On the Four Last Things:
Death and the Importance of Salvation
by Rev. P.A. Sheehan, 1921
Our Life on Earth a Preparation for Eternity
If we could go outside ourselves for an instant, my brethren, and take a survey of this world from eternity, we should behold a very painful sight. It would be the sight of men, coming into this world, warned that this world is not their home, that the life which they are living is only a probation, yet, despising these warnings, grasping at shadows, sinking back into the earth, and waking up in eternity to find that their real life, a life that is to last forever, is only then commencing. Our life here upon earth is nothing more than a dream--a dream of imaginary horrors, imaginary cares, imaginary troubles, and imaginary pleasures--there is only one thing real about it and that is its responsibility. There would be something amusing in the sight of men coming into this world, looking around them bewildered for a moment, and then wasting their energies in pursuing shadows, if there were not attached to every instant of their time, and to every thought, word, and action of their lives a dreadful responsibility. That responsibility makes the folly of man inexpressibly tragic and painful. If there were no eternity, the weaknesses and follies of men would be unimportant, but as there is an eternity, and as every word, action and thought of our lives casts a weight into the scales of God's justice, causing them to bend down towards hell, or fly up towards heaven, our follies are of the utmost importance. Often, when in our blind madness we are hurrying on to destruction, our guardian angel would give worlds to give us one glimpse of Eternity--the eternity of happiness which we are bent upon losing, and the eternity of misery, for which we labor.
Now, my brethren, bring home to yourselves this fact, and if you examine it, you will see how awe-inspiring it is, that once we have commenced to exist we shall never cease to be. There was a time when we were not; there never will be a time when we shall not be. We are immortal. So long as God will live, so long shall we be. He has given us life; it was His own choice. He need not have created us at all; but having created us, we must last forever, because that is the immutable decree of God. He cannot change, and His words do not pass.
It is true we shall die, but death is only a change, it is not the end of existence. It is a change from dreaming to waking, from blindness to sight, from darkness to light. It simply means that our higher nature shall be freed from the thralldom of union with gross, earthly material; and live that life of pure spiritual liberty for which we yearn, and which is our destiny. Death can separate body from soul, and thus separated our bodies will decay; but death has no power over the soul itself. We ourselves have the power (but it is a great power) of determining, not whether we shall or shall not live, but whether we shall be blessed for eternity with the unspeakable blessedness of heaven, or cursed forever in the unimaginable misery of hell.
It is in eternity then that our real lives shall be spent. This world has not lasting interest for us. We are only pilgrims, strangers staying here for a night--the broad day of our real existence is to be spent in Eternity. Shall we then compare this life to Eternity? No, we cannot. What is the length of the longest life compared with the length of eternity? An instant, a second, that flies by and is forgotten. What are the pains pleasures of this life compared with the pains or pleasures of eternity? So utterly insignificant that they will not bear comparison. There is no sorrow in this world so great that the mind may not rise superior to it. And however bitter yesterday, its pains are forgotten today. But the pains that can support the victims of His anger, and the pains of hell are never ending. They who have once become the victims of God's justice shall never know His mercy.
In this world, common sense and a little reflection show us the vanity of all earthly things. It is not needful for us to place ourselves in spirit upon our deathbeds, to understand the emptiness of worldly vanities. The inborn majesty of our souls forever asserts itself, and we really despise the petty cares, and the petty enjoyments of this life. It is a libel, it is a slander to say that our immortal souls, created and sanctified by God, can be content with the wretched business, and still more wretched pleasures of this world. it is only our lower natures that can be affected by either.
Importance of EternityEternity, therefore, and the things of eternity, alone can interest us. But what is there in eternity, that makes the very thought of it dreadful? This, that God has given us for eternity only two alternatives; to be unspeakably happy, with Himself in heaven, or to live forever crushed beneath the weight of His maledictions in hell. To know, and to enjoy for eternity, happiness, of which the human soul has never yet had the faintest idea, or to suffer forever under an accumulation of miseries, to which the greatest of human sorrows can bear no comparison. To live, the child of God, clasped in the embrace of His love forever, or to live, the enemy of God, withering under His curse forever. To enjoy forever the privileges of the beloved disciple, to lean on the breast of the Master forever, looking up into His face, and lost in the happiness of possessing Him, or to live in the darkness, like that lost disciple, outcast, despised, scorned by everything that is good and noble, a stranger to the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
To live in constant communion with the brightest, purest, holiest beings that God's Omnipotence could create--or to be forced to have forever as friends the foulest things into which sin can transform the soul of man. To enjoy the company of the blessed forever, or to be compelled to herd with the reprobate forever. To be moved forever by a sweet necessity of praising God--or to be forced, through sheer malice, to curse and blaspheme God, and foulness at the face of heaven. To receive the sweet congratulations of God's angels, and to vie with them in a holy rivalry of serving God forever, or to receive the welcome of the devils in hell, and to be applauded by them, when, progressing in iniquity, we shall come at length to be ingenious in framing blasphemies against God, and shall learn to strike the Sacred heart of Jesus most surely by cursing His love and His redemption. To be welcomed by Mary to heaven, and for all eternity to be constant proclamation of her boundless love, or to be cast off by her as unworthy of her maternal care and affection. And no rescue, no redemption, as long as God shall be God. And even now, the eye of God beholds such of us here present as are saints and such of us as are reprobates. He sees this moment, what each of us will be for eternity. He sees in eternity what each of us will have done for himself. He knows well, whether I shall be His child forever, or whether I shall be counted among His enemies forever.
