If there’s one thing we don’t like thinking about, it’s death. Yet there is nothing more important, nothing that more defines who we are and how we act, than our approach to death and our understanding of its significance.
“Look to the end,” Thucydides and Herodotus remind us, to determine the utility and worthiness of a human life. “Persevere to end,” the martyrs and saints remind us, to gain the crown of life and take one’s eternal place in God’s household.
These axioms are well and good, but to what extent can we truly apply them to our lives if we have not yet died? We can hope that our life—which, according to many survivors of near-death experiences (NDE), is said to be re-lived or to flash before our eyes—is worthy of praise rather than recrimination. We can pray that—like those who have gone before us to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Col 1)—we will accept death when it comes, having cast out mortal sin and embraced the peace that passes understanding (Phil 4). But we can’t really know until we cross the threshold.[a] That is the crippling paradox of death: it is all-but-certainly coming for all of us, and yet we have no direct way to prepare for it or know what to expect.
How quickly we forget that Christianity does claim we have experienced death. We have died to sin (Rom 6), been buried with Christ in baptism, and raised with him through faith (Col 2). The old takes on the new, and we are transformed. Perhaps we forget these claims because they are bandied about as buzzwords and rarely analyzed mystically. Although the plague has changed things, we still tend to compartmentalize death. We see it as something separate from life. Something that needs to be boxed away in special locations with special rules. Something from which people ought to be sheltered. (Apparently and unsurprisingly, we have learned nothing from the story of Prince Gautama’s overprotective father.) This is not the way it should be.
A few weeks ago, I was reading casually in Saint Bonaventure’s Major Legend of Saint Francis. A passage suddenly jumped off the page, wherein the Seraphic Doctor describes Francis’s zeal for prayer:
He did not receive grace in vain.
Many times he was suspended
in such an excess of contemplation
that he was carried away above himself and,
experiencing what is beyond human understanding,
he was unaware of what went on about him.
I paused for a moment to really consider what this means and what it would have looked like to those around him. Hagiographical depictions of mystical death sound strange to modern ears. Like Paul’s third-person account of his own ego loss (2 Cor 12), we can’t really find the words necessary to convey such a radical shift in perspective. But we are told that this kind of experience is a grace. It is a gift; albeit one few are able to receive.
Of course, Francis continued to live on after these experiences. Bonaventure makes it very clear that Francis balanced the active and the contemplative life, such that “like the heavenly spirits on Jacob’s ladder, he either ascended into God or descended to his neighbor.” So we aren’t talking about a mystical death that renders all earthly action pointless, or devolves into pointless navel-gazing. What we are talking about are stories and teachings that help us see this life as a training ground—preparing us to die.
According to the mystics, death is transformative. The universe is either evocative, or it isn’t. This life is either a journey toward death, or a futile attempt to avoid death. Those are the only two options. Regardless, if our goal is to preserve our selves without change, then we are fools grasping at straws. And this activity of “grasping” for self-preservation itself facilitates sin, since repentance is metanoia or change of heart.
I have even considered the idea that the experience of hell is something like perpetually clutching to one’s consciousness, and thereby closing oneself off to the transformative presence of God. The Great Divorce is an excellent primer for this viewpoint, which also finds support in the Church’s doctrine that hell is a state “of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” Aquinas supports it too with his statement that there is no true eternity in hell. And Dante describes the deepest pit as an icy, frozen wasteland—because Love is activity and all Love has ceased—where Satan sits, separated from it all, in a morass of his own making. He is the static lodestone toward which all egocentric action devolves. Turned perpetually inward, he has nothing left to do but wallow in his own misery.
Let’s avoid this, shall we? Let’s embrace the primary Christian hypothesis—backed up by experience in all fields of knowledge—that God works through death to create life. In the words of our Lord: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16). At some point, we will all need to let go.Show Sources
True, indeed. But I would want to have something about faith in here, especially faith in Jesus’ life and testimony. I think of that powerful passage in Heb 2:14-18 which takes up this point. We, who were slaves to the fear of death, are now free from that slavery because Christ has conquered death. We live in that freedom now by faith, which sees it but dimly, and look forward to the day when, having passed through that river Jordan, we see that freedom as it really is. This section reminds of a passage from John Owen’s 7 vol. commentary on Hebrews. In his comments on ch. 4, he says, “Patience, faith, and prayer, will carry us comfortably and safely through the whole course of our frail and infirm lives in this world.” (Owen, Commentary, 4.513).
 Responses to this situation on the philosophical spectrum range between existentialism and nihilism. If you’re looking for a film that plays out a clash of ideologies on this subject, I can’t issue a higher recommendation than the oddly-named I Heart Huckabees.
 Bonaventure continues: “Francis’ mind was so fixed on heavenly splendors that he was not aware of the differences of place, time, and people that he passed” (Legenda Maior 10.2). What is the sleep of death other than to be transported out of the realm of time and space in this way?
 Sometimes we are moved by mystical death experiences. Or by reading about them. We don’t choose to seek them out. But we would be fools to ignore them.
 And “he was carried into the heights not as a curious searcher of the supreme majesty, crushed by its glory, but as a faithful and prudent servant.” (Legenda Maior 13.1)
 As depicted benignly in “San Junipero” (one of my least favorite episodes of Black Mirror), the uploading of consciousness would be the ultimate false idol. Speaking from a Christian standpoint, uploading consciousness and abandoning the body would be death, since the soul would separate from the body. Perhaps this is what the apocalypse would look like; our universe would become “hell,” populated by creatures that are “stuck” within its confines.
 See Spe Salvi §45: “Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.”
 ST 1, q. 10, a. 3, ad. 2. Cf. Von Balthasar, Dare We Hope, Chapter 8 (“The Eternity of Hell”).
 The death of stars created life in this universe. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. By contrast, what is cancer except cells which refuse to die? Our Savior submitted himself unto death and, conquering death, rose again. The Resurrection is central to our faith, and central to our understanding of the cosmos.