Reflections on the Death of a Loved OneFATHER ANTONINUS WALL, O.P.
Why is the death of a loved one so painful an experience?
1. Why is the death of a loved one so painful an experience?
Humans are not pure spirits such as angels. Humans are embodied spirits. Bodies are essential to being human. We depend upon bodily contact with other humans to come into existence. Each stage of our development as humans is effected through bodily contact with other humans like ourselves. We come into existence through the union in conjugal love of two human bodies – those of our parents. The first nine months of our existence takes place inside the highly specialized environment of another human body – our mother's womb. The milk we draw from her breasts provides the ideal, predigested nourishment that our weak infant body requires. Each stage of development involves interaction with other humans through our bodily senses. It is sensible contact with humans and the physical world around us that mediates our contact with God. This emphasizes the profoundly social nature of a human being. As the poet John Donne reminds us, "No man is an island."
Catholic tradition teaches that love of God and love of neighbor are two aspects of one and the same love. One cannot love God without loving His work. And the more one truly loves God's creation, the more one is, in fact, loving God Himself whether he realizes this or not. The Gospels teach that God is love, and one who abides in love abides in God. (I John 4:16). This applies in a special way to love of our fellow humans. Christ identifies completely with our love for each other and our love for him when it is true love. "When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink….When you showed love to the least of my children, you were giving that love to me. Enter into everlasting life." (cf. Matthew 25:35f.).
Catholic faith teaches that God is pure love and that His love holds us in existence from the first moment we come into being. We cannot escape God's presence. If God were not present to us, we would not exist. It does not follow from this that we experience His presence. One can stand out in the midday sun, saturated with light, but if blind, see nothing. One can sit in a concert hall surrounded by the glorious music of Beethoven, but if deaf, he hears nothing. While God is immediately present on His part to all humans, left to our natural powers we remain blind, deaf and insensitive to his presence. Christ does not come to bring God to us since God is already present. Rather Christ, by awakening in our hearts his love for those near to us, awakens us to the presence of Divine Love holding all things in existence.
In order for humans to love and grow in love they must find in their lives other humans whose lovable qualities awakens love in them. One cannot go off privately into a room and muscle forth intense, stronger acts of love. We grow in love by finding more and more reasons for love in persons around us. These persons become the occasion for Christ to possess our hearts with his love for them. First, he allows us to see them through his eyes which are the eyes of God Himself. As Christ's love grows in our hearts, we experience not only the human love of Christ, but we experience Divine Love. God places that special person in our life – that child, that parent, that spouse, that loved one – in order to awaken in our love for that person the experience of His love. Our conscious experience is that we are the unique source of the love we have for others. Catholic faith agrees that we are the proximate source of that love, but it affirms that God is the ultimate source of our love. What binds us in love for others is our participation in Christ's love and God's love for them. As the love of Christ for these loved ones grows in our hearts, we are actually experiencing a growth in Divine Love. As we fall more deeply in love with our deceased loved ones, we are falling more deeply in love with Christ and with the Father.
When Christ invites us to surrender loved ones to him through their death, his intent is not to terminate our relation with them. His goal, rather, is to bring that relation to a new intensity of love. Next to personal death, the death of a loved one is the source of greatest suffering. Our surrender of a loved one to God – our child, spouse, parent, special friend – and our embrace of the pain of temporary physical separation entailed in that death, is the most perfect act of love we can exercise toward God next to the voluntary surrender of our own life. Our model here for this surrender is Mary at the foot of the cross. In our voluntary surrender of the loved one to God we acknowledge the true reality of the beloved as a gift from God. We finally accept the fact that the beloved never belonged to us in the first place. The death of a loved one becomes the occasion for an act of love on our part of the greatest perfection. In our surrender we find ourselves closer to God and closer to our beloved than ever before.
God creates the occasion for a substantive growth in our love for another by inviting us to give that loved one back to Him in death. If one wishes to witness love in its most intense, unselfish and purest form, attend a funeral. It is only when our loved one is no longer physically present and we experience for the first time the emptiness in our lives which previously he or she filled, that we are shocked into the awareness of the extraordinary nature of their presence in our lives as a revelation of God's love for us. This does not mean that we did not love them while they were still with us. But our love for the living tends to be mixed with a great deal of self. We are inclined to take the living for granted. It is almost impossible for us to imagine life without their presence. This is why God invites us to surrender them temporarily to Him in order that we may discover the true richness of their presence. If we want our love for them to become everything that ideally it should be, we must go through the pain of temporary physical separation. Willingness to endure the pain of temporary separation is evidence that we want our love for them to be purified and rooted in our love for God.
It is very important, for example, that children outlive their parents. Parents as so indispensable to us that we tend to take them for granted as long as they are still with us. Rarely are parents loved as fully as they should be until they are no longer present to us. Only then do their lifetime acts of loving sacrifice, often little recognized while they were living, finally arise to full consciousness. God asks of us this pain of temporary loss in order to purify and sanctify our love for them. The pain of temporary loss is the small price we must pay in order to experience in its intensity God's love for them and for ourselves.
