It could well be due the fact that I have been celebrating numerous funeral Masses so close to each other lately that I have been given in to thinking and reflecting about the fleetingness of life or the inevitability of death more than the average person does. Many people seem to have the idea that thinking of death is such a morbid thing. The moment the topic of death is mentioned, some become strangely silent, suggesting a change of topic or become awkwardly uncomfortable. One of my first spiritual directors had been sedulous in promoting his strong belief of the necessity of a regular meditation on death. I have since been convinced of its benefits, the chief of which is gratitude.
Catholics of a generation past would often have prayed for a happy death, and the patron of this is St Joseph. Perhaps it is because St Joseph’s demise has never been mentioned in the pages of Sacred Scripture that it was believed that he died a naturally happy death, and that he would be the model and patron of this grace. Some traditions of our faith are still open to healthy and respectful questioning. But one question that remains, and not often addressed is ‘what constitutes a happy death’?
In my numerous pastoral encounters with persons whose deaths were imminent and foreseeable, I have noticed one thing – that a good heart-searing confession doth maketh a restful spirit. As much as the Sacrament of Anointing includes the absolution of sins, the quality of a restful soul is clearly evident when the one experiencing the anointing has had that opportunity to truthfully speak about what had weighed most heavily on his or her heart for the longest period of time. It certainly takes a lot of soul work to articulate the ways in which one had been living falsely. Identifying where in life one had been callous and selfish requires a humility that knows that it is simply not good to take these with him or her to meet God. A general absolution of sins objectively does take these sins away, but there is also the element of divine justice that awaits one who hasn’t died to oneself in raw honesty. I truly believe that a happy death has very much to do with dying with an honesty, especially one that requires articulation.
It is true that oftentimes, when a person who had been battling illness for a considerable period of time comes to that stage where the mind is no longer quite as lucid, nor able to communicate with clarity. This is when the grace of the sacrament takes over and one’s sins are absolved without one’s actual confession having been made. But we should not wait for that moment to come simply because it might not happen the way we would prefer it to.
As a priest, I do ‘get it’ that so many people are very reticent when it comes to bringing their transgressions to confession. The common excuse given is that God knows what is in our hearts and the darkness that lurks there. I have no doubt that he knows. He is God, after all. We have to first of all understand that God’s forgiveness stems from God’s love. Our human forgiveness sometimes can be given outside of love, and that is where our forgiveness falls short of it being a mirror of godliness. When we forgive reluctantly, and are clear that this would be the very last time it is given, we forgive with a grudge and not with love. God doesn’t. And this is one of the great reasons we need to experience this in the sacrament of reconciliation.
There is really no place for pride in encountering God’s grace of mercy in the Confession, and for that matter, there is no place for pride in heaven as well. Just wanting the forgiveness of God without the effort to name our shortcomings may be akin to wanting a set of clean clothes to wear but refusing to take a good bath first.