This has been the most beautiful April I can remember (in spite of the January-like weather we had on Saturday). It’s felt absolutely perfect outside, especially during the short walks I’ve taken the past two afternoons around a little lake near our home with my mom and sisters. As is so fitting to the Easter season, everything is young and fresh and jubilantly alive. . .even the colors seem young and excited to exist for the glory of their Creator. Our azaleas have been a fever of color around our yard. Carpenter bees are once more surveying our back deck (St. Joseph, help us!). I’m not very old, but I feel younger than I have been feeling. . .happy to be alive, invigorated and bright. It’s April!
And yet, here and there over the past two days, I’ve been thinking about my death. And the thought has come with a sort of disturbance. . .which means that I need to face it and truly consider how this thought should affect me.
Certainly, the thought of my own death pricks many different thoughts and emotions in my heart. There is natural, and at times strong, fear of suffering and the unknown. . .of that last great battle to cling to God and not give in to the attacks of despair and pride I know the adversary will wage against me. There is a sense of regret. . .I hope, contrition. . .for my numberless sins and failings already committed, as well as the ones I will probably fall into throughout my life. I know that, at some point in my death and particular judgment, I will finally understand the gravity of my sins and how much they have pained God. What a truly sobering thought. How differently I might live many moments of my existence if I thought about it more.
There is (if I manage to open my soul to it) a humbling realization of my own weakness, and that I will finally understand that weakness for what it is in that last struggle. . .and, paradoxically, this gives me a sense of joy; for in that great and terrible day and moment, I must not rely on myself at all, for that would be both pride and folly; but completely drown myself in the Blood of Christ and throw myself into the arms of my Blessed Mother and dear St. Joseph. I must hide in the wings of my Guardian Angel and in the prayers of all the Saints who have loved me. Not in myself. . .for I will have nothing to rely on, nothing to hide behind, in myself.
Death is certainly something I’ve thought about. . .but how much has this thought really sunk into the way I live, into my intellect and will and into virtue and habit? There’s the rub. It’s always easier for me to think and speak than to do. How much do I really pray for the grace of a holy death? How much do I focus on making reparation for the manifold sins of my own and of others? How much do I really fight against my faults, fight to be faithful to prayer and spiritual reading? How much do I strive to cultivate those virtues I need most, and will need most at the hour of my death. . .humility, trust, perseverance, long suffering? How much do I choose to serve my body, which will one day decay under the earth, rather than work for the good of my immortal soul?
For all things around me. . .all that I know in terms of earthly things. . .all things are passing, including my earthly life. I’m already nearly twenty years old. . .probably a quarter of the way through an average lifespan. And I know that time will only keep going faster as I get older.
How much, then, do I really consider the day of my death. . .that great journey from time into eternity that we all must take? The moment in which I will see the face of God, and either turn to Him in love, or fly from Him in self-love. Saturday morning, as we drove home from First Saturday Mass and choir, Mary and I were discussing this profound quote from A Map of Life by Frank Sheed:
“I have said that if a man dies hating God, then he must be separated from God. But it may be urged that hatred of God is rare. Explicit hatred of God may be rare, but there is a form of self-love which is equivalent to it. Thus a man might go through life ignoring God–and therefore not hating Him–but building up such a love of self that he has only to be confronted with God to hate Him. After death, God cannot be ignored: and then love of self will bring to the surface that hate of God which has always been implicit in it, and of which the only possible consequence is separation from God.”
As we talked, Mary made the point, which echoed my own thoughts, that Heaven and Hell exist in the smallest things; in the very attitude with which we approach living out each day. It is extremely easy for me to fall into an attitude of self-love which turns me from focusing on God to focusing on myself. When I allow this, I am cultivating weeds in the garden of my soul; pride instead of humility, vanity instead of modesty, selfishness instead of generosity, laziness instead of industry, self-righteousness instead of repentance, self-centeredness instead of Christ-centeredness, self-obsession instead of charity. It is all connected; one vice chosen truly does open the door to countless others.
In that fundamentally perverted direction of self-ward living, I might perform a good work yet corrupt it through and through because I’ve done it for myself; to make others think well of me, because it’s what I feel like doing, because it makes me feel better about myself, because I might gain something by doing it. But, “Nothing is done well when it is done out of self-interest.” (St. Therese). Nothing. Because we are simply not made to be directed towards ourselves, but towards God. This universe was not created to be anthropocentric, but Christocentric. And the same can be said for our hearts. As St. John Vianney said, the human soul is so great that nothing less than God can fill it.
And all of this is why detachment is so important. We constantly hear the Saints speak about detachment from creatures, but what does this mean?
Well, it means what it says–that it is necessary for one to be detached from all creatures in order to be attached to one’s Creator. That is why Christ said you cannot serve two masters. That is why the theological virtue of charity is defined as love of God for His own sake, and love of neighbor for God’s sake. It’s all about God. Everything.
This has been one grace which I have reaped from my vocational journey so far: a deeper realization that it is neither “my life” nor “my story”. It is not about “my dreams” or following my heart. It’s not about me. My life is God’s. It is one small part of God’s story. It is willed into being by His Sacred Heart. It is His. Therein is detachment from creatures–attachment to God. And when God is in the center, everything else falls into its proper place.
But how to reach that true sense of both detachment and attachment, when I am so often, as Dame Veronica confesses herself to be in In This House of Brede: in love with myself?
Again, it comes down to the little things. Another phrase we hear often from the Saints is death to self: the practice of detaching ourselves from self by self-denial. There are countless opportunities each day for us to practice this death to self. . .to embrace our crosses and follow Christ. . .and really, they are like a practice for our death, when true detachment from creatures, especially from self, will be so necessary. How much easier it will be for my soul to fly from my body to the arms of God if it is truly detached from self! I think of our Blessed Mother in her Assumption, so pure and so utterly detached from all things but God that she could fly to Him, body and soul.
I suppose the simplest way to condense all of this is (attention: if you’re skimming this post, just read this part) that I have to ask myself often: who am I in love with? Myself or God? Creature or Creator? And if the answer is hazy, or leaning towards self and creature, then the first thing to do is search out a little death to self to practice, a cross to embrace–for there is nothing of self on the Cross. Only Christ is there.
So yes. . .I’ve been thinking of death in life and life in death. . .Heaven or Hell in the little things. Maybe they’re rather hefty thoughts for an April day in the Easter season; yet are they not somehow fitting?
“Faithful Cross! above all other, One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom, None in fruit thy peer may be.
“For this work of our salvation needs must have its order so,
And the manifold deceiver’s art by art would overthrow,
And from thence would bring the healing, whence the insult of the foe.”
-Crux fidelis inter omnes (Hymn for Good Friday)
May this Spring be for us all full of blossoms of holy self-denial upon the limbs of the victorious Cross! God bless!
In our Loving Lady,