Thursday, November 6, 2014

Death and Life

Archbishop Alban Goodier, S.J.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
There is one feature common to all the Saints; perhaps it is common to all who approach to sanctity. One and all they longed to die. We may not sympathize with their desire. We may think them somewhat exaggerated or mistaken. But the fact is written nevertheless in the life of every Saint without exception. Nor was it so much because they were tired of this life, though most of them had in all conscience reason enough to know it and be weary. Neither was it because they had little fellow-feeling for their fellow-men, for no one knows the meaning of love, and no one proves it by deeds better or more lavishly than a Saint. Again, it was not because they were weary in themselves, and wished merely to rest from their labours. We have one Saint saying he would gladly live on at any cost but to save a single soul more, and another who looked on the life beyond the grave as the life of intensest labour.

No, the Saints were none of them cowards; none of them were thin-skinned creatures. They did not shirk suffering or work; no one who knows them will accuse them of that. On the contrary, the more we know them the more they stand out as the models of endurance and self-sacrifice. If ever a life of any one of them gives us a different impression we know that in so far it is untrue. In them at least the longing for death was not a drooping, disheartened thing; it was allied with a superhuman energy. They were indeed weary of this life, yet they served it with all their might. They longed every day to leave it, yet they lived it and laboured in it as if it were the only thing worthy of their energies. This is but one more of the many paradoxes of sanctity; if we could but clearly understand it we should discover the secret of Apostles.

And can we not? Surely it is not so difficult. The Saints could hold their counsel when prudence or justice demanded it, but when God's glory was at stake there was no one more willing to speak. If, then, we ask them to explain, perhaps they will make it clear. Let us take two of them, so different yet so alike: St. Paul and St. Teresa. Whatever the differences between these two they were at least alike in this, that they were utterly spontaneous and true, utterly devoid of any shadow of self-consciousness. When they spoke, their words came from the heart; never, perhaps, has a writer more accurately portrayed himself and his thoughts than have these two.

How, then, does St. Paul explain himself? How does he reconcile his longing for death and his unbounded energy in this life ? For that he longed for death we know. "Unhappy man that I am," he says in one place, "who will deliver me from the body of this death?" And in another: "I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ." Of this at least the explanation was easy; it was because he saw and looked for more beyond. "We see now as in a glass after a dark manner," he says, "but then we shall see face to face." And upon this he comments elsewhere: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive what things God hath prepared for them that love Him." For them that love Him! Then love Him he will, we seem to hear him say to himself, come what come may, nothing shall keep him from that. "I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor Angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

But love is a driving force. "The love of Christ compels me," he says once; and again another time: "Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel." Love drove him, love compelled him; the very prospect of what was yet to be forced him to live this life the more. Love looked out through his eyes upon the world; love, which had seen the truth, and which saw what this world might be if it would - and love can never stand still. "For which cause," he says, "we faint not. [...] For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. [...] And therefore we labour, whether absent or present, to please him." And how St. Paul did labour! Was ever a worker so keen? "My little children," he cries to his Galatians who had hurt him, "of whom I am in labour again, until Christ be formed in you." No, St. Paul's longing for death did not spoil his interest in life, and he tells us clearly enough the reason why.

Let us now turn to that other apostle, St. Teresa, whose fruits were so very many, though her methods were so very different. She, too, longed for death; yet she, too, spent herself in a life of untold energy. Why the first? And what had it to do with the second? She tells us very plainly, and her words are but an echo of those of St. Paul. "I know a person," she says, speaking of herself, "who longed to die, not merely that she might at last see God, but that she might be freed from the constant torment that she felt because of her base ingratitude to Him to whom she was, and ever would be, so deeply indebted. It seemed to her that no one's faults would equal hers, because she knew that there was no one whom God had endured with so much patience, and on whom He had conferred so many favours."

