Uncle Joe died two weeks ago. He was was ninety-four and had been in ill health for several months. A week later, the mother of a good friend of mine died. She was ninety-three and suffered greatly over a lengthy period of time.
In most cases, there is no shock when someone in his eighties or nineties dies. After all, they have “beaten the average,” and all those extra years were simply bonuses. The general expectation is that they will die relatively soon, and even a life-ending heart attack or a stroke does not surprise us.
But the sudden death of a much younger person, a person seemingly in good health, shakes us to the core. If the individual is a relative or a friend, then the impact is even more dramatic The reality of our own mortality is suddenly thrust upon us. We realize that we do not control our own fate and timeline. We are not guaranteed a certain number of years on this earth. Our plans and dreams may not be fulfilled. We may not see our children married, and we may never hold our grandchildren.
Of course, this reality is nothing new. In the book of Proverbs, we read,
A manʼs heart devises his way; but the Lord directs his steps.
From The Imitation of Christ, we read,
For the resolutions of the just depend rather on the grace of God than on their own wisdom; and in Him they always put their trust, whatever they take in hand. For man proposes, but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands.
There are two key components of this quote from The Imitation that are worthy of more reflection. First is the grace of God. Grace, an unmerited gift from God, gives us all the good things available on this earth. Naturally, the fundamental gift is life itself. Without grace, we do not even exist. So, if life is a gift from God, then when that life ends is completely in His hands. No matter how much money we may have; no matter how famous or important we may be; no matter what kind of medical insurance we may carry, when God calls us home, there is nothing we can do to alter His decision. Consequently, to fear that final moment of death is illogical. As Julius Caesar declares in Shakespeareʼs play by the same name,
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard./ It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/ Seeing that death, a necessary end,/ Will come when it will come.
The second part from The Imitation that we need to focus upon is the fact that the just always put their trust in Him. If we believe that God is a loving God who wants only whatʼs best for us, then we must also believe that our death will ultimately lead us to eternity with Him in Heaven. For the Apostle Paul writes,
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
One cannot help but notice that Paulʼs long litany begins with death. Our death will not separate us from God; instead we will be united with Him in a way we cannot begin to imagine.
And so it is with these thoughts that I prepared this past weekend to attend another funeral. A former colleague of mine in my teaching days died of a heart attack last Sunday evening. He was fifty-six years old. Yes, far too young. He had retired last July and looked forward to spending more time with his wife and his two adult daughters. But in a matter of seconds, he was gone.
He took his health very seriously and worked out six or seven days per week. His physical appearance exuded strength and robustness. And yet, somewhat ironically, his end came after exercising in his basement.
But I knew him as a man who took his Catholic faith quite seriously, and so I have great hope that, for the most part, he was prepared for the final moment. Still, I will pray for his soul, for itʼs the greatest help I can give him.
Contemplating our own death might seem to be a morbid activity. But it serves a great purpose. It reminds us to make sure our priorities are in their proper order and that this vale of tears is only a temporary stopover on our way to eternity. For as Our Lord Himself asks, “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”