Archbishop Alban Goodier, S.J.
|Catacombes de Paris|
If there are many platitudes written in the effort to explain life, there are many more written about death; indeed it would seem that there is nothing that can be written about it but must in the end be resolved into one or two obvious remarks. There is nothing new to be said; we are no wiser now on this point than was the first man who had to face it; when the last man comes to die he will know no more about it than ourselves. Philosophers have analyzed it, and have ended where they have begun. Poets have attempted to sing of it, and they have sung nothing more striking than that "Death once dead, there's no more dying then"; surely an obvious truism enough. Spiritual writers and preachers have discussed it more, perhaps, than they have discussed any other subject; yet, however impressive they may have been, all they have had to say has been summed up in some such statement as, that death is certain, that the time and manner of death are uncertain, that a man only dies once, that death is the end of this life and of all that is in it, and so forth. It is true that we can cover these dry bones with fancies of our own. We can guess at death and imagine what it will be like. We can do the very opposite, and leave it solemnly alone. Still the platitudes remain, severely cold and bony, neither to be hidden beneath the trappings of a silken dress, nor to be kept out of the way in a cupboard.
And this is precisely the crux of the whole matter; these platitudes will not be silenced. At other obvious remarks we may yawn in weariness, or we may laugh them out of countenance. If we laugh at these, the grinning skull does not blush for shame; its hollow sockets do not show any indignation, the rows of teeth grin none the less; if we yawn, the bones do but rattle and awake us. To be irritated with them, to question their truth, is mere foolishness; from the fact of death we have not even the escape that we had from the fact of God or the fact of sin. We cannot deny that we shall die, that we shall one day cease to count upon this earth, and all the rest. Even when we shrug our shoulders and pretend to have no care or fear of the spectre, we dread all the time that the cold, clammy finger-bones may at any moment be about our neck, perhaps all the sooner because we have turned our back upon it. We may defy it, and say that death is nothing to be feared, that it is nothing but an everlasting sleep; it does but echo, and they are ears of a wise man that catch the words: "To sleep, perchance to dream." We may declare that death brings only dissolution; it answers: "What of the soul?" We may say we will be men, and will be content to take our chance; it asks, are we sure whether this is manliness or cowardice, it hints that this refusal to face the fact may itself be our condemnation. We may mount our horse and ride away, galloping in a wild career that we may forget it; we turn our head and find that it has got up behind us, biding its time until we choose to give it our attention, or until it can claim us for its own.
So whichever way we turn, whatever we may say or do, we are haunted by the endless platitude. "Everything," we read in a daily paper this morning, "can be escaped except death." There was not much news in that, yet more than one reader will have dwelt upon it. The certainty is there, and everyone must face it. The only question is: How may it best be faced? Not many ways are possible. There is the way of despair; the acknowledgment that death is the one great curse and evil in this world, and on every account and by every means to be avoided and deferred. Along such a road, death is indeed a weird spectre; the lives of those who go along that road are indeed haunted lives, very nightmares in which the poor dreamer flies on without ceasing, knowing that in the end he must be overtaken. Of this we need say nothing; common as it is, it is not the attitude of a man but of a craven. Then there is the way of ignoring. We hate unpleasant facts; if we cannot escape them we ignore them; any fallacy suffices to justify our leaving them alone. Whatever may be in store, men tell themselves, at all events here and now life spreads out before them. Death may be tomorrow, today we are alive; let us then eat and drink today, tomorrow shall look to itself. So it is assumed that death will always be tomorrow, not today, and life is lived on that assumption. When at last tomorrow becomes today, it is accepted as an accident which has taken us unawares. Or, again, there is the attitude of bravado. We can face it, and defy it, and fight it, and be beaten by it, assume that we have met it like men and soldiers, and trust that this will atone for all the rest. This, too, is very bitter; it is close akin to despair.
But there is another attitude. There is the attitude that has been taken up by man from the beginning - the attitude which the world itself accepts as alone consistent with the present life. Man in his heart does not think he is made to be annihilated; to come to the belief that he is, even to the profession of it, whatever he may really believe, demands a forcing of intellect and will that Nature itself can scarcely stand. The very fear that haunts a man when he ignores the solemn fact is alone telling evidence against him. He knows that death is the end, but he also thinks it is a beginning. He knows that the present life is good, but he also feels sure that if he dies aright that which follows will be better. If he dies aright - that is the whole matter. Whether he believes or whether he affects the opposite, he knows it is vital that the verdict should be found in his favour. He will insist that he has lived up to his lights, he will have us reckon only the good done; he has a fellow-feeling for those who are already dead, and hopes that if he treats them with condoning, so he will be treated in his turn. So he says So-and-so was a good man, take him altogether; or, at all events, that he served his country well; or that he was a good friend; or that he prospered and helped others to prosper; and for the rest it is better left alone. We do not blame him. De mortuis nil nisi bonum - "of the dead let us only speak well" - is a good proverb. But it has reference to this side of the grave alone. On the other side, there must be the whole thing or nothing - and there is not nothing.
Then why not face the facts as they are? Whatever men may see about me or may say, whatever outward show I may make, that will remain, and may indeed suffice, on this side of the door. But it is not what appears, it is what I am that will pass through - the good in me, the bad, and the indifferent. And when I accept this and make it a factor in my life, at once it alters my perspective. It alters my ideas of right and wrong. It alters my observance of the same. The fact of life-in-death acts at once as a stimulus and a warning, where nothing else will avail. Indeed, if it were not for the fear of the life beyond, the life on this side would soon bring about its own corruption. And if that is so, or even if it is a half-truth, then death, and the thought of death, cannot be the spectre that men make it. Dark as are the wings of the angel of death, they are yet tipped with gold, lit from the sun that shines beyond, which for the moment he hides from us. And to look death in the face is worth while; it is the only manliness. Not as the ancient pagan, who would drink his hemlock or open his vein at command, and calmly, stoically, await the issue; not even as the modern pagan who can boast, but with a strange metallic ring in his laughter, that he will "go to his death like a soldier," as to a doom he cannot avoid; but as those who have kept their eyes toward the light, and have so found joy in their sacrifice.
"It is appointed unto men once to die," and He who has appointed it can do only good; He alone can raise the dead to life. And here at last we have come to a statement about death which is not an obvious platitude. He who has made the dry bones can also make the dry bones live. He can clothe them again with sinews and flesh and skin, can breathe into them the spirit, and make them "stand upon their feet, an exceeding great army." He can, and He has done it. St. Paul was no dreamer, yet he saw and understood that which for him turned death into life and life to death. For him this life was living death; death was the beginning of life. "Who will deliver me from the body of this death?" he cries; and he adds elsewhere : "I desire to be dissolved and to be." He desired to be dissolved, not that he might end but that he might begin; not that he might rest, but that he might labour; not that he might look back on what he had done, but that he might look forward. No wonder he could cry in triumph: "Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?" For death had been swallowed up in his conquest: Absorpta est mors in victoria. And the same is true of very many. We have all watched them striding down the plane of time, laughing as they went, enjoying this life as only those can enjoy it who have no misgivings about the next. We have seen them nearing the goal, with their eyes fixed on the light beyond; when the time has come they have been ready, and we have felt that indeed they were men.
Of every one, young and old alike, death makes either a friend or an enemy. To his enemy he is an abiding terror, to his friend he is a friend indeed; warning in danger, in trial encouraging with strong hope, reconciling in misfortune, stirring when action is called for, stimulating to every sacrifice.