Saturday, November 13, 2010

De Novissimis: Remember Your Four Last Things

“Here is a short medicine,” wrote St. Thomas More, “containing only four herbs, and they are common and well known: death, judgment, pain, and joy. This short medicine has a marvelous potency: the ability to keep us, all our life, from sin.” [1] To this the saint added, “The Scriptures do not bid you to know the four last things, but to remember your four last things.” [2]

Perhaps only the cheerful and witty St. Thomas More could describe the recollection of the four last things as a “short medicine” (an effective herbal remedy, comprised of a short list of ingredients, to cure illness – hence, “short medicine”). While it is true that we are not explicitly bidden to know the four last things, they have been made known to us. Death is something which all mankind experiences, and the knowledge of the other three – judgment, Hell, or Heaven – were received through Divine Revelation.

In the last decade or so, there developed a motto of sorts, “It’s the journey that matters. To the journey! ” That modern maxim is true, “as such” - but to be entirely truthful, it needs an important clarification: “It’s the journey that matters – because the path we choose determines our final destination. To the journey!

Above and beyond this, Jesus our Savior instructs us, “Enter ye in at the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth unto destruction, and many there are that go in thereat. How narrow is the gate and strait is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there are that find it!” [4]

Preoccupied as we are with the joys and sorrows of this life, we are prone to forgetfulness. We forget that God gave us a specific road to travel and that He Himself assists us through the valley of tears. We forget that He created us to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world so as to be happy with Him in the next world. We forget that, as St. Jean Marie Vianney wrote, “man, gifted with reason and a free will, is in his nature the image of God. Endowed with reason we must perceive the truth, investigate and distinguish lies from truth. And endowed with will power, we must choose, love and perform the good…Furthermore, we sin against reason which makes us the image of God, if we do not endeavor to attain that knowledge which is necessary for every Christian to his calling.” [5]

To soberly reflect on the four last things helps us to practice well the Holy Ghost’s gift of Fear of the Lord, as well as His other six gifts: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, and Piety. All of these gifts, if used rightly, “help us by making us more alert to discern and more ready to do the will of God.” [8]

So we should not shrink in pondering the four last things, because they are four realities. As St. Alphonsus de Liguori is so careful to remind us, “The business of eternal salvation is to us the most important of all affairs; but it is also the most neglected by Christians…It is the most important affair, because if the soul is lost, all is lost.” [9]

Passing from this Life“To die and to be dead are not one and the same,” reflected St. Thomas More. “It is true that we are never dead while we live; but it is, it seems to me, just as true not only that we die while we live, but also that we die all the while we live. For what is dying? Is it anything other than the passing and going out of this life?" [10]

Death, the separation of soul from the body, is the first herb of our “short medicine.” God creates each person as body and soul, which “are united in a substantial union to form one complete human nature.” [11] It was never Our Lord and Creator’s positive Will that body and soul should be cleaved apart. Death is a consequence of Adam’s sin by his own free will. [12] With the fall of Adam, God in His Justice allowed the terrible sentence of physical death to fall upon the entire human race.

That which with the Holy Trinity had bestowed upon Adam and Eve elevated their natural condition to the supernatural. The gift of sanctifying grace made them children of God and gave them the right to heaven. As the Baltimore Catechism explains, “It raises men to the supernatural order, conferring on them powers entirely above those proper to human nature. Together with sanctifying grace, God gave Adam and Eve the supernatural virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost.” [13] 

The first man and woman also possessed preternatural gifts – the Garden of Paradise, integrity (complete control of the faculties, passions, and appetites by reason and the free will), immortality, and impassibility (freedom from suffering and death).[14] Before creating Eve, the “Lord God took man, and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it, and to keep it.” [15] Then God said to Adam, “Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.” [16] The Holy Bible does not reveal for how long Adam and Eve obeyed this command, thus enjoying the Garden of Paradise, but we do know that God allowed them to be tested.

“Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” [17] said the tempter to Eve and, in this, he told a half-truth, for “the gods of the earth” [18] are demons. Our first parents failed a very simple test of fidelity to God; both Adam and Eve abused the gifts of reason and free will through pride, which led to ingratitude of heart, and then disobedience.

