A sermon by St. Jean-Marie Vianney on the Death of the Just for the Twenty-Fifth & Last Sunday After Pentecost.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” – Ps. cxv. 15
Death, my dear people, is a just cause for alarm to the unrepentant sinner, who finds himself obliged to leave behind his pleasures. Bowed down with pain, tormented by thoughts of the judgement to which he must submit, devoured in advance by fear of the horrors of hell into which he will soon be thrown, he looks upon himself as abandoned by God and man.
On the contrary, death fills the good man who has lived in the light of the Gospel, and who has walked in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and has satisfied divine justice by true repentance, with joy and consolation. The righteous consider death as the end of their sufferings, their sorrows, their temptations, and all their wants. They consider it as the beginning of their salvation.
There is no human being, my dear friends, however abject he may be, who does not wish for and desire a precious death, and yet there are very few who take the means to obtain it. It is a blindness hard to be explained; but as it is my ardent desire that you may all die a happy death, I will encourage you to live in such a way that you may have reason to look forward to this happiness, by showing you, firstly, the advantages of a happy death, and, secondly, the means by which you may obtain it.
If a person is at the moment of death possessed of a vicious habit, his soul will descend into hell; if, on the other hand, the soul is in a perfect condition, it will forthwith take its flight to heaven. If it falls to our lot to have to go to purgatory, we will surely find the path some day. All this depends upon the life which we have led. It is certain that our death will correspond with our life. If we have lived as good Christians and in the fear of the Lord, we shall die as good Christians and live with the Lord for all eternity. But if, on the contrary, we have lived for our passions, our pleasures, and excesses, then we shall without fail die in sin. Do not let us forget the fact which has converted so many sinners, that “where the tree falls, there it lieth forever.” Death in itself is not so dreadful as it is generally supposed to be, my dear friends. It depends entirely upon ourselves to make it a happy, beautiful, and blissful one.
When St Jerome was told by his friends that he was near death, he gathered all his strength and exclaimed: “Oh, welcome and delightful message! Come soon, O death! How longingly have I awaited thee! Come and deliver me from all the troubles of this world! Come and reunite me with my Redeemer!”
And to those who surrounded him he added: “My dear friends, not to fear death and to find it a consolation, one has only to walk in the path which Our Lord Jesus Christ has pointed out for us and to mortify one’s self continually.”
What inexpressible joy a person experiences who was banished from home or led away into captivity, when told that he or she may return to their own country, to their families and friends! The same happiness awaits a soul which loves God and languishes in the ardent desire of seeing Him in heaven in the midst of the saints, who are our real family and friends.
Death, my friends, is to the just man what sleep is to the tired labourer who is glad of the approach of night, which will bring him rest after the hardships of the day. Death delivers the just man from the prison of his body, as St Paul says: “Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” “Deliver me, my God,” said the holy King David, “deliver my soul from the prison of this body. Who will give me wings like a dove, and I will fly and be at rest?”
Ah! Our poor soul in our body is like a diamond in dross. St Gregory tells of a poor man who, having been for a long time paralysed in all his limbs, and who felt the end approaching, asked the people who surrounded him to sing some joyful songs to him. When he was asked how it came that his mind was in such a joyful mood, he replied: “Because my soul will soon leave this body and be freed from its prison.” After they had sung for a few minutes they heard sweet strains of music as from the angels. “Oh,” said the dying man, “don’t you hear the angels sing? Oh, let them sing! Oh, let them sing!” And with that he died.
Who could comprehend the joy of St Ludwina when she, after twenty-seven years of sickness, eaten up with cancer, exclaimed at the end of her suffering: “What joy! All my sufferings are at an end! O precious death, make haste! I have longed for thee many days with all my heart!”
How happy, then, is a Christian when he follows in the footsteps of the Divine Master!
But in what consists the life of Jesus Christ? Listen, my good friends. It consists of three things – namely: Prayer, good deeds, and suffering. You know that the Redeemer often withdrew from public life to pray and that He was always active in the salvation of souls. The thought of God should come as natural to us as breathing. During His life of prayer and good deeds Jesus Christ had to suffer much. Now poverty, now persecution, now humiliations, and then all kinds of harsh treatment. “My life,” He says through His prophet, “is wasted with grief: and my years in sighs. My strength is weakened through poverty.” (Ps. xxx. II). Can the life of a good Christian be any other than that of a man who is nailed to the cross with his Master? The righteous man is a crucified man.
We find that the saints have found such happiness in their sufferings that they seemed to have ever longed for more. Contemplate the life of the great Pope Innocent I. He was covered with sores from head to foot, and yet he was not satisfied and sighed unceasingly for more suffering. He prayed to God daily for them. “My God,” he said, “increase my suffering, send me still more cruel diseases, if Thou wilt only give me new mercies!” “Why,” they said to him, “are you asking God to increase your suffering – you, who are already covered with wounds?” “You do not know how great the merit of suffering is. If you could only conceive the merit of it, you would love to suffer.”
