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Thursday, July 9th, 2020

Worse Than Death

For the Catholic, there are indeed things worse than death. And by death here we mean death of the body. And at the first, it wants saying that death is a matter never to be spoken of lightly. For who among us has not mourned for our dead? (Sorrow, after all, springs from love.) And furthermore, who among us can be certain of our own dispositions when death comes for us? There is a reason why we speak of the grace of final perseverance. Who among us can be sure that we will encounter our last moments with courage and serenity?—That is, if we will even be so fortunate as to be able to salute our death as it arrives. No, speaking of death can never be done with cocksure casualness.

All that being noted, there is something worse than the death of the body. But what exactly? Most profoundly, the moral compromise which we give the name sin. To sin is to act against our very selves, even before this or that sin may be against one’s neighbor, or even against God himself. We become something we are not meant to be when we sin; a certain spiritual disintegration takes place each time we sin. And if the sin is serious, the soul is in a state of death even while the body lives on. This is why St John distinguishes between sin that leads to death and sin that does not.[1] And he is not talking about death of the body.

Perhaps to some, all that sounds too much like rote catechizing; however, Bernanos has something interesting to say in this connection:

No one who sees trouble coming can be sure of escaping it, but at least he can look it in the face, and then the trouble will not strike him shamefully in the back. For there is something worse than dying—it is to die deceived.[2]

In context, Bernanos is not speaking of personal sin; but he does confirm for us that, indeed, there is something worse than death. And yet, if we are correct (and honest) about the nature of sin, we see that it is a kind of deception, and serious sin a most acute deception, and this on a number of levels. To sin is to have chosen a false good instead of a true good. We go deceived, either by ourselves or the world or the fallen angels. In such a case, yes, it is the most acute of deceptions: for the body lives, but the soul is dead.

Surely, this is a heavy meditation, but there is hope to be met with: Christ the Lord, through his Church, offers himself as our unique remedy and safety.

But one last point. If all we have said is true, then our very lives depend upon our reckoning with death. After all, who among us would like to die deceived? And yet this is precisely what we prepare ourselves to do if we do not see—and with crystal clarity—what exactly we do to ourselves when we sin. If we begin to believe that material misfortune is the greatest evil to be avoided, then it is impossible for us to serve God in any real way. Because death is merely the highest expression of material misfortune. But no, the Catholic soul is strong and lively only to the extent that he or she understands that there is most certainly something worse than death of the body.

 


[1] 1 John 5, 17.

[2] Georges Bernanos, Liberty: the Last Essays, trans Joan and Barry Ulanov, (Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, 2019), p 194.

{Art Credit: Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543), Portrait of Sir Thomas More, 1527.}

Lightening Meditations