His eyes this moment are resting either upon the throne His love has prepared for me in heaven, or upon the fiery bed His anger has prepared for me in hell. Already I am judged, that is, God sees, how I shall judge myself; for it is not God that judges us but we judge ourselves. He knows now, whether I am in sin or whether I am in His grace. If I be in sin, He alone knows whether I shall continue so and die impenitent. If I be in His grace, He sees whether I shall persevere or not to the end. Every struggle between nature and grace is known to Him.Which of the two will conquer, I do not know. God knows.
He sees my deathbed, my soul brought into His sight, stained with sins, or purified by His grace. Shall I see my God, with anger on His countenance, and feel His hands flinging me from Him, or will He look upon me with looks of love and compassion, and stretch forth His hands to clasp me? I do not know; He knows well. Will the first words from His lips be an invitation to heaven that will make me kiss His feet in gratitude, and plunge into the flames of Purgatory with joy, and wrap them around me, in speechless gladness; or, will all the promises of my life be blasted by His curse, and I, myself consigned to the care of devils, a howling, shrieking, despairing reprobate? I do not know, God knows. It is horrible to think that I shall be lost. And yet, what security have I, that I shall be saved? Heaven, or hell, which shall it be? That is the alternative. I do not have to understand the meaning of these words. If I did understand them, I should become insane through terror. But even with the little understanding that I have, what words can express my folly, if instead of addressing myself to the task of saving my soul, I waste my time in trifling with the things of this world!
Responsibility of LifeOh, my dearly beloved, ours is a fearful responsibility! Ours is a terrible trial! To be gifted with immortal souls, and to be obliged to shape the destiny of these souls. To be gifted with souls, that are capable of infinite joy, or infinite sorrow, and to know that they will be matched with the infinite happiness of heaven, or the infinite misery of hell, and to feel that it is ourselves who have to determine our own fate, that is a terrible charge--a responsibility that is almost too much for human strength. It ought to be laid upon the shoulders of angels.
If heaven were only a little less beautiful, and hell only a little less horrible; if there were gradations of happiness and wretchedness, and one might be moderately happy, or only partially wretched; and heaven not all joy, and hell not all sorrow; then indeed, it would be easy to view our probation cheerfully, and fold our arms in the assurance, that, come what may, we shall only be comfortably miserable.
But we have but one choice to make. We have to select heaven or hell. Between these two awful eternities the Catholic is placed. The question is, shall we possess God, or shall we not possess Him? Shall we be inexpressibly happy in having all the desires of our souls filled with the possession of God, or shall we be delivered over to the eternal misery of being devoured with cravings after a happiness to which we shall never attain?
And the same way, our beatified brethren, near and dear relations, are forever looking upon us from the stillness of eternity, looking upon us with ever-anxious eyes, and hopes that sink and rise, as we are defeated or conquered in our dreadful struggle. That interest in us they maintain until our sentence falls from the lips of the sovereign Judge; but, if that sentence consigns us to eternal flames, they will go back to heaven, and only think of us, as exemplifying God's justice in our damnation. It is marvelous, how little we are affected by the misfortune of others. We cling closely to our own individuality. If a soul from hell were to appear amongst us this moment, surrounded with all its attendant horrors, we should be frightened, dismayed, terrified; but with a host of other feelings we would not have room for one feeling of pity. Our thought would fly at once from the sight of that lost soul into our inner hearts, we would take the lesson from that lost soul, but we would not pay it back one feeling of compassion. This is the instinct of our nature, it is the unconscious fulfillment of the duty we owe ourselves. My soul does not go outside myself. However dear a friend be to me, he is not myself. His soul is not my soul, and I cannot divide the responsibility of my soul with him. This is the principle even of men of the world in the business of the world. There are few in the world today so generous, that they will halve their fortunes with friends; nay, it is often difficult to get a friend to put himself to the slightest inconvenience on our behalf. And yet how many are there, who, to retain the friendship of a friend, or to win one smile, or to catch one glance from the world, are daily purchasing shares in hell and sacrificing the eternal happiness of heaven. To oblige your friend, you hesitate about putting your name to a promissory note, but you do not hesitate for a moment to blot your name from the "Book of Eternal Life," and to write it down in the devil's album.
