A REFLECTION ON DEATH FOR NOVEMBER


Some simple observations on the Mystery. The Hail Mary anchors the heart when we are at prayer. The first phrase is a quote from the Gospel of St Luke, and the second is an invocation to her to ‘pray for us now and at the hour of our death’. These are two moments in life of which we are sure: ‘now’, which we know, and ‘at the hour of our death’ which we don’t. But come it will. And the question immediately frames itself: is there a life after death ? Stephen Hawking, in essays published posthumously, reverts to an atheistic position that there is no afterlife; and it’s easy to imagine, like John Lennon, that there is no heaven. These represent voices which are too sure. As a matter of fact it cannot be proven logically either way. As a matter of faith, generations of men and women have witnessed to the Gospel’s promise of life continuing; believers are informed with hope, that at the end of this human experience, life is changed, not ended. Reflecting on death can be a source of severe anxiety, because ‘death blots black out’, and is a great ‘mocker of man’s enterprise’. However, such reflections can be received as a gateway to wisdom, in that our earthbound pursuits are given their temporary perspective: pursuit of fame, of money or power, or more mundane pursuits such as having the house beautiful, all pass. Ps.90, a psalm in the O.T. Wisdom tradition prays: ‘Teach us to count how few days we have / and so gain wisdom of heart’ [Ps.90:12.JB]. This awareness can put a bridle on the galloping horse of life‘s allurements, even the good, God-given things we consider important in life, reining it in, to channel life energies in service of life rather than of self. It is arguable that there is more likely a continuity than not when we reflect on all the evolutionary challenges which the unfolding universe has negotiated to get us to where we are now. We are incomplete, and the possibility of completion beckons. Teilhard de Chardin expressed our place in the universe as follows: ‘we human beings are not just having a spiritual experience; but rather, and more so, we are spiritual beings having a human experience’. We die, yes, ‘and the body returns to the earth as it once came from it, and the breath (the life-force) to God who gave it’ [Ecclesiastes:12:7 JB]. Though the nature of the hereafter is hidden from us, and beyond our knowledge, it is a great blessing, and can soften our ‘rage against the dying of the light’ if we cultivate a harmonious relationship with the inevitability of our own death. Those who are dedicated to serving the human community are markedly devoid of anxiety about the afterlife: for this will come. Our task is to engage with this life, even when we are drawn to reflect on ‘an after life’. Holy Mary, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.

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