But when Adam fell, so did all mankind. As head and father of the human race, Adam knowingly threw away the chief gift of sanctifying grace, thereby losing the friendship of God and the right to Heaven. This holy inheritance was lost not only to Adam but to all of his descendants. After all, Adam could not give to his children what he no longer possessed; he could only bequeath Original Sin, so-called because “it comes down to us through our origin, from Adam.” [19]

Since that terrible moment in our history, every human being is subject to the consequences of disease, suffering, and death. Earthly life became a painful period of probation, and the soul’s passing from this life to the next became known as “the death agony.”

“We know from the testimony of Our Redeemer Himself that no agony is like the agony of death,” wrote Fr. Martin von Cochem, 19th century author of The Four Last Things. “Nowhere do we find that at any period of His life the greatness of the pains He bore extorted from Our Lord a cry of anguish. But when the moment came for Him to expire, and the ruthless hand of death rent His Heart asunder, we read that He cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. Hence it is evident that at no period of the Passion did Christ suffer so acutely as at the most painful separation of His sacred soul from His blessed body.” [20]

Above all things, the thought that our dear JesusGod Himself – cried out at the moment of His own death should not incite fear but both compunction of heart and solace. Through His Death and Resurrection, He has offered us the means to a happy death.

What Our Lord said to the grieving sister of Lazarus, He also says to us: “I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, although he be dead, shall live. And every one that liveth, and believeth in me, shall not die for ever. Believest thou this?” [21]

In the Twinkling of an Eye: From Death to Judgment
The infallible Scriptures teach, “…it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this judgment.” [22] The time of merit and trial is over, and at the very moment life ends, the immortal soul remains in the state in which death claimed it. [23] “In the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.” [24]

A compelling meditation was presented by Fr. von Cochem, the 15th century priest previously mentioned, when he wrote:

“Consider, first of all, what a strange new sensation it will be for thy soul, when she finds herself separated from the body, in an unknown world. Hitherto she has known no existence apart from the body; now she is suddenly separated from it.”

“Hitherto she was in time; now she has passed into eternity.”

“Now for the first time her eyes are opened, and she sees clearly what eternity is, what sin is, what virtue is, how infinite is the being of the Deity, and how wondrous is her own nature.”

“All this will appear so marvellous to her that she will be almost petrified with astonishment. After the first instant of wonder, she will be conducted before the tribunal of God, that she may give an account of all her actions; and the terror that will then seize upon the unhappy soul surpasses our powers of conception.” [25]

What is called “the Particular Judgment” of each soul takes place at the very moment of death.[26] Jesus Himself is the Judge, as the Gospel of St. John reveals: “Neither does the Father judge any man, but all judgment He has given to the Son.” [27] We also know that each soul will give Jesus Christ an account of its earthly life.

“Each individual,” said St. Jerome, “will see what he has done.” [28] Every thought, every word, every action, and every neglect will be judged in the balance of God’s Justice.[29] Nothing will remain hidden, as St. Alphonsus reminds us, and he also writes, “Consider the accusation and scrutiny: The judgment sat and the books were opened. (Dan. 7:10)…In the balance of divine justice…works only will have weight.” [30] As St. Paul wrote, “Each one will receive his pay, according to his works.” [31]

“Let us remember,” observes the catechism My Catholic Faith, “that even while the relatives gather around the bed of the departed one, even while his body is still warm, the particular judgment is gone through and finished; the judgment is passed, and the soul gone to his reward or punishment. If we remember this, we shall be more fervent in praying for the dead, in helping others die a happy death, so that they may meet God at the judgment without fear.” [32]

The Particular Judgment will give only one of two possible verdicts: eternal salvation or everlasting perdition. Salvation is for the soul who either dies in baptismal innocence, or has already offered complete reparation for confessed and absolved sins; such a soul will be sent at once to Heaven. The soul who dies in the state of grace but in venial sin, or who has not fully atoned for repented and confessed sins, is also among the saved; this soul will first make expiation in Purgatory (which is not, properly speaking, one of the four last things, because souls do not endure Purgatory forever). Last, the soul “who dies in mortal sin will be sent at once to hell.” [33]

