By Małgorzata Radomska,
Precisely because our life on earth cannot be lived again, it has extraordinary significance and profound purpose. Our mission on earth is to prepare for our encounter with Jesus face to face, when He will come to take us over the threshold of death to a new life — eternal and unending.
That Jesus will come is as certain as His promise that He has prepared a place for us beside Him in the Kingdom of Heaven, for He tells us: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn 14: 2-3). The only uncertainty is our decision whether or not to accept His offer.
In His great love for us God allows us to choose — to decide for ourselves: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings, and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut 30:19). The choice, then, is up to us. We can choose the way of Jesus or we can choose our own way, which is often the way of the world. We need only to remember exactly what is at stake. A given destination cannot be reached otherwise than by the path that leads to it. If we take the path that leads to Jesus, it will take us to Him. If we choose another path, then we will not arrive at the place where He is.
We can therefore choose well or badly. As long as we are on our journey, God in His great and boundless mercy allows us to turn back and begin anew. He binds our wounds and, where evil abounds, He pours down His grace. He always gives us a chance — as long as we wander this earth. But once we have crossed the threshold of death there is no going back.
At the hour of death
What happens to the human soul at the hour of death and beyond we learn from the mystics who have had visions of life after death. St. Faustina relates one such experience: “Although it is the door by which we enter eternal life, death is dreadful. Suddenly, I felt sick, I gasped for breath, there was darkness before my eyes, my limbs grew numb — and there was a terrible suffocation. Even a moment of such suffocation seems like a lifetime….It is also attended by a strange fear, in spite of one’s trust. I wanted to receive the last sacraments, but it was extremely difficult to make a confession even though I wanted to do so. A person knows not what he is saying. Not finishing one thing, he begins another.
“Oh, may God keep every soul from delaying confession until the last hour!” (Diary, 321).
Jesus explains St. Faustina’s experience thus: “My daughter…know that by yourself you are just what you have experienced. It is only by My grace that you become a sharer in eternal life and all the gifts I lavish upon you” (Diary, 1559).
If we die in Christ’s grace, the suffering we experience at death becomes united with His death on the cross. Indeed, our physical death completes the “dying with Christ,” which our Baptism signifies, and so “completes our incorporation into Him in His redeeming act” (Catechism, 1010).
“Pure love,” says Jesus to St. Faustina, “gives strength to the soul at the very moment of dying. When I was dying on the cross, I was not thinking about Myself, but about the poor sinners, and I prayed to My Father for them. I desire your last moments to be altogether like Mine on the cross. There is but one price for the redemption of souls, and that is suffering united to My suffering on the cross. Pure love understands these words. Carnal love will never understand them” (Diary, 324).
Mystics tell us that the moment of death is accompanied by a great spiritual battle. “At such a moment,” writes Blessed Father Papczynski, “evil spirits attack the soul and strive either to arouse our presumption (by reminding us of our past good works) or to cast us into despair (by exaggerating the power of our sins).” Fortunately, at this very moment, when we are least able to help ourselves, Our Blessed Mother Mary, Mother of the Dying, her spouse St. Joseph, our patron saints, and our Guardian Angel come to our aid. That is why praying to them every day to be with us “at the hour of our death” is so vitally important. Their prayer assists us and strengthens our faith and trust in God’s infinite Mercy, which is our one and only hope. St. Faustina observes in her peculiarly graphic way that although man finds it repulsive to have to constantly “smell [his] own corpse,“ yet this is not so terrible “when [his] soul is filled with God’s light, because in this light faith, hope, love, and contrition are awakened” (Diary, 1435). And again: “O Jesus, how great is Your goodness, that infinite goodness of Yours, which … enables me to look death in the eye. I know no harm can come to me without His will” (Diary, 687).