ConclusionWhat I have been saying, my brethren, comes to this, that the salvation of our souls is the one, all-important concern of our lives; and that it is our individual concern. It is the one consideration before which all other considerations must yield. It is the one work to which we must exclusively address ourselves. Every other engagement, however seemingly important, is secondary, and subservient to this one duty of saving our souls.
Every ambition and aspiration, however exalted, must be set aside before this primary ambition of gaining heaven, and escaping hell. Every feeling of our souls must be smothered, if it interfere with our salvation. Every craving for happiness, for fame, for wealth must be stifled, that our one desire of eternal happiness might be satisfied. Whatever comes between my soul and God must be remorselessly set aside. Is it the world and the opinion of the world? Sacrifice it. Is it the friend to whom both honor and affection bind me? Sacrifice that friend. Is it my wealth, my position, my character? Sacrifice them. Is it my rebellious passions, the promptings of my corrupt inclinations? Sacrifice them.
Put yourselves through an ordeal of fire to destroy them. Is it my life? Sacrifice that life, that you may gain eternal life, and escape eternal death. "Burn, cut, destroy, O Lord, in this life; oh, save me in Eternity."
These are rather large demands upon human nature. But remember what I said before, that even a little philosophy will carry us over all the petty vexations of this life: it is hell and hell alone that tries our exquisite capabilities for suffering. Prayer is laborious. What is the labor of prayer compared to the labor of blaspheming God forever? It is difficult to break with that companion who is leading us to hell. Do you think then that you can relish that companionship in hell? It is difficult to crucify my flesh? But do you think you can dwell with devouring flames? Hell is a fact. heaven is a fact. Ah! beloved, if God would only open our ears we might hear the harmony that, from choirs of angelic voices, is pealing round and round the throne of God. And to gain heaven by a lifelong martyrdom would be to purchase it at an easy price.
Address yourselves, therefore, to the work you have in hand. You cannot rid yourselves of the responsibility. And, knowing what heaven is, be misers in hoarding up the graces of God that can alone bring you to heaven; and, knowing what hell is, I would have you terrified about committing sin, for sin is a long step on the road to hell. Remember, as your prayerbook says, that no security can be too great, where eternity is at stake!
(Indulgence of 100 days once daily--Leo XII, 1824)
Lord Jesus, God of goodness and Father of mercies, I draw nigh to Thee
with a contrite and humble heart; to Thee I recommend my last hour on earth,
and that judgment which awaits me thereafter.
When my feet, benumbed with death, shall warn me that my mortal course is drawing to a close,
Merciful Jesus, have mercy on me. *
When my hands, cold and trembling, shall no longer be able to clasp the Crucifix, and against my will I am forced to let it fall upon my bed of suffering, *
When my eyes, dim with trouble at the approach of death, shall fix on Thee, my last and only support, *
When my lips, cold and quivering, shall for the last time utter Thy adorable Name, *
When my face, pale and livid, shall inspire the bystanders with compassion and awe; *
When my hair, bathed in the sweat of death and stiffening on my head, shall forebode my approaching end, *
When my ears, soon to be forever shut to the words of men, shall be opened to hear the irrevocable decree which is to fix my sentence for all eternity, *
When my imagination, agitated by dreadful spectres shall be steeped in the abyss of anguish; *
when my soul, affrighted at the sight of my iniquities and the fear of Thy justice, shall wrestle with the angel of darkness, who will endeavor to conceal from my eyes Thy mercies and to plunge me into the pit of despair, *
When my weak heart, weighed down with the pain of my illness, shall be overtaken by the horror of death, and be exhausted by the efforts it has made against the enemies of my salvation, *
When I shall shed my last tear, the sign of my dissolution, do Thou receive it as a sacrifice of expiation, so that I may expire a victim of penance; then, in that dreadful moment, *
When those present, encircling my bed, shall be moved with compassion for me, and invoke Thy clemency in my behalf, *
When I shall have lost the use of my senses; when the world shall have vanished from my sight; when my agonizing soul shall feel the sorrows of death, *
When my last sigh shall summon my soul from my body, accept it as a sign of a holy impatience to come to Thee, and do Thou, *
When my soul, trembling on my lips, shall quit this world forever, and leave my body lifeless, pale and cold, receive this separation as a homage which I pay willingly to Thy Divine Majesty, and in that supreme moment of my life, *
When at long last my soul, admitted to Thy Presence, shall first behold the immortal splendor of Thy Majesty, reject it not, but receive me into the loving bosom of Thy mercy, where I may for ever sing Thy praises. *
Let us pray:
O God, Who hast decreed that all men shall die, but hast concealed from all the hour of their death, grant that I may spend my days in justice and holiness, that I may deserve to quit this world in Thy holy love. Through the merits of Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, for ever and ever. R. Amen.