Monday, September 23, 2013

Our faith may make dying more difficult than we think

As a priest, I have encountered death in many of my parishioners.  Most of the time, I only get to know them either when they are very ill and close to dying, or only after their death, when their next-of-kin requests a Catholic funeral for their loved one.  Very rarely have I been privileged to journey intimately with a person who had been progressively weakened, where his or her body shows signs of breakdown, and finally, when the person is at death’s door, there is a revelation of a struggle and a general resistance to let go of life.  I have been there at those dying moments, but if I had not journeyed with the person in the months or weeks leading up to that point of death, nothing much is revealed to me (or the family or the caregivers) of what goes on in the heart and mind of a disciple of Christ at the moment of death. 

So I was intrigued when I came across an article written years ago by Fr Rolheiser about the death of Fr Henri Nouwen’s own mother and how when he had great expectations of his deeply faith-filled mother accepting and welcoming death when she was dying, that instead of finding a woman who was happy to embrace death and be moments away from meeting her maker, was instead someone who showed much resistance, fear and a sense of atheism that baffled him. 

Ideally, a mature faith should lead one to be at peace at life’s edge when one comes to it.  Even St Francis of Assisi called death ‘sister death’, giving it such an intimate title and an image that is far from frightening and something that we should resist.  Yet, how many believing Christians who are death’s door are really that accepting and happy to die?  Do any of us harbour the secret wish to die like Jesus, and have ever prayed to be given that grace to imitate Our Lord in his moment of glory?  Perhaps this is where we may have got it wrong.  If we are clear about scripture and what it reveals to us about Jesus’ dying moments, it was not a ‘happy’ moment, but in fact, a time that was somewhat filled with uncertainty as he mouthed out “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me”.  Jesus did not run to the Cross, nor did he make it disappear when it came time for him to die.  I believe that he struggled too.  He loved his humanity even though he was God, and therein lays the struggle. 

If Jesus was a God-Man and he didn’t embrace the suffering and death in a courageous way that showed an unflinching brave front to the world, how much more would we mere mortals even though we may think we have a mature and developed faith? 

This may be what mystics describe the struggle within as the ‘dark night of faith’.  It’s not an altogether bad thing, but it bears explanation.  When one is so convinced of the promise of the afterlife, one can also experience at that split moment an overwhelming presence of God that denies all of one’s feelings and sentiments and emotions and consolations at the thought of God, be it a God of mercy or a God of love.  God becomes too large for one’s heart and one’s universe that one cannot for a moment imagine God’s existence. 

I was intrigued when I came across this meditation.  It appears that for some souls, God’s intention for the person who has loved him for all his or her life, is that this moment of being brought to life’s edge becomes the last chance or opportunity to really submit to God in total faith, without the grace of any good feeling or sentimentality.  Instead, some mystics have reached this point in their lives when all they could do is to see themselves as terrible sinners in need to God’s mercy, but no consolation was given.  It was an invitation to truly leap into faith and this has to be something so fearful and frightening. 

At this point, what the person had all along been thinking was faith becomes something that he or she questions, and this gives rise to the doubt that could fill one’s heart at the ‘hour of our death’.  This is where we really need the prayers and presence of Our Blessed Mother, to guide us on our way in true faith.

But if we really have made that secret desire to follow Christ right to the end, we will also know that his final words were that of a loving submission of his life into his Father’s hands.  The struggle was there before that, but it came to a very difficult and perhaps even painful resolve to commit his spirit to the Father.  I’m not even sure if we can call this a consolation that he was given, because I am sure that it didn’t feel good to die at that point.  There was nothing that felt good about Good Friday.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer each time, don’t we also ask that God does not put us to the test?  What is the ultimate test but the test of our faith in a God of love, a test that wants us to go beyond our feelings, emotions, sentiments and moods?  It is a test of final and total submission.    In the light of this reflection, it will also be a test of undergoing the dark night of doubt. 

It shouldn’t surprise us that our deep faith (or what we think is deep) can also become something that brings us to the edge of dark doubt, but we are led by the hand of God which we are unable to see, intuit or sense in any way, shape or form.  


  1. Dear Fr Luke, peace & grace of the Lord be with you! I am in the prime of life, but death is always not far from my thoughts, cos of a premonition I have, which has sensitized me to birth & death around me… the life cycle of people, nature, the life cycle of faith. The dark night descends unexpectedly, sometimes after a day flush with faith. When the bottom falls out, all that I have ever proclaimed, all that I have staked my life on...what is it again? why is the One I love like a stranger? I've been 'pampered' so far, faith gets reborn after the period of dark night, or rather, the emotions of faith do return eventually. What if one day the emotions don't return? The path of purified dark faith is not for the fainthearted.

    At life’s edge - some people are like little babes, they are carried to the Light with consoling presence or visions. For others, like older children, slightly more independent & steady of feet, the Lord in His mercy gives them the privilege & gift of empowerment to show Abba how much they love Him by making their last act of freedom in the dark & finally leaping into His beatific Light. Which will be our path? I believe it is partly His will for us & partly who we want to be, for Him. The depth we give of ourselves is the depth we reserve for Him, & hence receive of Him. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Embedded within His universal and all-embracing Mercy seems to be this equity & reciprocity, this incalculable Justice.

    I have wondered how Jesus felt in Gethsemane & on Mount Calvary. St Francis could view Death with sororal affection only cos Jesus had categorically conquered Death. But the triumph is later, the precipice is here & now before Jesus. He lives moment by moment, his humanity entering fully into the struggle, from the garden, along via dolorosa, to the wood of the cross. If even Jesus struggled, does it mean this process is hardwired into human nature- to fight our own personal battles, within the war He has won? Jesus, the firstborn, had to fight a war for us. But do we, the tag-alongs, have to be combative about it? The sloth in me asks, can't we just rest on His laurels?

    Today is the Feast Day of St Pio. He said he will be more effective when he is in heaven. St Therese of Lisieux said she will spend her heaven doing good on earth. To them, Life continues after death, in a larger, more magnified & amplified way than we can imagine. St Pio, director & comforter of souls, pray for us! We pray one of his fave prayers: "Stay with us, Lord!"


  2. Dear Father Luke,

    This week's topic really touched me! Let me share some of my personal thoughts.

    When I was in my teens, my father died of an illness suddenly. I could sense the fear of death him. Since then, the topic of death really scares me.

    When I was baptised later (I was a convert), I chose my baptismal name Josephine, partly because of St Joseph - the patron of the dying. I hope and pray that when I die, I would have a happy and faithful death.

    I constantly ask myself these questions - when the time comes, would I be so frightened that I would deny God and turned back to my pagan roots? Would I "see" God coming for me? The fact that I am having these questions - does that mean that I have not enough faith?

    To me, Good Friday holds much more meaning than Christmas - I dread to think the kind of cross that I might have to bear when the time comes. Would God raise me up like He did to His Son on Easter? Would I be worthy of His graces?

    Meanwhile, I pray for faith - just enough to enable me to enter His kingdom.

    God bless,
    Josephine Fong

  3. Dear Father Luke,

    Your blog about death and dying answered one big question for me : why did my mother struggle so much when she was dying. It seemed as if she was trying to fight death, and at times she seemed to be full of terror. It upset me greatly, and I could not comprehend her fear. She was also a faith-filled person, and she loved Jesus with all her heart. I simply could not understand why she did not want to let go. Wasn't she about to meet Jesus whom she loved so very much?
    This was five years ago, and today I finally found the answer in your reflections.
    Thank you,
    God bless you,