I hate John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” The song begins, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today…” I hate this song because, in spite of what many Beatle fans will tell you, it is a song of rebellion against God and against the moral constructs of society. It is quite Luciferian in its tone of encouraging us to imagine living only for ourselves and for the present age. In other words, as the church of Satan would encourage people, “ ‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the Law.”
We as Christians do not subscribe to that credo. Like the Uncle Sam character in the Hebrew National commercial, we answer to a higher authority. But the song is thought-provoking nonetheless. Suppose there really is no heaven? Does that thought frighten you? Does it make you angry? As for me and my household, we believe and will serve God.
The year 2018 prompted me and my family to think about death. It was a very rough year for us: we lost our beloved dog Ralphie, named after the Archangel Raphael, my father-in-law Donald and my wonderful father John. Our dads died in the friendship of the Lord, receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. Our families are grief-stricken yet joyful. How can we find joy in death? We don’t—we find joy in Eternal Life, in Jesus, Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We believe and do not have to imagine no heaven. There is certainly a heaven.
I’m sure of a heaven and a hell, because I am sure of Jesus and His message to us. The followers of Jesus were eyewitnesses to His ministry on earth, His healings, and His raising people from the dead, in which He revealed His divinity. These are not just fairy tales; Jesus’ existence is a recorded historical fact, as is His followers’ testimony by their martyrs’ deaths. This Lord has promised us that every human being will live on after death. As He says, “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29).
Dying, like living, can be beautiful. My wife and I were blessed to have stood vigil for both my father-in-law and my dear old dad as they struggled between life and death, as well as for our dog. We were blessed to have had the opportunity to express our love for our fathers and for each of our family members many times during those last few hours.
Even more importantly, both our fathers united their last hours with the Lord. A song I love is “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The words are amazingly beautiful and came to my mind as I watched my father die.
As I watched my dad fade and his complexion darken, I thought of Christ dying on the Cross and being laid in His mother’s arms. “Death’s pallid hue comes o’er thee, the glow of life decays …Thy comeliness and vigor is withered up and gone, and in thy wasted figure I see death drawing on. O agony and dying!” These lines became real to me as I watched my dad dying, held his hand, and looked at his face. I also saw the face of Jesus dying. “O love to sinners free! Jesu, all grace supplying, turn thou thy face on me.” I know without a doubt that my dad’s death was truly united to the Lord’s passion. His last declaration was “I love the Lord.” It was truly a beautiful death.
The Truth of Jesus and Doubts
Thus, even in the face of death—humanity’s greatest fear—we are heirs to a deep, supernatural peace, underlying and sometimes shining through natural fear and sorrow. Jesus spoke of this as His gift to us: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). As the words of the Mass say, by dying He has destroyed our death, and by rising He has restored our life, giving us hope for a life even beyond our own death. This is how much He has loved us, and this is the basis for our peace and confidence.
The myths of old tell of vengeful gods and goddesses. They speak of vicious, lustful, angry gods intent on consuming mankind. Our God is a God that no one would dream up. The people of old could only get as far as strong gods, vengeful gods, gods who would crush their worshippers’ enemies. Who would have imagined a gentle, forgiving, all-loving God who would sacrifice His life to rescue and restore His creation—even for those who were His sworn enemies? What god in the myths looks like this? Not Zeus. Not Poseidon. No, this Truth is beyond anything we could have conceived, and is not to be doubted. There is a God and there is a Heaven, and we who are lucky enough to have faith know this without a doubt.
I’m not saying it is a bad thing to struggle with doubts sometimes. Many good people do. It’s important to distinguish between doubt deliberately cultivated and doubt that assails someone against his will, that he strives to overcome or resist. Sometimes the latter may actually be a blessing from God, an opportunity to grow stronger and glorify Him in spiritual battle. Saint Teresa of Calcutta had doubts. St. Therese of Lisieux spent the last eighteen months of her life in a great “night of faith,” in which she struggled even to believe in heaven. I know there were others who also became great saints. A serene, untroubled faith is certainly a gift, but I think it takes more courage to maintain the search and hold on to even a sliver of faith when one is struggling than simply to believe without that struggle.
So, if you ever have doubts or doubt all the time and continue in the faith, struggling to believe, you are in good company. Don’t lose heart, but pray for help, and know that the Lord will sustain you just as He did His saints in the past. The peace that Christ gives us does not mean we never have to fight or wrestle. It is the assurance, deep inside us—deeper than our feelings—that we are never alone, never abandoned.
Prepare for Death
So what should reflecting on death and the next life inspire us to do? We should prepare. That certainly includes living in such a way that we will not be afraid to die, but we can also specifically focus on readiness for our last hour. Having experienced the death of my loved ones in such an intimate way last year, I gained a new appreciation for preparing for death. I don’t mean pre-planning your funeral (which I already did), but preparing yourself spiritually for your last moments.
As I described in last month’s essay, I believe that God is outside of time. He knows everything and sees everything as in the present. I have taken up the practice of praying for myself at the last moment of my life, the very last second of my death. I consecrated my life and my death to the Lord at the hour of my death. I prayed the Act of Contrition and begged His mercy. I asked to be forgiven for all my sins and to receive the Sacraments of the Church before I die. I have given the Lord my soul while I still have all my faculties.
In effect, I’ve pre-planned my departure from this earth in case I am unable to do it when the time comes. God is outside of time; our birth, life, death and eternity are all in the present with the Lord. That is what I believe anyway. I encourage everyone to prepare the same way. It does not have to be elaborate. I look at it as a last will and testament leaving EVERYTHING to God.
I submit this simple prayer to you:
My Lord Jesus Christ, I love You. I consecrate my dying breath to You Lord. If at the moment of my death I am unaware or unable to make a profession of faith, I make it to You now. I offer You all that I am and all that I have. I offer to You my life and my death, my body and my soul. I thank You Lord for all You have given me. Please forgive me for all my sins and allow me to enjoy the sacraments of the Church as I depart this earth. I offer all to You now. May the last words on my lips be Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Thank You, Lord. I make these prayers in faith and confidence in Your mercy and love. Amen.