No one likes to think about his own death. Most people live moment to moment, perhaps afraid to reflect on the fact that every life must come to an end. We would rather imagine that death only comes for some people, but not for us. On this difficult subject, Blessed John Henry Newman delivered a sermon at once convicting and encouraging, painful and comforting, and pinning us under its truth – our safe and sturdy shelter.
Newman draws his subject from an unlikely passage in Ecclesiastes, “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (9:10). What our hand finds to do, our most important work he says, is the salvation of our souls. As Solomon tells us, this work must be done with all our might and done before we leave this life.
We know this, Newman says, and give as our excuse for not wanting to hear it that we hear it too often:
Yes; thus it is that sinners silence their conscience, by quarrelling with those who appeal to it; they defend themselves, if it may be called a defence, by pleading that they already know what they should do and do not; that they know perfectly well that they are living at a distance from God, and are in peril of eternal ruin…Thus they witness against themselves.
But we must hear it again, for from this repeated reflection we may hope to “gain some conviction of it.” If we have no conviction, Newman says, then we cannot we say we know this truth. It hasn’t sunk down in our soul, but remains on the surface.
Urging us down this path, Newman reflects on the reality of death. We all must die and “Death puts an end absolutely and irrevocably to all our plans and works.” Every day we rush around, moving back and forth about our business, but one day this will cease. Our plans will be unfinished, our thoughts stopped cold. There is no man or woman so holy or kind or loving who will escape death; it takes good and bad, rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy. We would like to believe that it will take us at a time we like or understand, in a way that is fair according to our judgment. But it doesn’t, and we are too weak to stop it or change it.
If we fear these facts, we should fear all the more the effects of death, Newman says. The moment to choose our steps is over: “…their deeds are suddenly gathered in—a reckoning is made—all is sealed up till the great day.” All the bonds of love between us and our family and friends will break and we will become as memories to those on earth. “We talk about them thenceforth as if they were persons we do not know; we talk about them as third persons…And their possessions, too, all fall to others. The world goes on without them; it forgets them. Yes, so it is;”
Newman explains that the world does all that it can to ignore death, to think of it as a natural event as no different than the death of an animal. But we should know better, for “whenever a man dies, rich or poor, an immortal soul passes into judgment.”
Next week we will listen to Newman as he examines what happens to an immortal soul after death, and how we can learn from death the way to live. Until then, we will reflect on our death, that we might gain true knowledge of its reality so as to live more closely a life patterned after our Lord.