St Lawrence was put upon a gridiron, and the flames, which had before spared the three children in the furnace of Babylon, burned him mercilessly, and all he did was to ask them to turn him over on the other side, so that all the parts of his body might be equally glorified in heaven. This example, my dear friends, is a miracle of that grace which is so powerful in all those who love the Lord.
“Oh, how consoling it is,” says St Augustine, “to die with your conscience at rest.” “Tranquillity of soul and peace of mind are the most precious gifts we can obtain,” says the Holy Ghost. “There is no pleasure which is comparable to the joy of an innocent heart.” “The righteous,” says the same teacher, “does not fear death, because by it he is reunited to his Master and put in possession of innumerable delights.” Only see what joy the saints express when they are in the arms of death. “See,” says St Chrysostom, “the fearlessness and eagerness with which St Paul goes back to Jerusalem, though he knew that nothing but harsh treatment awaited him: ‘And now, behold, bound in the spirit, I go to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there. Only that the Holy Ghost in every city witnesseth to me, saying that chains and afflictions wait for me at Jerusalem. But I fear none of these things: neither do I count my life more precious than myself, so that I may consummate my course, and the ministry of the word which I have received from the Lord Jesus to testify the gospel of the grace of God.’” And when he saw his disciples crying the apostle added: “What do you mean, weeping and afflicting my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Of course we are not as certain of being the friends of God as St Paul was; but though we are sinners we must have confidence, if we have confessed our sins with sincere repentance and have striven to pray and do penance as much as lie in our power, particularly if our sorrow for our sins has been coupled with a deep love for our good Lord; if, I say, we have done all this, then we may have confidence that our sins will be washed away by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, like Pharaoh’s host was by the Red Sea.
My devout friends, there were three crosses on Mount Calvary: that of Jesus Christ, which is the cross of innocence; we cannot strive for that because we have sinned. Then there is the cross of the penitent thief, the cross of penance; this shall be our cross. Let us imitate this penitent thief who used the last moments to repent and who ascended from the cross directly to heaven. Jesus Christ Himself told him: “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” The last cross is that of the bad thief; let us leave that to those sinners who want to die in their sins. But we, my dear people, we may be sure, if we only desire it most sincerely, that we belong to those who will die the death of a Christian.
Tell me, why should a good Christian be afraid in his last hour? Is it on account of his goods, which he has considered of so little value during his life? Is he concerned about his body – that body which he must consider his cruel enemy that more than once brought him in danger of losing his soul? Would he trouble about the pleasures of the world? Certainly not, for he has passed all his life in sorrow, in repentance, and in tears. No, my dear friends, in all of these he misses nothing. Death separates him only from that which he has always hated and despised, from the sins of this world and its pleasures. In his passing away from this life he takes with him what he has loved most dearly, his virtues and his good deeds. He leaves all kinds of miseries to take possession of innumerable riches; he leaves the strife to gain peace; he leaves a cruel enemy, the evil spirit, to rest in the bosom of the best of fathers. Yes, his good works lead him triumphantly before God, who appears to him not as a judge, but as a tender friend who, after taking pity on his sufferings, desires above all to give him his reward. The prophet Isaias teaches us that our good works will make God’s mercy open to us the gates of Paradise and determine our habitation in heaven. It is perfectly true that our good works will accompany us.
“Blessed,” says St. John, “are the dead who die in the Lord, for their works shall follow them.” Yes, my friends, our earthly possessions we leave behind, but our good deeds we shall take with us. The devout Christian will find all his good confessions and communions which he has made, all the virtues which he has practiced during his life. It is indeed a happy death, the death of the righteous. Listen to the prophet Isaias: “Tell the just man that he is blessed, for he will reap the reward of his works.”
You will admit, my dear friends, that a good death is considered very precious in the eyes of all men.
My dear friends, I know we all hope for a happy death, but to hope for it is not sufficient; we must work for it – this great happiness, this sublime happiness. Do you wish to know how to obtain it? Let me tell you in a few words. From among the means which we should employ to die a happy death I will select three which, with God’s grace, will invariably lead us to a happy death. We must prepare ourselves for it by a holy life, by true repentance when we have committed sin, and by a perfect union of our death with the death of Jesus Christ.
As a rule, one dies as one has lived. This is one of the great truths which has been confirmed many times by Scripture and the holy fathers. If you live like good Christians you will be sure to die like good Christians; but when you live unchristian like, your death will be of the same kind. The prophet Isaias says: “Woe to the ungodly, whose only thought is wickedness, for he will be treated as he deserves; in death he will be rewarded according to the works of his hands.”
