In a passage often cited from the Pensees, which the author sets down in grim and graphic detail, Pascal summons the reader to reflect on the awful finality of death. “The last act is bloody,” he tells us, “however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever.”
And the reader is properly horrified. But is Pascal’s account entirely accurate? Surely there is more to be said. At most, Monsieur Pascal is holding only half a loaf here, the other having fallen onto the floor, where, lying unbaked between the flour and the yeast, it simply will not rise. That is because, while it is certainly the case that the last act is bloody—and, yes, in the end they do throw dirt over your head—it is precisely the end that determines the overall quality of the play. Respice finem, the ancients tell us. Look to the end. For that is the prism through which everything else is to be seen. What else have we got to make the performance worthwhile if not the outcome? “Until death,” as Cervantes would say, “there is life.”
And everything in that life leads inexorably to the hour and the moment of death. How we take leave of our life, the truth and authenticity with which we assume our death, determines how well we have lived our life. Not to mention, of course, the final trajectory of the journey on the other side. Concerning which, by the way, there are no charts or maps pointing the way back. Poor Lazarus, for example, did most certainly die, and thereupon travelled somewhere into “the undiscovered country,” of which Shakespeare speaks. But upon his return, he tells us exactly nothing. Gerald Vann, O.P. suggests that at supper his sister Martha would often need to remind him, “Oh, Lazarus, do get on with your food!”
Death, then, is not simply a disaster that sooner or later overtakes us all; it is at the same time an event so profoundly and irreducibly personal that it can only happen to you or to me. It is not transferable to any other. You cannot deputize your best friend to take your place in the queue; it is your death that you await, and you alone must come forward to take ownership of it. And, to be sure, it happens only once. “A man may,” as Montaigne wisely reminds us, “fortify himself against pain, shame, and suchlike accidents; but as to death, we can experience but once, and are all apprentices when we come to it.” And so each of us goes out to meet his own death, taking possession of it as though it were being offered uniquely to each one of us, and not to any other.
It may become then the supreme moment of my life, an unrepeatable interval of being into which I insert myself, placing myself front and center in a drama of which I am wholly the protagonist. In life I carry it before me at all times; in death it carries me across the threshold of eternity. Or, put it this way: Death, my death, represents the singular and necessary vessel into which I am asked to empty out everything of myself. All that I have, all that I am—one day I shall be forced to forego everything.
“Old and young,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson, “we are all on our last cruise.” Is this not why, for us Catholics certainly, the sacrament of the present moment is so important? That it is nothing less than an indispensible exercise in the cultivation of the soul? We are enjoined thus to see, in each fleeting instant, the complete summation of all that has gone before; and so we signify by the stance we take, the choice we make, at that decisive moment of death, a meaning to be distilled from its sudden and, not infrequently, shocking appearance. It is really a gift, this grace of the present moment, beckoning us to make optimal use of the time allotted us by God for our salvation. And because grace, as Hopkins puts it, “rides time like a river,” it is necessary that we not merely skim the surface of all our days and ways, but instead plunge right down into the very depths in order to reach that mysterious Christic center where real and permanent meaning abides. It is here, in this place of heightened intensity—“the still point,” T. S. Eliot calls it, “of the turning world”—where all the essential collisions occur: time and eternity, nature and grace, flesh and spirit, history and heaven.
“But to apprehend,” says Eliot,
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
Alas, for most of us, “there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time, / The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight….” In short, we miss the point of intersection, having failed either to see it coming or, once apprehended, to execute the necessary steps pursuant to that “lifetime’s death in love” which animates the life of the saint.
Saint Thomas More, for instance, who, amid circumstances most unwelcome, found his “still point,” and from the abundance of grace given him was enabled to go out and meet his death. It was not an end he sought out on his own, by the way, even as he would not shrink from facing it. But as Robert Bolt writes in A Man For All Seasons, his riveting account of More’s life, and his death, “More knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover.”
And it found its climactic, if paradoxical expression precisely in More’s willingness to die, which showed the world in an utterly conclusive way that his life stood for something worth dying for. Which was his defense of the Catholic Thing, yes, even to the point of shedding blood on its behalf. There was simply no other way, in his mind, to validate the things he knew to be true. Only in death could he consummate the witness of a life long consecrated to God. This is why Meg, the daughter he esteemed more than any other, found it so maddeningly difficult to try and persuade her father to give in, to acquiesce to the King’s marriage, as so many others had done, including great big bishops and nobles. “But in reason!” she pleaded. “Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” More’s answer is devastating. Not only does it pull the rug out from under every pretense of sentiment or political expedience; but in its ardent and direct appeal to God himself, More’s reply transcends the whole world. “Well … finally … it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
Here was a man who possessed, as Robert Bolt shows us, “an adamantine sense of his own self.” And when urged at last to surrender that self to forces and pressures he could never countenance, “this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.”
Here is a profile in courage so admirable, so wonderfully arresting, that it is easy to see how even non-papists (like the formidable Samuel Johnson) were moved by the example of his life. This is because the witness of heroism is always instructive. And sometimes, perhaps, even contagious. Hence Dr. Johnson’s robust judgment: “He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.”
What an exceedingly attractive human being he was. Who could not, says Bolt, “be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities….” Yes, a man of great charm, learning, and wit. And yet, as Bolt is right to point out, Master More, unlike so many of his more pliant fellows, “found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”
Seeing his daughter, Margaret, on his way to the scaffold—to the place where, by his own admission, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first,” is destined to die—he exhorts her to have patience, “and trouble not thyself. Death comes for us all; even at our birth—(He holds her head and looks down at it for a moment in recollection)—even at our birth, death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks towards us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh. It is the law of nature, and the will of God.”
Each of us owes God a death, our death. Let us pray that we be found worthy when at last he comes to collect.
In my end is my beginning.
∼ T.S. Eliot
Republished with gracious permission of Crisis Magazine.
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