So much she writes as she thinks of herself. But soon her thoughts turn to God and His goodness, and she says: "Because of these unspeakable favours the soul burns with longing to enjoy Him who bestows them upon her, so that she lives in a great yet delightful torment, and is keen to die, and hence with continual tears does she beg of God that He would take her out of this exile." Then at once, to show how this longing for death stirred the spirit of zeal within her, she goes on:
O poor butterfly! Thou art bound by many bonds which will not let thee fly as thou wilt. Have pity on her, my God! Dispose everything here in such a manner that so even now she may in some degree satisfy the desire that she has for Thy honour and glory. Regard not her puny merits, consider not the baseness of her nature. Thou art able, Lord, to bid the mighty sea stand back, and great Jordan divide that the children of Israel may pass through. And yet do not pity her too much, for with Thy hand to help her she will be able to endure many crosses. This she is determined to do; she has a longing desire to endure them. Extend, Lord, Thy mighty arm! Let not her life be spent on things that are worthless. Let Thy greatness appear in this weakling woman, that men, who know she can endure nothing of herself, may be driven to praise Thee, cost what it may! This is the desire of her heart, and she would give a thousand lives, if she had them, that so a single soul might by her means praise Thee but a little more. For that gain she would hold them very well bestowed, for she knows full well that to suffer the very least cross for Thee, much less death itself, is far beyond anything she deserves.
So do the Saints blend the two lives together. They make little of this life of time, not because in itself it is little, nor because they fail to grasp its attraction; not because they have been embittered, nor because they have shuddered at its cost; but because their eyes have been opened, and because by comparison with the better thing it is so small, so tawdry - a "gigantic falsehood," as St. Teresa elsewhere calls it. And yet again they make much of it; much more, when the total is summed up, than men of the world themselves make of it. For they have stood out of it, and so have seen it in its right perspective; they have put it in the scales against another life, and so have found its true value; they have breathed another air, a clearer atmosphere, and have been permeated with a new fire. When, then, they have been brought back to it, and have been again confined within its prison, the craving that possesses them for the better will not be quieted, but must find satisfaction somewhere; and since they cannot reach that which is the best, they must needs go down among the things about them and lift them up, and make them like the best, and find a tempered relief in that. A Saint cannot count the cost, he cannot labour for a price; the thing itself made better is reward enough, if one speak of reward in his case. He gives, and esteems it a favour that he is allowed to give. He works because he is compelled to it; he has his eye and his heart on the life that alone can content him, and while it is deferred he must needs make this life as much like the reality as he may.

Who has not felt, some time, somewhere, at least a little of this enthusiasm? Who has not known from his own experience that this triumph of the Saints is the summit of human nature? Who has not looked out upon some beautiful landscape and enjoyed it, and then in a moment discovered himself alien to it - in it but not of it, as a spirit from another world who had wandered into this? And in the moment that he so stood out of it he has heard Angels telling him that in that moment he was touching the naked truth of being, of which all this outer world was but the clothing. And when he has come back to the body of this death, he has hungered for that which has passed, and has longed that all the world might see what he has seen.

And yet how little can we do! Poor little butterflies, how little can we do! But a butterfly is a thing of beauty, and the fairest of gardens is the fairer for its flitting presence. Then at least we can do so much; at least we can live in the glory of God's sunlight; and men shall praise Him the more because we have been.


  1. Wonderful, thanks. Euthanasia is doubly horrific when seen in the light of the longing for death of St. Paul and St. Teresa. And as pointed out in the article, they always turned around and asked Our Lord for more suffering, and for a long, long life so they could suffer even more.

  2. As you rightly note, dear Barbara, this essay holds up a light, and that light shows us just how deep is the darkness of our modern culture. A woman, faced with illness, decides to take her own life - a rejection of the cross if there ever was one - and her act is lauded by the world as one of "bravery", of preserving one's "dignity", proving clearly that the world neither understands nor possesses either quality. And though it deserves to be condemned, it nonetheless underscores a profound truth: without the Cross, without Our Lord, there can be no courage in the face of suffering, no sweetness in the approach of death. Without the Cross, a man is gripped by terror in the face of natural evil - and he should be. For only in the Cross does our suffering take on true significance; only in Christ does our life and death take on the transcendent meaning we all seek, but which only the few find.


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