It is true, though, that sometimes, as by a miracle, a good end may follow a bad beginning; but this happens so seldom that as a rule, as St Jerome says, death is merely the echo of life. If you are on the wrong path do you believe that it will be easy for you to return to the dear Lord? No. More likely than not you will perish in the weary path. But when, filled with the spirit of repentance, you begin to live a Christian life, then you will belong to those contrite souls who move the heart of the Lord and recover His friendship
The Holy Ghost says to us: “If you have a friend, do good to him before death.” Now, then, my dear listeners, can we have a better friend than our own soul? Let us do for it all we can, for at that very moment when we shall wish most to do something for it we shall not be able to. Life is short. If you think you can postpone your conversion to the hour of your death you are blind, because you know neither the moment nor the place where you will die, perhaps without having any one near you. Who knows but what you may have to appear this very night, covered with sins, before the judgement seat of God? No, my friends, you must not do that. You must purify yourselves and be always ready to appear before your Judge. The following example will show you how one who postpones from day to day his return to God died as he had lived.
Cardinal Peter Damian reports that a monk had spent the best part of his life in intriguing and quarrelling with his brethren. When he was on his death-bed they implored him to confess his sins, to pray to God for pardon, and to do penance with the firm resolution not to fall into the same sins again if his health should be given back to him. They could not get a word out of him. Some time after, when he had found his tongue again, he spoke to them, and of what? Of that which had formed the subject of his conversation during life – lawsuits and other quarrels. His brethren begged him to think of his soul, but it was all in vain. He fell asleep again, and died without having given the least sign of repentance.
Yes, my friends, as the life, so the death. Do not hope for a miracle, which God vouchsafes but seldom. If you live in sin you will die in sin. Many examples prove to us that after an evil life we cannot expect a happy death. We read in Holy Scripture that Abimelech, an impetuous and proud monarch, seized the kingdom which he was to govern conjointly with his brother, and had his brother put to death so as to reign alone. When he attacked a certain city the defender of it withdrew into a fortified tower, upon which he advanced for the purpose of setting it on fire. A woman who saw him from the city wall threw a stone, which split his head open. When the unfortunate monarch found himself mortally wounded, he called upon his shield bearer to draw his sword and kill him quickly, so as to save him the dishonour of dying at the hands of a women.
What strange behaviour, my dear friends! Was he the first prince who had been wounded in such a way? Why did he request his shield bearer to kill him? Because all his life long he had striven for this world’s honour and glory. Saul was fighting a battle with the Amalekites. The fate of the armies was uncertain. He thought all was lost. He was wounded and expected every moment to be captured by the enemy. Leaning on his sword, he saw a soldier coming toward him. He called to him and said: “Come here, my friend. Who are you?” “I am an Amalekite,” was the reply. “That is well. Do me a great service. Come and kill me. I am overwhelmed with pain and misfortune, but I cannot die. Come and kill me.”
And why, my dear friends, did this unfortunate man want to die by the hand of an Amalekite? Was he the only king who ever lost a battle? We need not be surprised at it, for the holy fathers tell us that he was a king who all his life had given himself up to vice, and who was governed by envy, cupidity, and all other kinds of passions. Why did he die such a dishonourable death? Why? Because he had lived a dishonourable life.
You see quite plainly, then, my dear friends, that if we desire to have a happy death, we must live a Christian life and do penance for our sins. We must, by the grace of God, carry in our heart a profound humility and a lasting repentance that we have offended such a good Master.
A third way by which to prepare ourselves for a happy death is to offer our death in union with the death of Jesus Christ. When Our Blessed Lord is brought to a sick person the cross is also brought to him, not only to drive away the evil spirit, but far more that the crucified Saviour may serve the dying man as a model to prepare himself for death in the same way as Our Lord prepared Himself.
The first thing Jesus did before He died was to take leave of His apostles. A sick person should do the same – that is, take leave of the world and all those who are nearest and dearest to him, and to occupy his mind solely with God and his salvation. When Jesus knew that His end was approaching He threw Himself upon the ground in the garden of olives and prayed fervently. A sick person should do the same when the hour of death is approaching – that is, pray fervently and unite himself in his death agony to the agony of Jesus. The dying man who wishes to make his sickness meritorious should accept death with joy, or at least with resignation to the will of his Heavenly Father, and think that we must die before we can see God, and that therein consists our whole happiness. St Augustine says that he who does not want to die shows signs of impenitence.
Oh, my dearest friends, how happy is a Christian who has lived worthy of his name at that last moment! He leaves nothing but misery, to enter into possession of his heavenly inheritance. Happy separation which unites us with our highest good, Our Blessed Lord Himself! And this is what I wish you all, with my whole heart. Amen.