“What is thy life? It is a vapour, which appeareth for a little while.”
St. James 4, 15.
First Point – Death Comes Quickly
What is your life? It is vapour, which is dissipated by a blast of wind, and seen no more. All know that they must die; but the delusion of many is, that they imagine death as far off as if it were never to arrive. But Job tells us that the life of man is short.
“Man born of a woman, living a short time … who cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed.” (Job 14, 1)
This truth the Lord commanded Isaias to preach to the people.
“Cry … All flesh is grass … Indeed, the people is grass. The grass is withered, and the flower is fallen.” (Isa. 40, 6-8)
The life of man is like the life of a blade of grass; death comes, the grass is dried up: behold, life ends, and the flower of all greatness and of all worldly goods falls off.
“My days,” says Job, “have been swifter than a post.” (Job 9, 25) Death runs to meet us more swiftly than a post, and we at every moment run towards death. Every step, every breath brings us nearer to our end.
“What I write,” says Jerome, “is so much taken away from life.” “During the time I write, I draw near to death.”
“We all die, and, like the waters that return nor more, we fall into the earth.” (2 Kings 14, 14)
Behold how the stream flows to the sea, and the passing waters never return! Thus, my brother, your days pass by, and you approach death. Pleasures, amusements, pomps, praises, and acclamations pass away; and what remains?
“And only the grave remaineth for me.” (Job 17, 1)
We shall be thrown into a grave, and there we shall remain to rot, stripped of all things. At the hour of death, the remembrance of the delights enjoyed, and of all the honours acquired in this life, will serve only to increase our pain and our diffidence of obtaining eternal salvation. Then the miserable worldling will say: “My house, my gardens, my fashionable furniture, my pictures, my garments, will in a little time be no longer mine, and only the grave remaineth for me.”
Ah! At that hour all earthly goods are viewed only with pain by those who have had an attachment for them. And this pain will serve only to increase the danger of their eternal salvation; for we see by experience, that persons attached to the world wish at death to speak only of their sickness, of the physicians to be called to attend them, and of the remedies which may restore their health. When any one speaks of the state of the soul, they soon grow weary, and beg to be allowed repose. They complain of headache, and say that it pains them to hear any one speak. And if they sometimes answer, they are confused, and know not what to say. It often happens that the confessor gives them absolution, not because he knows that they are disposed for the sacrament, but because it is dangerous to defer it. Such is the death of those who think but little of death.
Second Point – The Lighted Candle at Death
King Ezechias said with tears:
“My life is cut off as by a weaver; while I was yet beginning, He cut me off.” (Isa. 38, 12)
Oh, how many have been overtaken and cut off by death, while they were executing and arranging worldly projects devised with so much labor! By the light of the last candle, all things in this world, applause, diversions, pomps, and greatness vanish. Great secret of death! It makes us see what the lovers of this world do not see. The most princely fortunes, the most exalted dignities, and the most superb triumphs lose all their splendour when viewed from the bed of death. The ideas that we have formed of certain false happiness are then changed into indignation against our own folly. The black and gloomy shade of death then covers and obscures every dignity, even that of kings and princes.
At present, our passions make the goods of this earth appear different from what they are in reality. Death takes off the veil, and makes them appear what they really are – smoke, dirt, vanity, and wretchedness. O God! Of what use are riches, possessions, or kingdoms at death, when nothing remains but a wooden coffin, and a simple garment barely sufficient to cover the body? Of what use are the honours, when they all end in a funeral procession and pompous obsequies, which will be unprofitable to the soul if it be in hell? Of what use is beauty, when after death nothing remains but worms, stench, and horror, and in the end a little fetid dust?
“He hath made me,” says Job, “as it were a byword of the people, and an example before them.” (Job 17,6)
The rich man, the captain, the minister of state, dies: his death is the general topic of conversation; but if he has led a bad life he will become “a byword of the people, and an example before them.” As an instance of the vanity of the world, and even of the divine justice, he will serve for the admonition of others. After burial his body will be mingled with the bodies of the poor.
“The small and great are there.” (Job 3, 19)
What profit has he derived from the beautiful structure of his body, which is now but a heap of worms? Of what use are the power and authority which he wielded, when his body is now left to rot in a grave, and his soul has perhaps, been sent to burn in hell? Oh, what misery! To be the occasion of such reflections to others, and not to have them for his own profit! Let us then persuade ourselves that the proper time for repairing the disorders of the soul is not the hour of death, but the time of health. Let us hasten to do now what we shall not be able to do at that hour. “Time is short.” Everything soon passes away and comes to an end: let us therefore labor to employ all things for the attainment of eternal life.
Third Point – Importance of the Last Moment
How great, then, the folly of those who, for the miserable and transitory delights of this short life, exposes themselves to the danger of an unhappy eternity. Oh! How important is that last moment, that last gasp, the last closing of the scene! On it depends an eternity either of all delights or of all torments – a life of eternal happiness or of everlasting woe
Let us consider that Jesus Christ submitted to a cruel and ignominious death in order to obtain for us the grace of a good death. That we may at that last moment die in the grace of God, is the reason why He gives us so many calls, so many lights, and admonishes us by so many threats.
Antisthenes, though a pagan, being asked what was the greatest blessing which man could receive in this world, answered, “A good death.”
And what will a Catholic say, who knows by faith, that at the moment of death eternity begins, and that at that moment he lays hold of one of two wheels, which draws with it either eternal joy or everlasting torments? If there were two tickets in a lottery, on one of which might be written Hell and on the other Heaven, what care would you not take to draw that which gives you a right to Paradise, and to avoid the other, by which you would win a place in Hell! O God! How the hands of those unhappy men tremble who are condemned to throw the dice on which their life or death depends! How great will be your terror at the approach of that last hour, when you will say: On this moment depends my life or death for eternity; on this depends whether I shall be forever happy or forever in despair!
St. Bernardine of Sienna relates, that at death a certain prince exclaimed, with trembling and dismay:
Behold, I have so many kingdoms and palaces in this world; but if I die this night I know not what apartment shall be assigned to me.
Brother, if you believe that you must die, that there is an eternity, that you can die only once, and that if you then err, your error will be forever irreparable, why do you not resolve to begin at this moment to do all in your power to secure a good death?
St. Andrew Avellino said with trembling:
“Who knows what will be my lot in the next life? Shall I be saved or damned?”
The thought of the uncertainty of being damned or saved filled St. Louis Bertrand with so much terror, that he could not sleep during the night, because of this thought which would suggest to him: “Who knows whether thou wilt be lost?” And will not you, who have committed so many sins, tremble?
Oh! Hasten to apply a remedy in time. Resolve to give yourself sincerely to God, and begin from this moment a life which, at the hour of death, will be to you a source, not of affliction, but of consolation. Give yourself to prayer, frequent the sacraments, avoid all dangerous occasions, and, if necessary, leave the world, secure to yourself eternal salvation, and be persuaded that to secure eternal life no precaution can be too great.