The Good of Death

The Good of Death March 4, 2012

Life is a good given to us by God. We must appreciate it, indeed, it is something to treasure. Creation as a whole is a good, and no proper follower of Jesus can entirely reject the world. Gnostic dualism, no matter how attractive its simple approach to evil might appear, is denied by the incarnation. Christians must look to the incarnation as the example of how they are to live in the world. We are not to seek to destroy the world but to save it, to work for its betterment through the grace opened up to us by the incarnation.  So long as we live, we should be grateful for our life and share the blessings we have given to the rest of creation. For this reason, life in the world is a good, and we must seek to preserve life so long as we can do so in a fashion which preserves the dignity of life itself. But to do so, we must also embrace death: it is a part of life, and a denial of death ends up being a denial of life itself.  Life can be treated as an idol, so that we seek to preserve it at all costs, even at the expense of the dignity of the person we are trying to save – and in doing so, we turn our back on the greater good, the eschatological good, for the sake of a lesser temporal good.

We must understand that we are all going to die. When it comes to the time when we should die, death itself can be a good.  When it is our time to die, we should not miserly hold on to life; when it is our time, it is more than just to willingly let go of the embers of temporal life and enter into eternity. The death of the saints is something which God holds dear: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15 RSV). As long as we live, we must appreciate life, but we must also appreciate that our temporal existence is going to come to an end. We can and should prepare ourselves for death so that our death can be a good, that it can become a fitting end for a life lived well. A good death is a noble death, one which can be seen as the crowning summit of life. It affirms life, and does not deny it, and so it has nothing to do with a love for death, even if it recognizes the need for death and the good which can come from it.

“What, death is an evil, it is the result of sin, how can it be seen as good?” some might ask? “Are you not giving in to the culture of death by talking about death as a good? Life is the good and death is the end of that good, so how it death be seen as good?” We must be careful here. St. Ambrose tells us that there are at least three ways we can understand the term of death.[1] The first is truly evil: it is spiritual death due to sin, and the result of it is we are removed from communion with God. We, and those around us, suffer all kinds of grievances due to this death. The second is the death to sin; it is where we enter full communion with God and all the effects of sin no longer cause us to suffer. This is a good, because once we have entirely died to sin, we will be able to have eternal happiness. The third is what we normally think of as death, when our temporal existence comes to an end. While how we come to the end of our temporal existence, how we die, is affected by sin, nonetheless St. Ambrose points out it is not to be seen as an evil in and of itself, but rather, it is a remedy given to us for the strains of life. “Death is given for a remedy, because it is the end of evils. […] You see that death is rather the goal of our penalties [for sin], by which an end is put to the course of this life.”[2]

Without death, without an end to our temporal existence, St Ambrose says that we would be in this world, perpetually suffering all kinds of evils without hope.  If, after the advent of sin, there were no death, then there would be no end to evil, no end to the suffering which we experience in life. The longer it is lived, the more stretched out one becomes until life itself would be lived in a wraith-like existence, the spark of life still present, but very little else than that. There would end up being no joy left for them to experience. And, of course, we can, to some extent, prolong life on this earth; we can, to some extent, keep someone alive longer than they should be, and when we do, they suffer. We see this with people being kept alive on perpetual life support with no hope of recovery:  there is a shell of a person there, being kept alive, but all that made the person who they were is barely there, and they end up suffering because they are not allowed a dignified exit into eternity.

We can see something similar to the ideas expressed by St. Ambrose in the writings of St Robert Bellarmine.[3] His “The Art of Dying Well” begins with an examination of the good which comes from death. Recognizing that death is not a good “in itself,” he points out that Christians must believe that death can be used for good because Christ used death as a tool to overcome the pains of death. “Certainly a death that destroyed death and restored life cannot but be very good. Hence, at least some death must be called good even if not every death.”[4] But to be restored to life, we must die, so death allows us to enter into the resurrection of Christ and eternal happiness. “Clearly the death of the saints is blessed, since it leads the soul forth from the prison cell of the flesh by the order of the heavenly king and brings it into the heavenly kingdom where, dead to their labours, the holy souls rest in comfort and receive for the reward of their good works the crown of the kingdom.”[5] It is the end of earthly suffering, of all the miseries of life.[6] Death, moreover, reveals to the person their final end; those who are saved, even if they first must be purified through purgatory, will have their hope confirmed and the fear of damnation put to an end.[7]

Because of the good which can be had from death, one can rightfully await it, hope for it, as long as they do nothing unjust to hasten it such as suicide.[8] St. Paul certainly desired to depart life so to be with Christ (cf. Philippians 1:23) but also understood that it is God’s decision for when the time comes, knowing that until then, he is to do in the world what he can for the benefit of others (cf. Philippians 1:24). We must praise the good of life, but we can also recognize the role of death in life and see how it brings us to eternal life, so that even death has a place in the world and we must not try to control life such that the good of death is lost.

