I once read an interview with Garrison Keillor in which he recounted going to a funeral. During the final prayers, the minister prayed for the deceased — “and for the next person here who is going to die.” He said that most of the guests were outraged and offended, but that he was moved and appreciative. He liked the fact that the Christian tradition does not candy coat things with Pepsi Generation promises of perpetual youth and vitality. The fact is, nobody’s getting out of here alive. You are going to die, and your body is going to rot and be eaten by worms. Face it.
The Hail Mary faces it. The last prayer we make to the glorious Virgin is eminently practical: It is entirely directed toward “getting our affairs in order” since we are all passengers on a train that is bound to crash. Whether from germ, or steel, or bullet, or thirst, or drowning, or heat, or cold, or cancer, or chemo, or by the hand of man, this jolly round of days we have known since the insolence of our youth is going to be terminated; and every Jack and Jill among us will be left cold and dead (assuming we don’t perish in a blaze or a nuclear fireball).
You are dying. You were born that way. You will, perhaps much sooner than you realize, be completely gone. And if even President John Tyler, who was once as famous as President Barack Obama, is no longer remembered by anybody but a handful and will soon be remembered by nobody at all, how long do you think you will be remembered? Like the vast majority of the human race, you will go down to the grave and vanish forever from the memory of mortal man, utterly forgotten by all mankind. If you don’t believe it, tell me one thing you know about your great-great-great-great-grandfather.
But you will not be forgotten by God. The promise of the gospel is that you are known by Him utterly and that, through faith in His Son Jesus, you will live in the next world so profoundly that your life on this earth will be a mere eye-blink compared to the deeps of eternity that await you in the Blessed Trinity. Your death will, in this reckoning, be your birthday — the day you came home to heaven where you belong.
It is from this perspective that we pray the Hail Mary: asking the first and most redeemed of Christ’s saints to help us enter into all the glory God desires for us in the Risen Christ. In doing so, we approach death pretty much the way Jesus tells us to do it: not by looking to the future (that time when all you know and love will be dead) so much as by looking at the present in light of eternity, where God is always alive and very present.
That’s why St. Paul tells us, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). It is also why Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Mt 6:34). One of the corollaries of this is that we should, oddly, be aware of Judgment Day but not anxious about it. That’s because Judgment Day is happening right now. Oh sure, there will be a consummation of all things at the end of the time. And yes, the billions of souls who have died will stand before the All-Conquering and Glorious King and receive the mercy and justice of Almighty God, and the whole created order will be transmuted into the unthinkable glory of the New Heaven and the New Earth. The Lamb shall reign in the New Jerusalem forever and ever while the damned shall grind their teeth in the outer darkness, and the blessed and glorified saint shall enjoy the radiant splendor of the living God for endless ages of ages.
But in the meantime, the only way to Heaven is through the Sacrament of the Present Moment, presenting our lives to the judgment and guidance of the Holy Spirit on a moment-by-moment basis. Today — now, this very instant — Jesus calls you to receive and live His salvation. That is why the Hail Mary does not merely direct our prayer to the far-off someday. It directs it to this very second, which is the only moment we can do something about. The past is gone. The future is not ours to see, much less control. Only this moment — right now — is yours to choose God. So we ask our heavenly Mother to pray for us now.
Indeed, in a certain sense, now is the hour of our death. The love of wisdom, said the Greeks, is the practice of death. Our lives are one long rehearsal for it, so that we won’t blow our lines and look like an idiot before the heavenly audience when the curtain rises on eternity. We are all on Candid Camera, and the angels, saints, and martyrs — the whole cloud of witnesses — are a very attentive, and very supportive, audience rooting for us all the way and, like our Lord, celebrating even our stumbles if we do them with a good will. And none of them more so than our Blessed Mother. Like our Lord, she knows that our death can come upon us suddenly and without warning. In the Hail Mary, God gives us the gracious gift of having said our prayers and made our peace with Him beforehand, should we not have the opportunity when we need to.
That’s the beauty of rote prayer: It makes us all eloquent far beyond our native ability. This is counterintuitive in our informal age, which imagines that only extemporaneous prayer is “from the heart” and which derides “parrot prayer” as inauthentic. But, in fact, when we store up the prayers of the Church in our souls, they become the prayer of the heart. We should know this, since it is precisely how our parents civilized us with the precious gifts of “please” and “thank you” and raised us up from being the uncouth grabby ingrates we were before we learned these magic incantations that opened the key to healthy adulthood. In the same way, having words like, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” squirreled away in the soul for a rainy day ensures that we will not have to suddenly think them up on our own when we are reeling with shock after the miscarriage, the auto accident, or the telegram from the Defense Department regretting to inform us that our world has just been shattered. One may just as well ask a man who has just lost a limb in a train wreck to compose a sonnet off the top of his head.
For the first truth about prayer is that we don’t know how to do it. As Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26). We are like dumb actors reciting brilliant lines fed to us by Shakespeare. Even on our good days, our prayers are often inept. But on our own, in crisis situations (such as, oh, the hour of our death), we usually go numb or babble incoherently, or spout inanity or simply go to pieces. At such times we discover that the Cult of the Informal is desperately inadequate to help us find the deepest places of our heart and give them voice.
What we need is the liturgy, the rote prayers, the Rosary, and the grief of God’s Son and Sorrowful Mother, crying our bitter tears in the Sorrowful Mysteries and reassuring us of the adamantine truth of the Glorious Mysteries. Here we discover the great truth that it is precisely in what is common to all men and women that we discover what is also most intensely personal — the joys, griefs, and glories of human existence that are the common patrimony of us all. It is here, in the ordinary public prayers of the Church and not in some mystic cave of contemplation far from the madding crowd, where we meet again the profound consolation of the Mother of Sorrows who sits enthroned in Heaven, reminding us that she too has been through the Worst Thing in the World — and that even that could not defeat the incredible Hope of the Risen Christ. This hope she freely shares with us in the astonishing promise that she shall indeed remember you to her Son at that most inevitable hour of your life: when it ends and you are born to eternal life.