Shortly before taking leave of this world, Sir Winston Churchill, who had lived a very long and illustrious life, was reportedly asked about the state of his soul:
“I am perfectly ready,” he said, “to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
Only someone of the stature of Sir Winston could pull off a piece of effrontery that egregious. And, thank God, there’s probably not much of him in most mortal men. I doubt that there was any at all in my brother Michael. He was far too humble to trade witticisms with the Deity.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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And certainly there wasn’t anything the least bit long or illustrious about his life. Which is what accounts for the fact that, following an unexpected heart attack ending it late last month, the world scarcely took any notice.
The news was not carried on network television.
The President did not schedule a special news conference to announce the passing of a Great American.
There were no flags flying at half-mast.
In other words, my brother didn’t make much of a splash. I don’t suppose that the impact of his passing will have been felt by more than the few people who came to the church where he and our family have found solace for more than sixty years, in order to pay tribute to his memory and to pray for the repose of his soul.
And that may be a very good thing, by the way. Because while everyone knew Sir Winston, it could hardly have been the case that everyone loved him. With Michael, however, it was exactly the opposite: everyone who knew him, loved him.
And so, who knows, perhaps the meeting between Michael and his Maker will have turned out very differently than the one envisioned by Britain’s greatest statesman. Far from being a bloody awful ordeal, I’d like to think that the two of them—God and my brother—are getting along just fine. They’ve become splendid pals.
Not that Michael will have escaped Judgment altogether. We mustn’t imagine that the prospect of falling into the hands of the living God, never mind the readiness of the soul to enter that Undiscovered Country (“from whose bourn,” Shakespeare warns, “no traveller returns”), will prove less than harrowing. Death followed by Judgment involves a terrifying examination in which the weeds and the wheat are finally separated. “Christ warns us that we must answer for what we have received,” Francois Mauriac writes, “When it is Himself we have received, what shall we not have to answer for?”
It is, to paraphrase a line from Hopkins, the fate man was born for: it is Michael we mourn for.
God, I am told, is easily pleased, but not often satisfied. Like a good storyteller, he loves his creatures; indeed, he is intensely, infinitely interested in each of them. But he judges them without sentimentality.
Thus we all owe God a death, following which there is the inevitable reckoning. “In death,” Joseph Ratzinger reminds us, “a human being emerges into the light of full reality and truth.” The many masks behind which we have so often sought to hide can no longer be worn. “Man is what he is in truth. Judgment consists in this removal of the mask in death. The judgment is simply the manifestation of the truth.”
And why should this be? Because each of us is nothing less than a divine work of art, something that God is making. He will not be satisfied until the work achieves a certain perfection. Shaping the soul to conform to the criteria laid down by Christ is not to be taken lightly.
Indeed, when a man leaves behind the company of other men, and walks toward the seat of divine judgment, there to gaze upon the face of the living God, all pretense and falsehood are stripped away. There is no room for maneuver, no way to disguise the weight of what one has done or become. Then the true worth of a man’s deeds, whether empty straw or sold metal, will be shown in an absolutely piercing light, which is God himself.
Life, the poet Keats tells us, is a vale of soul making. A lovely image, it reminds us of the impossibility of escape. That we are here to make our souls pleasing to God. And death, of course, is the final scene we are all destined to play. Whether to say to God, “Thy will be done,” and thus to fall blissfully into his arms. Or God to say to us, “Thy will be done,” and thus to sink into an everlasting misery.
A wise and holy priest once told me that the essence of hell is when we tell God: “I don’t want to love. I don’t want to be loved. I want to be left alone.” And on the strength of that Great Refusal, we take ourselves to hell, where all the doors are locked on the inside. The souls of the damned do not wish to leave the prison of their own solitude, that infernal self-inflicted isolation they have chosen forever.
I love the story of the old woman and the onion. I think it may have been Dostoyevsky who first told it. It seems that she found herself in hell, because she hadn’t done any good deed in this world—except once, when she gave some wretched man an old onion. And there in the very depths of hell the stem of that onion suddenly appears. She at once grabs onto it, and soon others try and hold onto it as well. So what does that wicked old woman do? She kicks them all away, saying, “It’s my onion! Mine! Mine!” Straightaway, she sinks into the fiery lake of hell. Forever.
By all means, we may keep the onion, but only if we are willing to give it away. It is only love, you see, when you give it away. What else is there but the principle of the gift? That way, as Fr. Robert Barron explains, “being increases in the measure that you give it away.” And, really, what else have we to give away if not ourselves? And lavishly. “The purpose of life,” Paul Claudel tells us in The Tidings Brought To Mary, “is not to live. The feet of the children of God are not bound to this wretched earth. It is not a question of living, but of dying. Not a question of building the cross, but hanging from it and giving what we have joyfully.”
I do not believe for a moment that my brother Michael was like that old woman. Iniquity was not at the source of whatever struggles and torments he faced in this world. That was his saving grace. That all his life he was looking for love, both to give and to get. I have no doubt that he’d have shared that onion. In fact, he’d probably have turned it into a pot of stew, like one of those countless wonderful meals he made for our Dad during the last years of his life.
He was the best of us; he really was. At least that’s what my sisters have been telling me for years. And, you know, I think I finally get it: he was the most kind and the most gentle of us all. How greatly he will be missed for that.
And now we must take leave of Michael, asking God, who is Father to us all and Lord of all, to welcome him home, ushering him into those precincts of unending joy and peace, where, in the company of the Angels and Saints, he may find and embrace once again those whom we have loved and lost, including especially our brother Kevin, our mother and our father.
In the words of St. Augustine, who, recalling the rapture of the soul seized by God on the far side of death, reminds us of the joys that await those who love God:
There we shall rest and we shall see;
there we shall see and we shall love.
Behold what shall be in the end and
shall not end.
Editor’s note: The image above depicts the catafalque of Sir Winston Churchill on public view at St. Paul’s Cathedral in January 1965.