Jesus urges us to place our complete trust in Him. Again He says to St. Faustina: “All those souls who glorify My mercy and spread its worship, encouraging others to trust in My mercy, will be spared terror at the hour of death. My mercy will shield them in that final battle” (Diary, 1540). “Entrust yourself completely to Me at the hour of death, and I will present you to My Father as my bride. And now I urge to you unite, in a special way, even your smallest deeds to My merits, and then My Father will look upon them with love as if they were My own” (Diary, 1543). “As you are united with Me in life, so will you be united with Me at the hour of death” (Diary, 1552).
Our prayer and presence are the greatest gifts we can offer our loved ones at their deathbed. Let us not leave them by themselves. Let no one die alone behind a hospital curtain. Let us be with them at such a difficult time. Let us help them prepare for Jesus’ coming. Let us see to it that they receive spiritual care, especially the chance to be reconciled with God in the Sacrament of Penance. Let us pray for them, that they may come to feel sorrow for their sins, that they may feel close to God, that they may thirst for Him. Let no one through lack of concern die without Jesus, without receiving Him in Holy Communion!
St. Faustina’s diary stresses the importance of offering prayers to Divine Mercy for the dying: “When I entered the chapel for a moment, the Lord said to me: ‘My daughter, help Me to save a dying sinner. Say for him the chaplet that I taught you.’ When I began to say the chaplet, I saw the dying man in the throes of terrible pain and anguish. His Guardian Angel was praying for him, but he seemed to be powerless in the face of the soul’s great wretchedness. A throng of devils stood waiting to take the soul. But while I was saying the chaplet, I saw Jesus just as He is portrayed in the image. The rays, which shone from His Heart, enveloped the sick man, and the powers of darkness fled in panic. The sick man peacefully breathed his last” (Diary, 1565). Jesus promised that “when they say this chaplet in the presence of the dying, I shall stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge, but as the merciful Savior” (Diary, 1541).
The power of our prayer
Immediately after death, each soul undergoes the particular judgment and receives its reward from God, according to its faith “worked out in love.” The soul either enters into the joys of heaven, directly or upon being purified in purgatory, or stands directly condemned for eternity (Catechism, 1022). The suffering of the souls in Purgatory can be lightened or shortened through prayer made on their behalf.
St. Faustina writes: “One night, a sister who had died two months earlier appeared to me….She was in a terrible state, all in flames, with her face twisted in pain. This lasted only a brief while, and then she disappeared….I kept on praying….After a period of time she came back to me again, but already her appearance had changed….Her face was radiant; her eyes beamed with joy. She told me that I had a real love for my neighbor and that many other souls had profited from my prayers. She urged me not to cease praying for the souls suffering in purgatory” (Diary, 58).
We render great assistance to the separated soul by participating in the funeral of the deceased. Unfortunately, the graces flowing from the funeral Mass and the burial rites can go unused or be wasted by the participants if, for example, their grief over losing their loved one blinds them to the hope of the resurrection. It is all too easy to be so focused on our grief that we forget the soul of the deceased, whom now only our prayers can help. We can also waste these graces by not participating fully in the funeral rite, when we are not in a state of sanctifying grace, when we do not receive Holy Communion on behalf of the deceased, when we fail to offer up our silence and prayer for the departed soul, when we allow external things such as our dress, flowers, wreathes, and eulogies to take on a greater importance than prayerful concentration, when, in short, the ceremony becomes a mere social gathering.
Masses offered up for intentions of the deceased also have immeasurable value, especially when we fully participate in them. The Church also urges us to undertake “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance” on behalf of the dead (Catechism,1032). We can offer up our sufferings, hardships, works, even the smallest and most ordinary of activities, as long as they are performed lovingly and with our departed loved ones in mind. Let us not waste any opportunity. “Let us come to their aid and remember them. If Job’s sons could be purified by the sacrifice of their father, why should we doubt that our sacrifices bring a measure of solace to the dead? Let us not hesitate to render assistance to those that have departed this life. Let us offer up our prayers for them” (St. John Chrysostom).
The above article was published with permission from Miłujcie się! in November 2010