In thinking about the destiny of those who die, the course of their final trajectory beyond the grave, it is always unwise to make predictions about the precise place awaiting them on the other side. How can anyone, in the absence of a sudden sunburst from above, possibly know? Unless one were fully omniscient—which is to say, a prophet armed with an afflatus so powerful as to peer through the window of eternity itself—one should never presume to know the outcome of another’s life. And, of course, those who have gone to the undiscovered country, as Shakespeare calls it, from whose bourne no traveler returns, are not likely to have left maps behind for the living to follow. When a man dies, never mind the richness or intensity of the life he left behind, he embarks upon a journey more mysterious and momentous than anything planet earth can match.
‘This world is not conclusion,” Emily Dickinson reminds us. “A sequel stands beyond, / Invisible as music, / But positive as sound.” And even as it “beckons” all who draw near, it yet “baffles” all who seek to know. The sheer impalpability of the place, in other words, prevents our knowing anything about it.
Nor should anyone actually want to know the outcome since prayer, the very language of hope—“the little implement,” Dickinson calls it, “Through which Men reach / Where Presence—is denied them / They fling their Speech”—would then have nothing to do. It would fall silent. What is the point of asking God to look kindly upon the dead, especially those we have loved and lost, if we already know where they are? Presumption, the Church tells us, is a sin.
But it is not, as any well instructed Catholic knows, the most grievous sin. That distinction belongs to despair, the sin against the Holy Ghost, which, so long as one remains in the grip of its malice, cannot be forgiven. And if forced to choose between the two, one could do a whole lot worse than to presume upon the awful mercy of God. “Because of his infinite goodness,” St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, “it is more proper to God to spare and to show mercy than to punish. For the former belongs to him by reason of his nature, the latter only by reason of our sins.”
So why do I bring this up? Because it is All Souls’ Day and at Mass this morning I saw the widow of the young man whom we buried only last week from the parish where he and his family have been members for twenty plus years. An extraordinarily good and loving husband and father of eight children, whose soul I am strongly tempted to situate within the highest precincts of Paradise. That’s why.
Not that I am about to do so, mind you, since it is not my business to tell God what to do with the souls we commend to his care. It is just that so much holiness annealed in suffering, serenely borne in the face of overwhelming odds, gives me confidence of his final and triumphant return to God. Besides, if one so blameless and brave did not go straight to God, what hope have I got of getting in? His last weeks, so steeped in suffering, endeared him to all who knew him, but surely to God most especially for the cruciform shape his life had become. In fact, if he hadn’t slipped so quietly away at the end, one could easily imagine him in company with Sir Thomas More, who, in deflecting the taunts of his enemies at the scaffold, their point being that God would not prove so welcoming to More after death, confessed that God at least would not refuse one so blithe to go to him.
Indeed, when I first learned that he had died, what struck me straightaway was the sense I had that while here was someone fiercely determined not to have to leave those he loved most in the world, he was nevertheless happy beyond all telling for had he not at that very moment fallen into the waiting arms of God? Like a child overflowing with laughter and delight at gifts almost too wonderful to unwrap, so I imagined him bursting with joy before the unveiled face of God. How endlessly, deliriously happy he must now be, I thought, finally and forever free from the pain and the sadness of life.
How could God refuse someone whose deepest, driving desire was to turn over everything to him, including the poverty and brokenness of his own body, wracked with a cancer whose virulence he recognized as terminal from the very beginning? “Be worthy of the flame consuming you,” declares Paul Claudel in Tidings Brought to Mary, a play depicting the action of grace on those who will neither accept despair, nor death, as the last word on life. Few were as worthy as this brave and resolute young man, his flesh consumed by cancer, yet his spirit undaunted by that which, more and more, he saw as a blessing, a way of atoning to God for his and the world’s sin.
At the funeral Mass attended by hundreds of family and friends whose lives had been so often touched by the quiet heroism and sacrifice of his own life, the steadfast witness to grace in the midst of horrific suffering, we were reminded of the words of Christ, those infinitely consoling words telling us that just as he was raised from the dead by the glory of his Father, so too might our brother, and all of us annealed in the same hope, look with expectant longing to that same blessed day of deliverance.
I see him now so clearly in my mind’s eye, his ghostly outline illumined for me through the scrim of the Church’s faith, and there he stands before God, embraced for all eternity by the sheltering mystery of his love. Yet within that all-encompassing embrace there stands too the tenderness of the Mother, with whom he remained so simple and childlike in his devotion. She is holding him with the same maternal care she showed when, not so long ago, her crucified son lay draped across her lap in the sleep of his own death. “Wild air, world-mothering air, / Nestling me everywhere” as Gerard Manly Hopkins puts in that astonishing poem of his, “The Blessed Mother Compared To The Air We Breathe.”
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.
Yes, it is both necessary and good that we mourn the loss of those we love. They have gone from us and one would not wish such insensitivity as neither to notice nor to care. Their going from us leaves a wound that nothing can assuage. But we do not despair their passing because to love another in Christ is to say to that person, and to those who miss him most, “Thou shalt not die!” In Jesus and Mary we shall someday see them again and, oh, how the angels and saints will sing to see the glory and the enchantment of that hour. Why even now, amid the darkness of human loss, one can sometimes almost hear the sound of laughter at the heart of all things.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Requiescat” was painted by Briton Rivière in 1888.