When my mother-in-law died, following a long and unhappy illness, her passing was seen by all as a blessed and merciful release. Free at last—that was the universal refrain among family and friends. It was not just the burden of old age, whose cumulative debilities wore her down, but the ravages of Alzheimer’s, which left her ever more desperate and disoriented. After such an awful and protracted ordeal, we were grateful to see her go home to God.
And yet, right up until almost the very end, she remained fiercely resistant, her body refusing to go gently into that good night. That she was determined to hang on, despite so obvious and overwhelming an onslaught, seemed incredible to those of us who witnessed her sufferings. Given so long a diminuendo of loss, why not simply let go, be done with it? Why go on? Did the prospect of heaven hold so little appeal that even a life of continuing pain on earth seemed preferable to her going there?
The answer, in her case, was certainly not. As a faithful Catholic, who, until the onset of her illness had been a daily communicant, her whole life was one of resolute and unremitting testimony to God, in whose company she was looking forward to spending her eternity. But she was also in the body, both her own and the world’s body, and such attachments can be difficult to let go of, even when the sickness is manifestly terminal. Even as pain encamps about us, invading the house of the self, there is this strange reluctance on the part of some to move out.
And it really hasn’t got anything to do with a lack of piety, as if only the truly holy could be said to exhibit an honest haste in shaking off this mortal coil. Sanctity is not an excuse for opting out of the human condition. All of us, saint and sinner alike, are constrained to face the contradiction found at the heart of the human condition, which is the inescapable tension between eros and thanatos, life and death.
There is, in other words, the ecstatic element, whose promptings urge us to go beyond the self; and there is the entropic element, pulling us back down into the body of the self. Gravity and grace: the downward pull of sinful flesh, depravity, and death; countered by an upward surge of grace, glory, and God. We are implicated in a whole series of tensions, from which no human life is exempt.
Pope Benedict has expressed this very well in his encyclical On Christian Hope (Spe Salvi). “On the one hand,” he writes, “we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely; nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want?”
In answering that question, he writes, two others come to mind that turn on the whole mystery of hope, which is the virtue whose elucidation the encyclical sets out to provide. One, what is life? And, two, what do we really mean when we speak of eternal life? “There are moments,” says the Pope, “when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true life is—this is what it should be like.”
But it then dawns on us that what typically passes for life, the thing we call life in everyday discourse, is not really life at all. Rather some counterfeit version, however tricked out, to resemble the real deal. How do we know that? Because, despite all the deceptions, such things do not in fact make us happy. Saint Augustine, for example, on whom much of the pope’s analysis depends, reminds us that the deepest driving desire of every human being is to be happy. And that prayer is nothing other than a petition to God, asking him to make us happy. Give us this day, we pray, that which Augustine calls “the blessed life.” But, once again, none of us knows what this life could possibly mean; we haven’t a clue as to the exact shape or the outline of it. Even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it—those moments of sheer ex-stasis that illumine the high points of our lives—it escapes us, and we fall haplessly away, drawn once more in the direction of entropy.
“We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,” writes Augustine, quoting Saint Paul (Rom 8:26). Nevertheless, while we are convinced that it isn’t anything we possess at the moment, we are certain that it must exist. “There is therefore in us,” says Augustine, “a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), so to speak. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this ‘true life’; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.”
That is beautifully put, I think. To which I would only add this: that if the whole point of this life is to await the resurrection of the dead in the life to come, then does it not follow that whose who are already dead are that much closer to the happiness awaiting us all? Especially if they were to die in a state of grace, of genuine friendship with God, which appears to have been the nature of the relationship my mother-in-law had with God. Another way of putting it would be to say: Nona now knows (to recall the name favored by her many grandchildren). That having crossed over to the other side, to that “undiscovered country, from whose bourne,” as Shakespeare warns, “no traveller returns,” she no longer simply believes in an afterlife. She knows that it exists, and that the ground of her hope was to get there, to arrive safely on the other side.
Well, did she in fact make it? Is she finally home? Who knows? But surely the reason people of faith come together when one of us dies, is to commend his or her soul to the care of Someone who from all eternity intended them for himself.
I sometimes try to imagine the happiness of the saved on first seeing the face of God. What must it be like to be welcomed into the arms of a God whose power is of a piece with absolute paternal love? Embraced forever by the One who undertook to rescue us from a world broken in two by sin and the devil; who took ownership of the one and thus overcame the other. Could there possibly be a happiness greater than this? The true protagonist of history, Msgr. Luigi Giussani often said, is the beggar. “Christ begging for the heart of man, and the heart of man begging for Christ.” God, it seems, must want us so much that there is simply no measure by which to weigh the intensity of his desire, the sheer pleasure he takes in our company. What an arresting paradox that is—a God whose passion for man is so great, so consuming, that in his unrelenting pursuit he chooses to forego every prerogative of privilege and power. Nowhere is the paradox given as stark an expression as in that great poet of Catholic France, Charles Peguy, who declares:
God has need of us. God needs his creature. He has condemned himself, in a manner of speaking, to this. He misses us, misses his creature. He who is everything needs him who is nothing. He who can do all things need him who can do nothing. He has lost his full powers. He who is everything is nothing without him who is nothing.
If that is how it is with a God who takes such pleasure in the company of his creatures, how then could anyone refuse his advances, especially at the hour of death, and not go blithely back to him?
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Last Chapter” painted by James Doyle Penrose in 1902 depicts St. Bede translating the Gospel of John on his deathbed.