“That’s the whole spiritual life. It’s learning how to die. And as you learn how to die, you start losing all your illusions, and you start being capable now of true intimacy and love.” – Eugene Peterson
Happy isn’t an adjective that is typically used to describe death, instead, death is often thought about in morose terms. It is an uncomfortable subject and one we prefer to not think about – that is until we’re confronted with it.
Sixth Century Wisdom
Saint Benedict, Sixth Century patriarch of Western Monasticism, is considered to be the patron of a happy death. Benedict died shortly after receiving communion, while standing, supported by the brothers at Montecassino, with his arms outstretched toward heaven.
Benedict, in his “Rule“, expressed the importance of keeping death before our eyes daily, so that we might focus our gaze on God and the moment before us, instead of ourselves and our fears.
When I received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma over six years ago, my initial reaction was one of fear – fear of death, and fear of the unknown. I was reminded at that very moment, that I was not in control – God was. It was a lesson I needed to learn, and that is how a God who loves me, got my attention.
In the book, Red Sea Rules by Robert J Morgan, J Hudson Taylor is quoted as saying, “I know He tries me only to increase my faith, and that is all in love. Well, if He is glorified, I am content.”
Although not a Catholic by faith, I wear the Medal of Saint Benedict. Inscribed around the margins of one side of the medal, are the Latin words: Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur, which translated means “May we be strengthened by his presence in the hour of our death!”
Catholic theologians describe a “happy death“, as being in a state of grace or peace, at the moment we pass from this life into eternal life – the finish line of the race which was set before us.
John Henry Newman, 19th Century theologian, poet, and converted Anglican priest, wrote the perennial “Prayer for A Happy Death,” in which he asks that “my angel whisper peace to me, and Thy glorious saints and my own dear patrons smile on me, that in and through them all I may die as I desire to live, in Thy Church, in Thy faith, and in Thy love.”
A Great Cloud of Witnesses
Hebrews 12:1 reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses [or as Cardinal Newman referred to in his prayer as, Thy glorious saints and my own dear patrons] to the life of faith.
When we first read Hebrews 12:1, we may get a mystical image of saints scattered throughout a big white billowy cloud, however the word “cloud” in this verse, is actually translated from the Greek word nephos. In classical Greek times, the word cloud (nephos) also described the highest seats in a coliseum – a distinction given due to how high up in the air they were.
So now imagine being surrounded by a coliseum of witnesses – who, having gone before us, have seen their faith manifested or become sight. Now imagine that same cloud of witnesses surrounding you as you take your last breath.
Psalm 23:4 also reassures us, that when we face the shadow of death, God will be there to comfort us. I believe this to be the state of grace that theologians refer to.
Maybe the reason we can have a happy death, is that we won’t face it alone.