How do saints die? This question has been on my mind for some time. Death is the most important moment in life. We live to die because the way we die will determine our whole existence. And while here on earth everything comes to an end, life there will never draw to a close. We shall be stuck for ever in whatever situation we find ourselves at the last moment. It is all that simple. And all that scary …or terrific, depending on where we shall end!
Martin of Tours had quite a life. In the military as a young man, he found himself in big trouble when he refused to kill because of his newly found Christian beliefs. Eventually he moved to France where he became a monk and a bishop. He died at the venerable age of 81. His friend Sulpicius Severus describes his last moments thus, “It happened that some priests who had gathered at his bedside suggested that he should give his poor body some relief by lying on his other side. He answered: “Allow me brothers, to look towards heaven rather than at earth, so that my spirit may set straight on the right course when the time comes for me to go on my journey to the Lord.” As he spoke these words, he saw the devil standing near. “Why do you stand there, you bloodthirsty brute?” he cried. “Murderer, you will not have me for your prey. Abraham is welcoming me into his embrace.” With these words he gave up his spirit to heaven.”
There is something unique in the death of the saints. They seem to have already established a contact with the other side. While many of us bother about unfinished business here, they seem to have already set their heart there.
Monica was the mother of Saint Augustine. Born in Tagaste Northern Africa, she died in Ostia Italy when she was 66. Her son left for us a beautiful testimony of her death. After describing a touching episode between him and his mother just a few days before she fell very sick with a fever, he writes, “Then one day during the course of her illness, she became unconscious and for a while she was unaware of her surroundings. My brother and I rushed to her side but she regained consciousness quickly. She looked at us as we stood there and asked in a puzzled voice: “Where was I?”
“We were overwhelmed with grief, but she held her gaze steadily upon us and spoke further: “Here you shall bury your mother.” I remained silent as I held back my tears. However, my brother haltingly expressed his hope that she might not die in a strange country but in her own land, since her end would be happier there. When she heard this, her face was filled with anxiety, and she reproached him with a glance because he had entertained such earthly thoughts. Then she looked at me and spoke: “Look what he is saying!” Thereupon she said to both of us: “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” Once our mother expressed this desire as best she could, she fell silent as the pain of her illness increased.”
I suppose the vicinity of death gives you a wisdom which is not earthly. From that vantage point, one starts seeing things in another way. The real way!
Saint John of the Cross is my favorite saint. Spanish and a Carmelite, he died when he was only 49. He had gone to Ubeda a few months previously because his health was failing rapidly. When early in December, the superior gave him the news that the doctor expected him to die soon, he reacted cheerfully, “I was glad when they said to me: let us go to the house of the Lord!’ he exclaimed recalling psalm 122. “After hearing this good news I no longer feel the pain.” His heart obviously was already in heaven. The link had been established.
However even if on one side he was in peace, on the other side a whole battle was going on inside him. “I assure you”, he said to Father Augustine at eight o’clock in the evening of the day of his death, “that there is nothing in my life which is not indicting me now!”
Three hours later, at eleven o’clock, he asked Father Prior to bring him the Blessed Sacrament so that he can look at it for the last time with his bodily eyes. Half an hour later, when the Prior started reading the normal prayers of the Ritual for the Dead, Fray John stopped him and asked this superior to read to him the Scriptural book ‘Song of Songs’! While listening to the passionate and fiery words of these two persons madly in love for each other, he kept whispering, “precious pearls, precious pearls….”!!
This passion song between two lovers was the last thing he wanted to hear. Amazing, no? If only you and me can die as saints! Please, help us Lord!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.