They say that there were no atheists on the Titanic as it sank to the strains of “Nearer my God to Thee”. And I can well believe it for the prospect of impending death tends to focus the mind. But it might not be so nowadays. The newspapers this week reported a survey which asked people what their priorities would be for a good death. High in the list were a pain free death and the wish to be in the company of friends and family. 60% ranked religious or spiritual needs as the lowest in the list of priorities from which they chose.
How different from the Catholic view! For us, death is a climax; it is the passage from our times of trial into, by God’s mercy, eternal reward. Not an end, but a beginning. It is the last, and perhaps most important thing, that we do.
But we all know that we have fallen short. And so we have to rely on the fact that God has gone to the extremes – up to the extreme of the Cross – to obtain our salvation. Death may come as a thief in the night, but not before God has taken every possible step to give us salvation. And he did not pay that price to lose us easily.
So, for us, the opportunity to come finally to terms with our relationship with God is one on which we put the highest value. And there is the great comfort of the sacraments of the Church to make up what we lack.
Yet I am uneasy. I can only speak for myself, but perhaps others will recognise something of this. Why am I relying on a future opportunity to square things up with God? I suspect it is because at the very end of my life I will have little or no opportunity to slip back into my old ways. What price a firm purpose of amendment, when amendment only has to be sustained for a few days or a few minutes?
Over the last month I have been subjected to a crash course in insight. My wife had a very bad fall which smashed her shoulder. Not fatal, of course, but extremely painful and debilitating. She has not been able to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, and necessarily sitting in a chair. The rôle of nurse, on effectively a 24 hour basis, has fallen to me.
Over that time I have experienced a succession of swiftly changing emotions. Love and care, yes. But also impatience, irritability and moments of straight selfishness. I think I can say that my underlying inspiration and determination have remained constant, but my silent, repeated, reminder “in sickness and in health” has often been muttered through clenched teeth. So I have learnt a great deal about myself.
Now I have some work to do to get closer to where I hope to be at the moment of death. In effect I am asking myself how I would judge me if were I God. I want to start off with any good points I can find. That’s not self indulgence but because I believe that God looks for the good points first, just as I used to look for the good points in my children when their behaviour was foul. Then, the rather longer list of bad points. No room for hopeful excuses — God knows, as I really know, the difference between real excuses and the self-serving ones. The Holy Spirit will nudge me here, darn it.
Then I must construct a plan. As I have written before, I don’t think that trying to improve on all fronts is the helpful way. What I need to do is to focus on one area for a period, and then switch to another when I feel I have made a little progress. And around the circle again. It may take me a little time – to the end of my life perhaps. I shall need a great deal of grace, but then we are promised that on tap. And so I dare hope that, when that final moment comes, I will be a little closer to where I want to be. I do not expect my welcome to be phrased as “good and faithful servant” but I shall be content to find a little room somewhere in the servants’ quarters of my Father’s house.
Can I commend to you the idea of trying to judge yourself as God would judge you? And to see how close you are to being the person you wish to be on your deathbed? It sounds like an impertinence even to try to see the mind of God. But in fact such an undertaking is really a form of deep examination of conscience. Painful but healing.