In God's plan our relations with our beloved departed should enable them to exercise far more influence over us than ever they did while still with us. Catholic devotion to the deceased is based on the certainty that they are still very much alive. The body dies, but the soul lives on. While lacking sensible contact with us, they are more conscious of us now than ever before. Their intellect is intact, their affections survive and their memory functions with total recall. In some cases their love for us has reached new levels of intensity as they see us through God's eyes. In other cases their love for God and for us undergoes the further purification of Purgatory. This is why we pray either for the deceased or to the deceased. When we have good reason to believe that they have achieved the face to face union with God, we pray not for them but to them. We do this in the confidence that their love for us is purified and more intense than ever it was while they were still with us. This is the basis of Catholic devotion to the saints. If, on the other hand, we believe that they may still be in the stage of further spiritual purification, we pray for them as the Church (Christ) encourages us to do. We do this in the confidence that our prayers and sacrifices can still contribute to their growth in love of God. Always we act in the conviction that our lives and their lives are more intertwined than ever they were when they were still alive in this world.
We should always see our departed through the eyes of God and with the knowledge of what the Church teaches us about the state of departed souls and their resurrected bodies. In the Beatific Vision our loved ones enter into the mind and heart of God. They see and experience His creative work as He Himself sees and experiences it from within. They see the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as God Himself sees these precious creatures held in being by His love. They see their parents, family members, and all they love as God sees and loves them. They see the human nature of Christ and His Mother, Queen of the Heavens, as God the Father sees and loves them. They see each of us with the clarity and love that God has for us. Their love for us has never been more intense and personal.
St. Paul speaks of our resurrected bodies as endowed with the same qualities as those possessed by the resurrected body of Christ. Paul teaches that Christ's body, the very body that died on the cross, is spiritualized in its resurrected form. He identifies four properties of the resurrected body of Christ which will be the qualities of our resurrected bodies. The first quality of Christ's resurrected body is 'agility'. Agility means that Christ's body is perfectly responsive to the will. It appears wherever Christ wills it to be. 'Impassability' means that Christ's body is no longer subject to sickness and corruption. 'Subtlety' means that Christ's body is not limited by material reality. For example, he appeared behind the locked doors of the upper room on the first Easter. 'Clarity' means that Christ's body radiates the beauty of his human soul as it did momentarily at the Transfiguration. When we think of those we love who have died, we should visualize them as fully reconstituted, body and soul, with their bodies endowed with the spiritual qualities of the resurrected body of Christ.
One may well ask what will be the age of our resurrected bodies when fully reconstituted in heaven. St. Thomas Aquinas conjectures that our resurrected bodies will be approximately thirty-three years of age. His reasoning behind this seemingly arbitrary opinion is simple enough. According to tradition Jesus was believed to have been more or less thirty-three years of age when he died. St. Thomas argues that in all probability Jesus would not have wished to offer his life to the Father one minute before life was most perfect in him or one minute after it attained perfection. If Christ was thirty-three years of age when he died, this must be the ideal age. Behind this thinking is the conviction that the resurrected body will be at its most mature age of physical development. In the light of this teaching we should look forward to seeing our loved ones fully reconstituted body and soul with their bodies fully mature – that child who died as an infant and is now a mature adult, that parent who died confined to a wheel chair at ninety years of age and now stands before us as a vital young man or woman. According to this understanding we should visualize our meeting with our loved ones in heaven as a moment when we will see their youthful selves with our eyes, hear their voices with our ears and reach out with our arms to embrace them and experience their embrace.
Catholic Faith reminds us that while our deceased loved ones are no longer sensibly present to us in this life, they should now be more alive internally to us – in our memories, our meditations, our prayers and in our dreams – than ever they were when still alive in this world. So we find ourselves back to the point of departure of this reflection as we sing to our deceased loved ones, "I've got you under my skin."
Reprinted by permission of Father Wall.
Additional copies of this reflection in pamphlet form may be obtained by contacting: Western Dominican Preaching or calling 510-658-8722.
Father Antoninus Wall, O.P. a native of San Francisco, is the son of Irish-born parents, and the brother of the late Fr. Kevin Wall, O.P. Fr. Wall attended St. Ignatius prep in the Bay City and St. Mary's College of California. Entering the Dominican Order, he pursued his sacred studies at St. Albert's College in Oakland and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1950.
Fr. Wall has had a career rich in pastoral and academic experiences. He has served as associate pastor in Seattle and as Professor of Theology at Immaculate Heart and Dominican College. He negotiated the entry of the Dominicans into the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and served two terms there as President of the Dominican School. He currently resides at St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California. Father Wall is the author of The Journey to God. Father Wall may be reached by phone at 510-596-1800 or by email at email@example.com
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