Commentary – There is nothing that restrains man from sinning so much as the thought of death. It was the thought of death that God appealed to in order that our first parents, Adam and Eve, might observe the command that He had given them. In fact, they did not break the command, nor did they sin, until Satan led them to make light of the thought of holy fear of death. “You will not die the death. Do not be foolish; do not be silly,” he said to Eve; “you will not die.”
Alas! When that restraint was removed, she fell miserably into sin. Let us then think continually on death; and thus we will never sin.
Composition of Place – Imagine that you see yourself sick in bed, and that you have been advised to confess your sins to the priest and receive Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction. Then imagine that you are dying, that the prayers for the recommendation of your soul are being said, and that you are losing your senses, and finally die.
Prayer of Petition – O my Jesus! By Thy most holy death I beg Thee to grant me the grace never to lose sight of my death and that I may always be well prepared to die. May I firmly and constantly withdraw myself from evil and keep myself aloof from sin, and always practice virtue; for virtue will be the only thing that will render my death happy.
What is it to die? It is to suffer the separation of the soul from the body. Death is also an eternal separation from all the things of earth. It is a separation from your money, from all your worldly interests and all your possessions. It is a loss of all titles of nobility and of all earthly pleasures and diversions. To die is to take leave of one’s father, mother, children, husband, wife, brothers, sisters, friends and acquaintances without the hope of ever seeing them again on earth until the day of the Last Judgment.
Death means taking out of your home that body of yours and taking it to the cemetery, where it will remain alone day and night, surrounded by skulls and bones of the other dead. To die is to leave your body alone, a lifeless corpse, to be eaten by worms. This is what cadaver means; namely, caro data vermibus – flesh given as food to the worms. Cadaver also refers to something as having fallen (Lat. cadere = to fall). Yes, that man, that woman, has fallen like a tree that fell and is abandoned so that it will serve as firewood for whoever wants it. Just look at what happens to that body, once so beautiful and so pampered, now dead. It is now buried; it has fallen. Presently insects will come. Toads, nasty bugs and vermin will taste it and take pleasure in the bad odor that it will yield and in the rottenness that develops. Rats also will come and perforate its clothes or shroud. They will entangle themselves in the hair, enter the mouth and begin to eat the tongue. Then they will come out and they will explore the whole body between the flesh and the clothes.
In the meantime the rotting process has built up. We can see a great number of worms multiplying to eat the flesh of the stomach, the face and the whole body. Then their feast is over. The worms die of hunger, leaving bones that are dark and bare, which in due time will calcinate and convert into dust. Remember, O man, that as far as your body is concerned, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return; for you are a man of slime or earth.
(1) Act of Candor – Are you not disillusioned, my soul, at the sight of a dead body? Its fate will come to your body, too, which you pamper and idolize so much. Yes, you will die, and experience what others have experienced.
(2) Resolution – In order to pamper the cravings of my body I have many times offended God. But from now on I will mortify my flesh and crucify it with all its vices and concupiscence, as the Apostle Saint Paul admonishes me: “They that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh, with its vices and concupiscences.” (Gal. 5:24).
The death of the just: Death will reach everyone, the good and the bad; but the destiny of each one is quite different. The just man sees himself in this valley of tears as a prisoner, serving a very hard term. He considers himself a slave in this world, suffering an extremely distressing servitude. He regards himself a sailor caught in a horrible storm. And as death means an end of his confinement, an end of his slavery, and is the port of his salvation, he ceases not to cry with David, “Woe is me that my sojourning is prolonged!...” (Ps. 119:5) He ceases not to ask with the Apostle, “…Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24)
Thus it is that a just man is not frightened by the sight of death. It is certain that he must leave the things of this world, the goods, the riches, the dignities. But what is all this in the estimate of one who knows his heart is perfectly right with God? A flower which appears fresh at dawn and at night fades; a vapor which vanishes in an instant; a shadow which flees with rapidity without leaving a trace of itself. And will the soul which has this appreciation of this world, feel very pained at leaving these counterfeit goods? The just man knows that he is not made for this world nor this world for him. He knows that its pleasures are misleading and deceitful. He knows that worldly rank and dignitaries are vanity and nothing more. With these lights, what value will he give to those things? And if he does not value them, how can their loss afflict him? If he abhors and detests them, how can it grieve him to have to separate himself from them? Is it not insanity to grieve over goods which must perish? Or for honors which must lose all value? Or for pleasures which carry such bitterness and disgust? No, the just man is not troubled like the wicked Baltasar (Dan 5:6) on hearing the sentence of his death. Nor does he rave like the proud Nabuchodonosor. (Dan. 4:27-30). Nor does he become spiteful like the impious Antiochus. (2 Mach. 9:4). On the contrary, it is then that he says what the angelic Saint Aloysius Gonzaga said to a fellow religious, “Do you not know the good news that they have brought me, that I must die within eight days? Be so kind as to join me in saying the Te Deum in thanksgiving for this favor that God is granting me.” It is then that the just man says with the psalmist, “As the heart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God!” (Ps. 41:2). Then it is that the just man takes leave of his companions with joy – of his father and mother, like the little Marquis of Castellon: “O mother,” he said, “do not cry for one who is to live with God, as if he were dead. This absence will not be long. We will see each other again and be happy without ever separating again.”
Thus they take leave, thus they sigh – the Davids, the Pauls, the Aloysiuses, and all the just, at the moment of death. It is true that the just, also, at that hour feel the pains and afflictions of their illness; but in what sweet peace are their souls! God places them under His Sacred Mantle, and under His Shadow they remain calm and tranquil. How precious is the death of the just! And what renders it so precious? What, other than a holy life?
