by Patrick Murray, University of Alabama
On this Holy day of August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, Catholics celebrate the bodily taking up of Mary into Heaven at the end of her Earthly life. As there is no doubt that this subject will receive much attention today, this author, in humility, will write instead on the equally glorious death that preceded Mary’s glorious Assumption.
Although it is not dogmatically defined, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians generally hold that Mary died in the presence of the apostles before her body was taken up into heaven. This event is called the Dormition, and it has been described by St. Alphonsus Liguori, a distinguished scholar of Mary, as the happiest death a human can possibly experience.
This article will illuminate just how happy this death was, and it will go on to describe how we can all use it to cultivate and share hope for a happy death. It will also attempt, however clumsily, to include uncontroversial terms that may provide joy to anyone who reads this article – regardless of religious views. “A lamp… is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.” (Matt. 5:15)
On that note, if you have a religious disagreement with this article and don’t want to read the whole thing, I invite you to please skip to the end and at least hear what I have to say in conclusion.
Part one: The bitterness of death
Although the topic is often avoided in conversation, death is clearly central and significant in the human psyche. It is well-documented in psychology not only as one of the most common phobias but also as the root of many mental disorders such as hypochondria, PTSD, and depression. Whether death-fear is a manifestation of unresolved childhood trauma, as Sigmund Freud suggests, or it is the single director of human decision-making, as Victor Frankl responds, it is clear that death is significant and generally negative in our minds.
Indeed, from the time of Adam to today, history and literature have been full of the human fear of death. A great example is Julius Caesar, the apparently invincible war hero who was killed alone and ignominiously by a group of senators as he pleaded for his life. Caesar had so many aspirations and unfulfilled dreams; surely the physical pain of his death was far exceeded by pain of regret from all of this.
An additional example is the death of Ivan Ilyich, a fictional character created by the author Leo Tolstoy to criticize the opulence of newly modernized Russian society. The character Ivan Ilyich, after a life spent in pursuit of external glories such as promotions and household decorations, contracts a terminal illness and dies both regretting his vain pursuits and pitying his family members who are sure to do the same.
The bitterness of death is hard and painful to write about. Indeed, it is probably hard to read about as well. Death has touched the year 2020 and filled it with pain and loss. But there is hope in the face of this pain, and there is deep and wonderful joy beyond death.
Part two: Mary’s joyful death
I now return to the starting point of this article. Was Mary’s death free from bitterness? How was it different from the deaths of Caesar and Ivan Ilyich? Saint Alphonsus Liguori, a renowned Doctor of the Church, claims that there are three fundamental reasons for death to be bitter and asserts that Mary’s perfect death was free from them all. These reasons are attachment to the world, remorse for sins, and the uncertainty of salvation.
First, attachment to the world makes death bitter because it is a departure from the world. Ivan Ilyich was attached to the world by his love of material goods; Mary, being free from sin, loved only God and her neighbor, neither of which are bound to the world. Caesar was attached to the world by his ambitions; Mary had no such ambitions due to her trust that God would continue to work salvation through her even after her departure. It is obvious that detachment from the world will make death sweeter, and the practice is widely promoted in many philosophies. But perhaps it is easier said than done.
Second, remorse for sins makes death bitter because of two factors: sorrow for others, who were harmed by our wrongdoings, and sorrow for ourselves, who are both liable to judgment because of our sins and also harmed just as badly by our sins as those they were committed against. For example, a man who has disrespected his wife mourns both the suffering he caused his wife and the joy he could have experienced if he had only loved her better; even if he does not believe in God, he would still be sad to die unreconciled with his beloved. Mary, of course, in God’s Mercy, was kept completely pure from the stain of sin and so died with no such regret. Through his servant Solomon, the Holy Spirit sings of his future spouse: “You are beautiful in every way, my friend, there is no flaw in you!” (Song of Songs 4:7)
Finally, uncertainty of salvation may be the most tragic cause for fear in death. “What will happen when I die?” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Good News that death, though the end of a short life, is only the beginning of an eternal one in his Father’s house where there are “many rooms” (John 14:2). Although many people, even the most ardent of Christians, may either doubt that they will go to Heaven or wonder if there is a Heaven at all, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, died forever certain that her beloved son would accept her back into his presence. The Lord who promised Paradise to the repentant thief being crucified beside him would hardly reject his own mother.
Mary died perfectly because she was detached from the world, free from guilt, and certain of Heaven. As I will go on to discuss, this death is the single ideal for us to imitate in our own deaths. Especially in a world where death seems especially present, we would do well to reflect on the death of Mary and be prepared to present it as “a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15).
Part three: Hope in the Pandemic
Whenever the coronavirus comes up in conversation – and indeed, it is a frequent subject of conversation – the subject of death always lies just under the surface. After all, the virus is only feared because of its deadly potential. Whether we like it or not, it has never been easier to follow the Benedictines and “memento mori”: Remember death.
Do you fear your own death? It is not your fault if you do. Broken as we are by sin, we are all stumbling, near-blind, each on our own journey to salvation. There are a few ways you can grow to imitate Mary and look forward to death with joy.
First, you must become detached from the world. Are you, like Caesar, attached to some project that you feel “must” be completed? Then remember that God in his infinite goodness can bring about the good you desire whether you are around or not! Are you attached to some comfort such as your phone or your wealth? The spirit of poverty demands that you treat these things as temporary loans from God to you – not your own possessions.
Second, you cannot die with any sin on your heart. Sin makes your soul like Voldemort’s: broken into many pieces and unable to love. Reflect daily on your actions, right your wrongs, and if you are Catholic, you will do well to perform a confession of devotion at least once a month.
Third, you must be convinced that you are going to Heaven. Jesus invites us to trust in him and believe that he will provide for us. While you can first convince your intellect that it is going to Heaven by becoming educated in God’s sacramental plan of salvation for you, you can then convince your will that it is going to Heaven through frequent and heartfelt reflection on God’s promises to us. The former can be done by studying the Catechism and reading other articles on this website. Reading the Bible, praying the Rosary, and attending daily Mass all seem like good ways to do the latter.
Finally, be encouraged that many saints before you have walked the difficult path that the preceding paragraphs just laid out. I can’t think of a single saint who was afraid of death… But there are a few examples of saints who were especially joyful at the end of their Earthly lives. These include Francis, who welcomed “Sister Death,” a subject of his poetry, Maximilian Kolbe, who was eager to die in the place of another man in a Nazi concentration camp, and Thérèse of Lisieux, who was so convinced of her own sanctity that she even gave away her nail clippings to be used as relics! Just like them, you too can be a sign of contradiction against the fear of death.
In short, the lesson from this article is to follow the words of Tim McGraw and “live like you were dying.”
And this lesson isn’t even a religious idea. No matter your background or beliefs, you, dear reader, MUST come to terms with death if you want to live in peace. You MUST reject all worldly attachments. You MUST reconcile your wrongdoings against God and man. And you MUST become certain of the good outcome that awaits you after your death. What else is there? All worldly deeds and possessions pass away, and all memory of even the most famous person will fade one day from Earth. I hope and pray before Almighty God that we will all find peace in the face of death.
And even more, I pray that you are ready to share the good news that God has conquered death. This is perfect joy. This is the antidote to the pandemic.