the pagans think, and so they act. We have to be on our guard lest we think as they think.
First of all, death, though a profoundly moving thing, is not properly gruesome. It is not something to run away from or even just ignore. Rather it is a beautiful and consoling subject on which to meditate. We ought to think often about death. Our concern is not to forget it , but to keep it continually in mind. If we forget about death, we will live for the present only, indulging in all the excesses to which human nature is prone. But if we are constantly mindful of death, we will live the present well so asto enjoy the future all the more. We ought by all means to cure ourselves of the "gruesome fear" attitude toward death, and develop the "wholesome-fear" attitude towards it.
The wild, neurotic fear of graveyards and ghosts is a state of mind unworthy of a stable personality, and especially unworthy of a good Christian who places his trust in God. A cringing superstitious fear of death is foolish. We should, however, fear death to the extent that we have reason to fear that, at the hour of death, we might not be found worthy of heaven.
Therefore, we will see to it that our lives become better and that our salvation is consequently rendered more secure. A fear that would make us run from death is bad. A fear that makes us keep God's law and that enables us to meet and face death with courage is good.
Attitudes Toward Death
The exaggerated grief of persons without faith, who without restraint wail at the supposedly utter and final loss of a dear one, is most un-Christian. Why be hysterical at the loss of one who is not lost at all, but safe in the arms of God? Why feel that we have lost one forever, when as a matter of fact the parting is but temporary? Excessive grief comes from lack of faith in the life after death.
Or consider the stoic, rational sort of pagan, who sees no need to be sad, when sadness cannot alter the fate of one who has ceased to be. Total lack of grief also bespeaks a pagan mind. Christian sorrow at the passing of a dear one lies between these two extremes. We are sad at the temporary loss of one we love. We are borne up by the faith that we will meet again. We remain bound together by mutual ties of love and affection. Our sorrow is tempered by joy; our joy is tinged with sorrow.
Often at a wedding the bride's mother cries. She is both glad and sad. She rejoices that her daughter is entering the happy state of matrimony. She is sad to lose her child. Death is
something like that. It is a partial loss, a partial gain.
Pagans cloak over the reality of death. They try to make it seem other than it really is. With a kind of irrational logic they act as if the person were only sleeping, whereas they believe he is dead with the finality of annihilation. They dress up a corpse in make-believe. In nice-sounding language they carefully avoid all mention of or reference to death. Yet they believe in no after-life. They speak of sleep, but they mean death.
By striking contrast, we Catholics speak of death, but we mean sleep. We are not nearly so concerned with covering up the fact of death. We openly admit that the person is dead, yet we firmly believe that the soul lives on and is destined to be reunited with the body. Every time we gaze on the face of a departed brother, we can borrow the words of our Lord to the effect that this person is not dead but sleeping, as once our Lord said of the girl in the gospel, "The girl is asleep, not dead" (Mark 5, 40).
The very word "cemetery" means a sleeping place or dormitory, as if the departed were merely resting for a night. The dawn of resurrection will dispel this night of death. Our dear departed are, in fact, merely resting until the resurrection. Quite aptly do we use the word cemetery to designate their resting place. It was, and still is, a practice of the Church to bury persons facing the East, where the sun rises. They are, as it were, in position to greet Christ the Orient, Christ the Rising Sun, when He breaks forth over the hills on resurrection morn. As the body of the deceased is laid in the earth, the canticle Benedictus is sung. The final words of that inspired poem speak of Christ rising from on high to shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
How can we be prostrate with excessive grief, or yet be cold and unmoved, when we lovingly lay to rest our departed brother? For we tenderly await with him the splendor of Christ's coming when we will all be reunited in God's own home where shines perpetual light. "Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let the perpetual light shine upon him."
Source: Come The End, Imprimatur 1951