Yes, a holy life is what leads a man to a happy death. This is as natural as it is for a good tree to produce good fruit. Death is the echo of life. What exquisite pleasure, then, is caused by the memory of the virtues one has practiced, of the Sacraments well received, and the works of mercy one has done! What great consolation there is for the soul that loved God with devotedness and served Him faithfully! What sweet joy for the just man at death to have withdrawn from dangers of sin, not to have taken part in sinful amusement, and of having deprived himself of unlawful pleasures! Can you compare this joy with anything else in the world? A man engaged in litigation rejoices at the news of having won a lawsuit of importance. One in exile is happy when his painful banishment ends. A prince is greatly cheered at a victory which assures him of the crown. But what is all this in comparison with the triumph which is declared in favor of a holy soul at the hour of death? He wins a victory of infinite importance over his enemy. An exile that is sad, painful and full of dangers ends for him. He obtains a victory which brings to him a pure, perfect and eternal blessedness, a victory which assures him of an unfading, incorruptible crown and of an immense reward. Oh, blessed mortifications! Oh, happy tears! Oh, happy fasting, that give so much joy to the upright soul at the moment of his death! Then he blesses his birth and his parents who gave him existence. Then he blesses the day he received the grace of Baptism and the ministers whom God used to bring all this about. He praises his days spent in the service of God and glorifies His mercies. The past consoles him beyond measure. The present gratifies him because he approaches the end of his labors. The future fills him with content because of his well-founded expectation of eternal happiness. Thus the death of the just is like a foretaste of final bliss.
(1) Joy – Ah, Lord, “I rejoiced at the things that were said to me,” that I would go to the holy house of Thy heavenly glory! (Ps. 121:1). O death, how sweet you are to the soul which desires to go with fervor to see Jesus!
(2) Resolution – I resolve to abstain from every fault, to practice virtue, particularly the love of God, and to awaken the desire to die like Holy Mary, St. Paul, and the other saints.
It is certain that the sight of his sins can cause the servant of God who had the misfortune of offending Him some fear. But the prayers of the Church encourage him, the protection of the angels and saints comforts him, the favor of the Blessed Virgin inspires him with great confidence, and the consideration that a God was crucified for him gives to a pure and penitent soul an unspeakable security which no temptation nor tribulation that he might experience can take away; no, not even the natural horror of death. It is also true that the devil attacks the dying with greater fury than ever. But he who has prepared himself for death, he who already has wept over his sins, can insult Satan with the words of Saint Martin – “What are you doing here, you fiendish beast? I have put my affairs in order. You will not find in me anything that you can accuse me of.”
No doubt the thought of the judgment which follows upon death, will terrify the sinner; but the just man solves his fears by being ready for death. You will not find anyone who feared more the judgments of God than Saint Jerome. However, with what eagerness finally he desired death! With what fond expressions did he invoke her! “Come,” he said; “come my friend, my sister, my spouse. Let me see the God that my soul loves! O death! You are wrapped in darkness, but that darkness unveils for me the inaccessible light in which my God is found. You terrify earthly kings because you take away their splendor and majesty. You are frightful to all who place their hopes in the goods of this world. But for me you are most agreeable, because you deprive me of what I abhor and you lead me to the possession of what I love.”
What do you say, my soul, upon hearing this? “Friend, sister, spouse,” Saint Jerome calls death. Why? Because it opens to him the door to infinite glory; because it is the end of all his labors and the beginning of his happiness; because it brings him to the eternal possession of the Heavenly Spouse of his soul. Yes, this happy hope consoles the man of upright will at the last moment. Angels and saints surround his bedside. The Gates of Heaven are open wide to him. The Blessed Virgin Mary invites him with mercy. Jesus Christ beckons him with open arms. The Blessed Trinity offers him the mansion of Its glory. Thus the upright person sweetly closes his eyes, surrendering his last breath with the greatest peace. The angels and saints receive his blessed soul. They, together with their loving Queen, present him to Jesus. Jesus gives him the kiss of peace, embraces him fondly, and in the midst of joyful hymns leads him into the region of the blessed. Indeed, the death of the just is precious in the eyes of the Lord.
O my soul, do you want to gain this happiness? You are not asked to fast all your life on bread and water, nor to take continuous bloody disciplines. You are not asked to lock yourself up in a cave forever. All that is asked of you is a fruitful confession and a reform of your life. All that is commanded is that you constantly observe God’s sweet plan and law for you and the laws of the Church. With this alone you will die without anguish or distress. The privation of your goods, your relatives and friends, will not torment you. The fear of judgment and eternity will not distress you. Just the contrary. You will be greatly consoled at leaving behind a few worldly goods in exchange for other solid ones, a few earthly friends for Heavenly ones, a life full of labor and fatigue for one full of happiness. Courage, my soul! Take courage! A little labor and fatigue brings you a tranquil life, a happy death, and eternal glory.
(1) Resolution – I am resolved to employ the necessary means to attain the death of the just. I will make a good general confession of all the sins I have committed until now, and I hope that God in His Goodness and Infinite Mercy will forgive them. Thus I will not need to fear about the past. For the future my will is to observe God’s law and that of the Church and accomplish with exactness the obligations of my state, avoiding all sin, not only mortal, but also venial. I will receive frequently and fervently the holy Sacraments of Penance and Communion, and I will practice works of charity, and do all that I know is pleasing to God and for the good of my neighbor.
(2) Prayer of Petition – O Most Holy Virgin and Mother of God, pray for me now so that I may live uprightly and pray for me at the hour of my death. O glorious Saint Joseph, pray for me, assist me and defend me from Satan at the hour of my death. Amen.
Now pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary
(Source: The Golden Key to Heaven, An Explanation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by St. Anthony Mary Claret)