Contemplating Death

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

We are in the month of November, known to Catholics as the month of the Holy Souls. The month began with the feast of All Saints and was followed next day by the feast of All Souls.

We are encouraged to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory not only on November 2, but throughout the month.

This month draws us to consider what we call “the four last things” – death, judgement, heaven and hell. This is always a salutary thing for any person to do. It is not meant to be a somehow depressing topic, but rather a sober approach to the reality of human life, flavoured by light produced through the Christian virtue of hope.

There is a phrase that has ancient roots, “memento mori”, ‘remember that you will die’. It is not of Christian origin but goes back to Socrates and the ancient Greeks and is found in Roman literature.

It expresses sound human wisdom – that it is good to keep death in mind as it gives perspective to our temptation to live for the moment. It causes us to examine the degree of attachment that we may have developed towards the things of this life.

It was considered by the ancients as a particularly useful phrase for those in high office. The prospect of death serves to emphasize the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and is a reminder to focus on the prospect of the afterlife.

The ancient Christian monks considered the remembrance of death as a worthy virtue to foster. It was a means to encourage the steady and faithful pursuit of virtue. St John of Sinai, in his book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, had, as the sixth step on the ladder, the spiritual discipline of remembrance of death.

He urged the monks to keep the moment of their death before their eyes. He encouraged the monk to live each day as though it was his last. He believed that such a practice would deter the monk from sin.

Indeed, this echoes what is said the Sacred Scripture. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus we find: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin” (Si 7:36).

The readings from the Sacred Scriptures that we are offered in the Sacred Liturgy at this time of the year reflect these themes, both in these final weeks of the liturgical year and in the first weeks of Advent.

In the Gospel today, the Lord speaks of disturbing events as the world is thrown into convulsions. Such descriptions of a world in turmoil are not foreign to our experience, and remind us that we will find no lasting peace and security in this world.

However, there is a beatitude that awaits us. Heaven awaits.

The Lord urges his disciples to remain steady during these times, promising the protection of God over us and encouraging our faithful endurance.

These are words we can take to heart. The virtue of endurance is a trait needed by Christians today in the face of increased antagonism and rejection.

These are admonitions worthy of these times. The Christian is able to preserve a healthy perspective on life because of the faith that lies as the foundation to our lives.

We believe, firstly, that this world is not all there is. Secondly, we know that the final victory is God’s. Thirdly, we believe that death is the entrance into eternity. This faith breeds hope, and hope is a light amidst the darkness around us.

The month of November invites us to not only pray for the holy souls, but also to contemplate the reality of death and the four last things. This is not some kind of morbid preoccupation.

We see death as a journey, not as an end. Indeed it is a culmination of our pilgrimage through life.

In the prayers for the dying provided in the Rite of Anointing of the Sick there is found the beautiful prayer:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you,
go forth, faithful Christian.

May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints.”

Contemplating death gives perspective to human life. It helps us set the right parameters to our human existence. And, it does encourage us to endue in the face of challenges that confront us.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Sunday, 13 November 2022

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