Go and await the day of your death

In the 15th chapter of the Voyage of St Brendan, the saint meets a monk who lives alone on a deserted island.

The monk tells the tale of how he came to be there.

The dead St Patrick had appeared to him and instructed him to go down to the sea shore, where he would find a boat. He was to set sail in it and it would bring him,

‘to the spot where you will await the day of your death’.

He had followed the instructions, found the boat, climbed in and set sail, and it had brought him to this island where for 90 years he had lived as a solitary monk.

So the injunction ‘to await the day of your death’ was not a statement about an impending doom, but rather a call to live his whole life oriented towards the certainty of his own death, and hence focused resolutely and singularly, upon God.

I recently watched a brilliant film by the independent film-maker Nick HAMER. It was called ‘Outside the City’ and was based on the life of the monastery of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, Leicestershire.

During the course of the 18 months the film-maker spent with the monks several of them died.

It was very moving to hear the monks talk of their approaching death with calm and a sense of completion.

What was more striking was that even the young monks spoke often of their own death and of their desire to live and die well.

This monastic outlook that stares death squarely in the face in peaceful acceptance, is in stark contrast to our contemporary culture.

In our culture death is denied, pushed out of sight, it is seen in entirely negative terms.

It is interesting to look at St Francis of Assisi’s view of death. As he lay on his own death-bed he wrote a final verse to his great Canticle of the Sun.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom she will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, composed 1224-1226

We see here death personified as a ‘sister’, a friend whose ministry completes our human life.

For St Francis it was not Sister Death that we need to fear, but rather meeting her unprepared.

For the faithful follower of Jesus, Sister Death is harmless, merely the mechanism by whose ministry we are released into the full presence of God.

It strikes me that the monks of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey can fully embrace life precisely because they fully embrace death.

Holding their own death before them does not lead to depression or morbidity, but rather to the ability to focus on the important, that which brings life, to enjoy the joy of each moment of life, which is a gift. A gift that we take, give thanks for and offer back to God.

So I invite you to ‘go, and await the hour of your death.’

The Ministry of a Dying Man

Kentigern IconOne thing that the Bible emphasises is the importance of finishing well.

A good start to your Christian life is one thing, continuing well, right to the end, is another.

It is those who persevere to the end that receive the crown.

In chapter 42 of Joceline’s “Life of Saint Kentigern” we have a description of the aged saint in his declining days. There are many lessons we can draw from his example about how we can finish well with God.

“Blessed Kentigern, overcome by excessive old age, perceived from many cracks in it that the ruin of his earthly house was imminent”

The first lesson we learn is Kentigern’s acknowledgement and acceptance of his coming death. Our physical bodies are not built to last, they are perishable goods, each with its sell-by date. We will not be at peace until we can accept this fact and face it squarely.

“…but the foundation of his faith, which was founded on the Rock, comforted his soul; for he trusted that … he had prepared for him a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”

Here we see what enabled the saint to face death serenely – his faith founded on the Christ-event, which convinced him of the reality of the life to come, an eternal life in an eternal body.

“…by reason of the extremity of old age, and the infirmity consequent thereon, the fastening of his nerves were almost entirely withered throughout his body and loosened, therefore he bound up his cheeks and chin … that by the fall of his chin nothing indecent should appear in the gaping of his mouth … such a support should render him more ready in bringing forth what he could or would”

This is a somewhat stark and moving description of the reality of the physical decrepitude that usually accompanies extreme old age. The saint’s jaw hung open, so he supported it by a bandage. A practical solution designed to do two things. Firstly, to avoid his appearance being offensive to those around him, and secondly, to enable him to continue to minister as he was able. The support helped him to speak clearly, so that he could still speak of God and build up the saints of God.

“…knowing that the hour was drawing near … fortified himself with the sacred unction … and with the life-giving sacraments … in order that the ancient serpent, seeking to bruise his heel, should be unable to fix thereon his poisonous tooth or to inflict on him a deadly wound : yea rather, that with bruised head he should retreat in confusion.”

Aware that his death was imminent the saint makes use of the whole arsenal of the Church, in order to best protect himself and prepare himself. For Kentigern, even his dying is an act of spiritual warfare. He would inflict one final and decisive defeat on Satan, the enemy of the Church and his own soul, through dying well.

“…he patiently … awaited the Lord, who had saved him from the storms of this world”

For this great saint, the timing of his passing from this world was in the hands of God, he submitted himself to God’s timing. He waited patiently for his final release, trusting that the God who had saved him through life would also save him through death.

“…he cast out the anchor of hope, with the ropes of his desire well bound, in the solid and soft ground, reaching of a truth even to the inside of the veil, whither Jesus Christ had gone before him.”

The saint’s anchor point for his soul was not fixed on earth but in heaven, not rooted in time but in eternity. His anchor was Jesus, the one whom he loved and who has already made the journey himself – in both directions. He knows the way, He will lead us surely and safely home.

“…he alone awaited the departure from Kedar and the entrance into the land of the living”

The name “Kedar” is the name of an Ishmaelite tribe. They were not Jews and so were not part of God’s people. In the Bible, the expression “to dwell in the tents of Kedar” means to be cut off from the worship of the true God. The word also has the meaning of “blackness and sorrow”. Describing earthly life thus, Kentigern expresses his belief that it is this life that is as a shadow, it is the life to come that is reality, indeed, it is only by passing through death that we really come alive.

Perhaps there is also a sense here of the reality of awaiting his own death. No earthly life or hope remains to him, only sorrow and blackness, everything that he has to look forward to now awaits him on the other side of the grave.

“…so that … like a successful wrestler he might receive from the hand of the heavenly King the crown of glory and the diadem of the kingdom which shall not be destroyed”

This, specifically, is what the saint is looking forward to – his eternal glory and reward for a life of faithfulness.

“He warned his disciples, gathered around him, so far as his strength would allow him.”

Kentigern’s ministry continues until his final breath. His pastoral concern will not permit him to miss any opportunity to strengthen and instruct those for whom he has responsibility. Even on his death-bed he is not thinking primarily of himself but of others.

He ministers as he is able, to the limit of the capacities remaining to him.

“…warning them to avoid every evil appearance of simoniacal wickedness, and to shun entirely the communion and society of heretics and schismatics, and observe strictly the decrees of the holy fathers, and especially the laws and customs of Holy Church”

Simony is the sin of using ministry as a means of enriching oneself. It is significant that Kentigern warns his disciples of this danger first. For those who are professional ministers, it is perhaps the one of the greatest dangers.

Kentigern also warns them of the danger of heresy and schism. They are to avoid even the society of those who deny the fundamentals of the faith and those who separate themselves from other Christians. Heresy and schism are like a contagion, the only safe option is isolation.

Instead, his disciples are to hold fast to the teaching of the holy fathers, to the historical foundations laid down at the beginning and which are expressed in the “laws and customs” of the Holy Church.

“…after that … he gave to each of them … the kiss of peace; and lifting his hand as best he could, he blessed them, and bidding the his last farewell, he committed them all to the guardianship of the Holy Trinity, and to the protection of the holy Mother of God”

It is wonderful and significant that Kentigern’s final act is one of blessing. He expresses his love for each of his disciples and then, with the last remaining strength, he struggles to raise his hand and to bless the by signing them with the cross.

No longer capable of caring for them himself, he commits them to the keeping of God and to the protection of Mary. Here we see the reality of the Church. God is our source of strength and safety, but we also help each other with our prayers. The prayers of the saints her and those who have gone before us – exemplified by Mary – support and strengthen us on our way.