Every death should remind us of what is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And: “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.”
The modern world does not like to hear about death, and still less, about a Judgment. But our Lord says plainly that when we die we shall have to render an account of absolutely everything – even our idle words. “I tell you, that for every idle word that men speak, they shall give an account on the day of judgment.” St. Peter writes: “The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; but if it begins first with us, what will be the end of those who do not believe the gospel of God? And if the just man scarcely will be saved, where will the impious and sinner appear?”
It was a benevolent Providence which sent to the late Pope a dramatic reminder of death not many days before his own Summons. I refer to the sudden death in his presence of a high-ranking Orthodox prelate. He, too, died of a heart attack.
Any reminder of death for anyone of us is a grace of God; all the more if it touches us closely, or happens suddenly before our own eyes. It is a special renewal of the grace of Ash Wednesday: “Remember man that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return.” Sleeping or waking, at every moment we are speeding towards eternity; every heartbeat means one less to go. God’s timeless Wisdom decreed, before the ages began, your existence and mine, and appointed to each of us our allotted number of heartbeats, known to Himself alone. “The days of man are short, and the number of his months is with thee. Thou hast appointed his bounds which cannot be passed,” (Job 14.5) We have here no lasting city, because we were created to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.
In the Cathedral of Toledo, in Spain, there is a tomb containing the bones of a Cardinal. By the occupant’s wish it bears no name, only an inscription: “Here lies dust, ashes, and nothing”.
“We brought nothing into this world, and certainly we can take nothing out of it.” (1Tim 6.7) Nothing, that is, except the moral value of our thoughts, words, and deeds, whether good or bad. “As the father has life in himself, even so he has given to the Son also to have life in himself, and he has granted him power to render judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not wonder at this, for the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And they who have done good things shall come forth unto resurrection of life; but they who have done evil, unto resurrection of judgment.” (Jn 5, 26.29)
The most important moment of life is the End of it. The one thing that matters is to die in the friendship of God, with the soul illuminated, divinized, made ready for Heaven by Sanctifying Grace. Whatever condition the soul is in when it leaves the body, so must it remain for all eternity, because the time of faith, or probation, is over. The veil is taken away, all is revealed, and the soul remains forever in the state in which it finds itself.
Final impenitence is the disaster of all disasters, the doom of all dooms. “What doth it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, but suffers the loss of his own soul?” “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.” St. John the Baptist cries out: “Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise parish.”
St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that the goodness of God is meant to lead you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart, you treasure up to yourself wrath on the day of wrath and of the revelation of the just judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his works. Life eternal he will indeed give to those who by patience in good works seek glory and honor and immortality; but wrath and indignation to those who are contentious, and who do not submit to the truth, but assent to iniquity. Tribulation and anguish shall be visited upon the soul of every man who works evil…But glory and honor and peace shall be awarded to everyone who does good…Because with God there is no respect of persons…” (Rom. 2.4-11)
Human words cannot express the tragedy when so many souls in our day, even Catholics, are drinking iniquity like water. They love their sins, and even boast of them! Others misled by hireling shepherds and systematically starved of the traditional Sacraments and Liturgy, are sinking slowly, gently, into fatal blindness and indifference, being persuaded that what was once good is now evil, and what was once evil is now good. Faith is disappearing from the earth, vices flourish, prayer is abandoned.
The great Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., reminds us that the Fathers of the Church often threatened with final impenitence those who put off conversion from day to day. “Return is difficult,” he says rightly. “Hardening of heart supposes blindness of mind, and a will carried on to evil, with feeble movements toward good. The soul no longer derives profit from good advice, from sermons; it no longer reads the Gospel, no longer frequents the church. It resists even the warnings of genuine friends. It falls under the indictment of Isaiah: “Woe to you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to you who are wise in your own eyes, and prudent in your own conceits!”(5.20-21) This condition is the consequence of sins often repeated, of vicious habits of criminal entanglements, of erroneous reading. After such abuse of grace, the Lord may refuse a sinner…the grace, proximately sufficient, to make obedience possible.
“But return to God is still possible. The sinner, even though hardened, receives remotely sufficient graces…He can begin to pray. If he does not resist, he receives efficacious grace to begin praying effectively. This is certain, because salvation is still possible, and, against the Pelagian heresy, conversion is not possible except by grace. If the sinner does not resist this last appeal, he will be led from grace to grace, even to that of conversion. The Lord has said: ‘I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” St. Paul says: ‘God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.’
“Return is always possible. Calvinism indeed says that God destines certain souls to eternal damnation and that consequently He refuses them all grace. The truth, on the contrary, says with St. Augustine and the Council of Trent: ‘God never commands the impossible, but warns us to do what we can, and to ask of Him the grace to accomplish what we of ourselves are unable to do.’ A grave obligation lies on the hardened sinner to do penance, and this is impossible without grace. Hence we must conclude that he receives from time to time sufficient graces that he may begin to pray. Salvation is still possible.
“But if the sinner resists these graces, he steps into quicksand, where his feet sink down when he attempts to emerge. Sufficient grace blows from time to time, like a fresh breeze, to renew his forces. But if he continues to resist, he deprives himself of the efficacious grace which is offered in sufficient grace as fruit is offered in the blossom. Hence when, later on, he wishes for that efficacious grace, will he have that succour which touches the heart and converts him in truth? Difficulties grow greater, the will grows weaker, graces diminish.
“Temporal impenitence, if voluntary, manifestly disposes the soul for final impenitence, although divine mercy at times saves the sinner, even on his deathbed.
“It is possible to die in the state of mortal sin, even though the thought of such a death has not presented itself to the spirit. Many die suddenly, and we say, looking at their abuse of grace, that they have been surprised by death. They did not pay attention to warnings received beforehand. They have not had contrition, or even attrition, which with the Sacrament of Penance would have justified them. Such souls are lost for eternity. Here we find final impenitence, without any special previous refusal of the last grace.
“If on the contrary, death is foreseen, we are met with an impenitence that is final. This last rejection of grace, offered before death by infinite mercy, is a sin against the Holy Spirit, which takes different forms. The sinner shrinks back from the humiliation involved in acknowledgement of his sins, and chooses consequently his own personal evil. At times he even scorns the duty of justice and reparation before God, scorns the love which he owes to God by the supreme precept: ‘Thou shall love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind.’
“These terrible lessons show us the importance of repentance, a state quite different from remorse, which can continue to exist in hell without the least attrition. Condemned souls do not repent of their sins as guilt against God, though they see that for these sins they are punished. They hate the pain which is justly inflicted. They hate the worm of remorse which arises from their sin. They are at war with everything especially with themselves. Judas had remorse and anguish, but he did not have repentance which gives peace. He fell into despair instead of confiding in infinite mercy and asking pardon…
“Deathbed conversion, however difficult, is still possible. Even when we see no sign of contrition, we can still not affirm that, at the last moment, just before the separation of soul from body, the soul is definitely obstinate. A sinner may be converted at that last minute in such fashion that God alone knows it…” (Quoted from Life Everlasting, by Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Chap. VII, passin.)
May I add that I think the most essential thing for the reader to grasp and hold is this: Return of hardened sinners to God is always difficult, but never impossible, especially if other persons of faith are praying and doing penance for them. God’s love is omnipotent, and we should have infinite confidence in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is very encouraging if the sinner himself prays. The man who prays,” says St. Alphonsus, “is the man who will be saved, and the man who does not pray is the man who will be lost.” There is a certain over-simplification in that perhaps, but by and large it is true. The man who prays humbly and perseveringly will go from strength to strength and “renew his youth like the eagle’s”.