Eternity! Eternity! Heaven or Hell, one of the two we must choose by our lives,” exclaims the author of Charity for the Suffering Souls .[34] “For the things which are seen, are temporal; but the things which are not seen, are eternal.” [35]

Fr. Arminjon, whose written conferences so greatly inspired St. Therese the Little Flower, provides sound spiritual advice when he counseled, “Let us say with the prophet,I consider the days of old; the years long past I remember.’[36] Let us judge ourselves severely, and we shall not be judged. Let us live with the Lord Jesus all the days of our life, and then we shall be freed from all fear, for there is no condemnation upon those who dwell with the Lord.” [37]

“Remember the last things, and you will never sin.” (Sirach 7:36)
This article was first published in Catholic Family News, November 2010 issue. All Rights Reserved world-wide by the author.

[1] St. Thomas More, The Four Last Things: The Supplication of Souls; A Dialogue on Conscience. [New York/Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 2002]: p. 12.
[2] Ibid., p. 22. [Emphasis in the original.]
[3] Fr. Charles Arminjon, The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life. [French original published 1881 under the title Fin du Monde Présent et Mystèries de la vie Future. English translation published in Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, English translation by Susan Conroy and Peter McEnerny 2008]: Foreward, p. xix.
[4] Matt. 7:13-14. (The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims version, with Challoner Revisions 1749-52; 1899 Edition of the John Murray Company).
[5] St. Jean Marie Vianney, Sermons of the Cure of Ars [Long Prairie, MN: The Neumann Press, 1995. Reprinted from the 1901 edition]: p. 290.
[6] Ps. 110:10.
[7] Ecclus. 1: 16.
[8] Baltimore Catechism and Mass, # 3 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1949]: p. 71.
[9] St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Preparation for Death [Republished in Brooklyn, NY: Redemptoris Fathers, 1926]: pp. 126-127.
[10] More, op. cit., p.33.
[11] Baltimore Catechism #3, op. cit., p.32.
[12] Gen. 2:17, Rom. 5: 12.
[13] Baltimore Catechism #3, op. cit., p. 33.
[14] Canon George D. Smith et al, The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Vol. I [NY: The MacMillan Co., 1959): p. 323.
[15] Gen. 2: 15.
[16] Gen.2: 16-17.
[17] Gen. 3:5.
[18] Soph. 2:11.
[19] Most Rev. Louis LaRavoir Morrow, D.D., Bishop of Krishnagar, My Catholic Faith: A Manual of Religion [Kansas City, MO: Sarto House, 2003. Reprinted from the 1954 edition]: p. 41.
[20] Father Martin von Cochem, O.S.F.C., The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven [15th century manuscript republished in New York: Benziger Brothers, 1899]. Contributed by Derrick D’Costa to the Catholic Tradition website []
[21] Jn. 11: 25-26.
[22] Heb. 9:27
[23] 2 Cor. 5:10; Jn. 9:4; Lk. 12:40; Lk. 16:19.
[24] Eccl. 1:13
[25] Fr. Martin von Cochem, op. cit. []
[26] Lk., 16:22, Lk. 23:43, Acts 1:25.
[27] Jn. 5:22.
[28] St. Jerome, as cited by St. Alphonsus de Liguori, op. cit., p. 244.
[29] Matt. 12:36, Lk. 12:48.
[30] St. Alphonsus di Liguori, op. cit. p. 244.
[31] 1 Cor 3:8.
[32] Most Rev. Morrow, op.cit., p. 155.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Rev. John A. Nageleisen, Charity for the Suffering Souls: An Explanation of the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory [Rockford, IL: TAN Books & Publishers, 1982. Reprinted from the 1895 edition]: p. 5.
[35] 2 Cor. 4:18.
[36] Ps.77:6.
[37] Fr. Charles Arminjon, op. cit., pp. 107-108.