“..And unto dust, thou shalt return..”
– Lenten Liturgy
We often live under the delusion that we shall live forever. Reality then tends to get in the way, so that those we have unexpectedly left behind are reminded forcefully that we are, in fact, quite mortal. We are not the masters of time; it is a precious commodity and one that, for every one of us, is in finite supply.
The trouble with thinking that we have all the time in the world, is that we do precisely what good counsel tells us not to do – we put off till tomorrow what we could have done today, with the end result that much goes undone. And as another counsel also tells us – ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’.
We are never guaranteed a tomorrow.
In the spiritual life, this ‘memento mori’ – a remembrance of our own mortality – is very necessary. It is something we are explicitly reminded of in the Lenten liturgy each year, as the Priest marks our forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross. But do we think about it at other times? Saint John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, reminded his listeners why this is important, when he said – “man dies once only, and upon this death depends his eternity – where the tree falls, there it shall lie”. And the Russian Orthodox Saint, Ambrose of Optina, counselled his listeners – “You must not be greatly troubled about many things, but you should care for the main thing — preparing yourself for death.”
Death is something we experience only once, at the very end of life, and for which we have had no practice. It is crucial, then, that we die well. To ‘die well’ means to have lived well, and to still be living well when death comes to take us.
The bare necessity of living well is to be in the grace of God – that is, to enjoy His friendship. Above this, is to have done good, to have been forgetful of self and mindful of the poor and of those in need of any kind, out of love of God; and in this way, to have loved our neighbour as ourself, as the Lord tells us. There is more besides, but these are the essentials.
After seeing the vision of Hell shown to her at Fatima in 1917 by the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Jacinta Marto was very much absorbed in the thought of Eternity and the loss of those poor souls who fall into Hell. She had reason to be so absorbed – she had seen those souls suffering there and she had been told that ‘many souls’ are lost. After this, she did everything in her power to prevent this loss of souls.
For us, we must do all we can to ensure that we are ready for that final moment, on which everything rests. But we must also do all we can to help other souls to be ready, too. If we arrive at the gates of Heaven alone, the Lord will ask us – “where are the others?”.