Meditations for Layfolk - Death

The great effect produced in the soul by sin is an intense feeling of loneliness brought about by the very offence against God, for by the fact of sin the deep consciousness of the intimate union between Him and ourselves can no longer be experienced. After all, no one can be blind to the traditional reverence that we have for the Divine Spirit that governs the race. All men, since historic knowledge and memory begins, have realized this sovereign of the universe to be the most intimate and familiar being to every human child. In our fear, our success, in the moments when the beauty of things has come home to us, we have turned instinctively, not to address some one without, but the spirit within. However far we go back, that is instinctive to man. Sin, therefore, which breaks this bond, cannot but impress on the soul its loss; and since death is the penalty that God has attached to sin, it would seem natural that the terror of death should come precisely along the same line of loneliness. This, too, has been the age-long attitude to death taken by the race; just as it has always slunk away to hide after its sin, so it has faced death as the great solitude. Even in prehistoric days this view of death impressed the mind of man; as far back as we can trace his life and habits, we find that he buried his dead with their most treasured possessions. Near the right hand of that earliest boy, whose grave has been unearthed at Le Meustrier, a flint knife was found, doubtless his favourite belonging, something laid by the loved one's side to allow some semblance of companionship, of treasured gift, to break in on his loneliness. So, too, were wife and slave buried with their lord lest he should be lonely in death's great silence.

Indeed, solitary as life can become, death must be yet more solitary. Life comes to us as members of a family, as units in a great social organization; as perhaps blind, and deaf, and dumb to the outward concerns of others, yet as the object of their persistent and tender solicitude; but death must leave us alone to ourselves. From the love that springs between two the child is born; thus others herald it into the light, but it goes out from the light alone. Death works that change at least: whatever other rest or peace it will one day bring us, that loneliness is always its portion. It is the very pathos of a deathbed that the long shadows of the loneliness of the tomb are already being cast upon the soul: the voice of the dying person has to travel seemingly along endless cloisters before it can reach our ear; we have to stoop to catch the whisper of their failing breath; the constant chafing of the loved one's hands, the soothing pressure, is evidently only very slowly felt, perceived, and realized. It seems as though the soul had already retreated from the outposts of its dominions, and had shrunk back in fear to the keep, the citadel, the last strong place where alone it may hope to baffle the advancing foe; the communications are almost severed; only by the merest and most uncertain rallies does it still hold parley with its friends, who watch, hoping to hear the last request, the final farewell, the ultimate human recognition.

Yet despite all this loneliness and solitude and aloofness, the souls of the just are never quite lonely in death. We gave, indeed, as our reason for supposing that death would be lonely, that it was the result of sin; and sin, we explained, meant cutting apart the two intimate things my soul and God; but with the just there is never such severance: God and the just are always one. When other friends have to say to us, "Farewell," He says, "Welcome, come, ye blessed of My Father." Nay, because of my loneliness He clings closer to my soul, and in the sustaining Viaticum hastens to guide me through the shadows of the valley of death. The sacrament of communion is given me for the purpose of strength that springs from the nearness of His presence, and never is that presence more required than when I go out alone from life into the doors of death. For me, then, the vision of faith will light up that valley, that I may see upon the hill the crowded forms of those who come to bid me enter into joy. I die, indeed, alone, but only that I may pass into the company of the elect of God. The prayers that are said about the bed of death repeat the thought that there is a welcome beyond, and that I shall not be left lonely in the dread moment when most I need the assistance of others, their comradeship, their supporting affection. Freely, then, I shall face whatever befalls, conscious of that hand held in mine, trusting in His own blessed words that I shall not be left forsaken, but that to the end of the world He shall be with me always.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.