Yet, though death is all around us, though death can be seen as a good as it ends the daily evils we suffer, we fail to prepare ourselves for it. We are always shocked by it. It comes to us unaware, first with the death of friends and family, and finally with our own death. Though death frees us from our current, fallen mode of existence, what comes from death depends upon how we live our life here. All so often neglect eternity for the fleeting pleasure of the moment. “Vain honor, ease of the body, passing love and the selfish seeking of everyday needs blind most people.”[9]

To live life well, we must remember our death and keep it in our thoughts. In doing so, we will treat every moment of life appropriately; we will be able to appreciate the good God has given us, finding joy in them, but we will also recognize the need to establish in the here and now the character we would like to have for eternity. When death comes, what grace we have taken in to our person to us will be mixed with the good or bad we have done, and the two together will produce an eternal person, one which is judged by Christ, who will reward or punish it according to the qualities seen within it. If one has become too attached to the changeable world, to the goods of the world, one will suffer greatly. “The end of those who are devoted to this world is always misfortune, since they are eventually carried away naked, leaving everything they loved here.”[10] We are not to be attached to the world in its present form. Nonetheless, this must not be seen as a dualistic denial of the world. The world itself has a place in eternity, and just as the character we establish for ourselves will be with us in eternity, so what is done in and to the world will be reflected in eternity. We are to live detached from the world: we are not to try to dominate it, but we are to live in the world, rendering the grace of Christ to it so that it can achieve the end God intended for it just as grace helps us achieve the end God intends for us.

If we see how often people ignored death in the past, we must see how the luxuries of the present have made things worse. Even those who promote the Gospel of Life forget that the Gospel of Life accepts death, and indeed, must accept death, because it is a part of life itself. We often find ourselves challenged to accept death, and we seek to prolong life when there is no just cause for it.[11] St Symeon the New Theologian proclaims our need to accept death, to voluntarily embrace it, when it is our time to die: “I have learned from Scripture and from experience itself that the cross comes at the end for no other reason than that we must endure trials and tribulations and, finally, voluntary death itself.”[12] In the end, there will be a time for all of us to face the final cross, to see if we will die in Christ and be resurrected with him. The end, the final death of the self, is something which must be voluntarily accepted, for it is only those who die to the self, who accept the end of their life in Christ, who will find true life in the eternal kingdom of God.

Death, the way our life ends, was brought into the world due to sin. It is not the original intention of God. What would have been if we had not embraced the path of sin we do not know. We do know the intention was to have the world united with God, but how God would have rendered time into eternity, we can only guess. But now that we have embraced sin, we have brought great sorrows into the world, including the sorrows associated with death. God has been able to take death and to use it for a greater good, to make sure his original, intended end for creation can be obtained. Death has become a way for good, to be embraced in and through Christ. In this way, death can be said to be a good. It can free us from the misery of a world engulfed by sin. It can be the door by which we enter the kingdom of God. However, we must only enter the door at the right time, when God calls us. If we go when it is our time, those who see us off, however much they struggled to keep us alive, must feel no guilt in our demise, for it is God’s calling which is met and followed. Indeed, they should recognize we are no longer suffering the miseries of life but, hopefully resting in the peace of the eternal reward God has prepared for those who love him.

Our hope in eternity must not take us nihilistically away from the world today. We must embrace the present and show God love and thanks for the life he has given us so that indeed, in the end, we can receive the reward of one who loves God. If we completely reject the world, seeing none of the good within, how can we say we love God, the creator of the world? It is a delicate balance: to accept the world, to promote its good, but not to be attached to it. We must thank God for the good of the world, we must thank God for the good of life which we have been given, but we must realize that the good of the present is only a shadow of the good of eternity. What we have now is filled with darkness and sorrow, but when we reach eternity, if we have embraced the good in the present, we will find that good in eternity, now transfigured so that none of the darkness or sorrow remains. But if we reject the good in life, will we be happy with it in eternity?  To make sure we do not render eternal suffering for ourselves, we must embrace the good now so we can appreciate more the good God will make out of it in eternity. But once we do, we can see how death is the door to eternity and can be a good for those who have put their trust in God. Those who have rendered their life in the world as a praise to God will not fear death, but, like St Francis, will be able to say:

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.


[1] See St. Ambrose, “On the Decease of His Brother Saytrus” in NPNF2(10): 179.

[2] Ibid., 179.

[3] There is a difference, to be sure. St Ambrose is promoting death as a good, but St Robert Bellarmine sees death as an evil. We can see both are right. Death is the fallen mode by which we enter eternity. Entering into eternity is a good, and we were always intended to have an end to our temporal existence. However, due to sin, we suffer the pains of death, the evil associated with death, and enter into eternity in a fashion not originally intended: the soul separated from the body. In the resurrection of the dead, this evil is overcome while the good behind death will remain.

[4] St. Robert Bellarmine, “The Art of Dying Well” in Robert Bellarmine: Spiritual Writings. Trans. John Patrick Donnelly, S. J. and Robert J. Teske, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 236.

[5] ibid.,  237.

[6] See ibid., 236

[7] See ibid., 237.

[8] St. Robert Bellarmine presented the example of St Catherine of Genoa as one who, with longing, praised death because she knew it would bring her into a greater union with her beloved, Christ. See ibid., 237-8. St. Ambrose, in expressing the good found in death, said, “So, then, death is not only not an evil, but is even a good thing. So that it is sought as a good, as it is written: ‘Men shall seek death and shall not find it.’” St. Ambrose, “On the Decease of His Brother,” 179.

[9] Blessed Henry Suso, “Little Book of Eternal Wisdom” in Henry Suso: The Exemplar with Two German Sermons. Trans. Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 272.

[10] St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies. Trans. Christopher Veniamin with the assistance of The Monastery of St. John the Baptist Essex, England (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), 162.

[11] Obviously, we must be cautious and not take life, either; euthanasia is an evil which must not be accepted, but letting people die naturally must not be seen as the same as euthanasia.

[12] St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses. Trans. George Maloney, S.J. (Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 232.

 

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