“Live Every Day Like It’s Your Last, And One Day You’ll Be Right!” (Frank Sinatra)
While there are no guarantees that “Ol’ Blue Eyes” was referring to anything spiritual, it’s a point that all Catholics should remember. The Knights of Columbus recognize this important fact with their motto, Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori (Latin for “Time Flies, Remember Death”). At first glance, this saying seems macabre and depressing. We all know that death is inevitable, so why should we dwell on it? In the case of the Knights, they were initially created to provide for the needs of Catholic families whose husbands have passed on. As a result, they established a life insurance program to ensure the financial security of the remaining family members. Most would agree that death can have adverse financial consequences and that planning for its arrival can help to mitigate those consequences. As a result, many individuals have life insurance policies to lessen the financial impact when a family member dies. Additionally, many individuals prepare a will to provide for the distribution of their possessions and the arrangement of their personal affairs. As with life insurance, this is often done when the person is still young and death isn’t imminent. Even though people might not be at risk of death according to the statistics, they often don’t want to take a chance because of the importance of having their financial affairs in order.
While making plans to ensure your financial affairs are resolved upon your death is certainly important, what about your spiritual affairs? Scripture tells us that we will be judged by God after our death (Hebrews 9:27) and a determination will be made as to where we will spend eternity. Unlike financial matters, which only affect this life, our final judgment affects our eternal life, which will last forever. Having said that, wouldn’t it follow that we should spend as much (if not more) time preparing for it as we do with the disposition of our possessions?
It’s an unfortunate fact that many people fail to get their spiritual affairs organized in preparation for their death. This can be due to several reasons. For one thing, we often choose to avoid thinking about the eventuality of our death. For many, death is unpleasant, painful, mysterious and uncertain. As a result, it’s often easier to ignore it and continue living our lives. However, when we do think about it, we often discover the motivation to repent from our sinful ways and address our shortcomings. When the Lord proclaims “Pencils down!” on our lives, the time for repentance is over! The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) reminds us we have a limited time to work out our salvation:
Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment (CCC 1007).
The importance of “repenting while there is still time” was a belief of the early Church and can be seen in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. The oldest extant Church homily, delivered in 150 AD, emphasizes this urgency of this message. Bearing the name of St. Clement of Rome (the fourth pope), this work is generally considered to be an anonymous homily originating in the Church of Corinth:
“Let us then, so long as we are in this world, repent whatever evils we have done in the flesh, so that we may be saved by the Lord while yet we have time for repentance…For after we have departed from this world it will no longer be possible to confess, nor will there be then any opportunity to repent.” (Second Letter of Clement of Rome To The Corinthians, 8, 2).
In a similar way, St. Cyprian of Carthage issued this stern warning in the 3rd century:
“When once you have departed this life, there is no longer any place for repentance, no way of making satisfaction. Here life is either lost or kept. Here, by the worship of God and by the fruit of faith, provision is made for eternal salvation. Let no one be kept back either by his sins or by his years from coming to obtain salvation. To him who still remains in this world there is no repentance that is too late” (Treatise To Demetrian, 252 AD).
For many people, an extraordinary event is required to make them think about the reality of death. As an example, imagine that you are have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Your doctor estimates that you have one month to live. Assume also that you have some moral shortcomings in your life: Long standing grudges, a broken family relationship, an imperfect prayer life and possibly some serious mortal sins. Suddenly, you have the motivation to correct those issues that you have neglected for many years. The uncertainty of what follows after death will often cause even the most hardened sinner to repent…and in a hurry! Now, concentrate on your current life for a minute and note the difference. For the vast majority of us, while we acknowledge that we will die one day – we don’t think it will be soon. This problem is especially prevalent among the young and healthy. We need to develop a sense of urgency when it comes to preparing for death. Putting it off until the future may have disastrous consequences. The Catechism emphasizes the importance of being prepared for death at all times by quoting from Thomas a Kempis’ spiritual classic, The Imitation Of Christ:
Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience. . . . Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow. . . . (The Imitation of Christ, 1, 23, 1).
We often deceive ourselves into believing that we are in control of our own destiny. On his program “Life Is Worth Living”, the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen once discussed those individuals who are afraid to fly in airplanes, thinking that they are much safer on the ground. He made the point that if it was “our time”, it wouldn’t make any difference whether we were in the air or on land. Thinking anything else illustrates an exaggerated sense of our self-importance and gives us a false sense of control. Jesus is very clear about the uncertainty of our death when He states that we must be ready, for “the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Lk 12:40, Mt 24:44).
Each day we need to be sure that we are adequately prepared to meet God face to face. A quick glance at the daily newspaper or watching a few minutes of the daily news, will remind us that many people die unexpectedly each day. Do accident or murder victims expect to die suddenly? Probably not. Is it possible that we could experience the same fate? Absolutely. Only God knows when we will breathe our last breath. Even people with terminal illnesses don’t know exactly when they will die.
Despite this, the sad reality is that many people are not sufficiently prepared for death and the judgment that follows. We live in a society where killing the unborn is considered the “right to choose”, where homosexuality and it’s ersatz “marriage” is viewed as a civil right, where chastity has become optional and where Mass attendance and obeying the Church’s doctrinal teachings has become a “matter of personal conscience”. As a result of our disobedience, many individuals are living in the state of mortal sin. The danger of living in this condition becomes obvious when one considers the official Church teaching on the matter:
Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire” (CCC 1035).
My intent is not to scare anyone, but rather to call to mind the brevity of our lives. If you are reading this article, it’s not too late for you! Each new day is a gift from God and another chance to work out our salvation. A daily examination of conscience and a firm resolution to refrain from sin will put us on the road to eternal life with the Lord. Take advantage of the opportunity and don’t wait until it’s too late!