The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XVIII:
In the Hour of Death

THE tendency which sometimes manifests itself among pious people to think much of the last moments of those who depart hence in the faith of Christ is certainly morbid and leads to devotional thought of a sentimental kind. For most men the arrival of the supreme moment has been preceded by a weary period of physical suffering. The body is worn and wasted. The mind has lost its power, even the power of expectation. The spirit is depressed with weakness, sympathetic with the decay of the home God formed for it. Neither brave words nor clear vision of what lies beyond are commonly to be looked for. Very often, too, a certain self-forgetfulness which we cannot but praise fixes the thought of him who is to go more on the grief of the parting and the foreseen desolation of those who are left, than on the hope of the breaking forth of glory when the veil is lifted. Then from the mouth of the dying believer come, haltingly, words meant to be comfortable. They form no message from beyond. That they are spoken from the grave's brink adds only a great pathos to the familiar attempts at consolation with which we who are left try to lighten the mourners' grief. Yet sometimes, even in the hour of death, the spirit is so far triumphant over bodily decay as to recognise the supreme importance of the crisis through which it passes. The world beyond is realized, is felt -- we may say, is seen. This world, and all that life in it has meant, is seen too, not any longer as a succession of incidents of which the nearest alone seem great, but seen whole with all its days in true perspective. From such vision there is every hope that we should learn. The Christian will not indeed expect or hope to grasp at secrets unrevealed, but he may reverently expect to be told of what the great emotion will consist. Is it to be joy or fear? Shall we be absorbed with regret looking backwards, or rapt in expectation of what is to come? Will joy and fear, regret and hope, all alike yield to an overmastering curiosity about what that other world is like? Will doubt for the last time harass us, or may we look for the extreme beatitude of the satisfaction at length of desire for the Beloved?

Of the four death-bed stories which I tell, one seems at first to speak only of regret for past mistakes. The Archbishop Theophilus tells us only that he knew at last that death ought to have been more often present in his mind. No doubt he was conscious that he would have lived better had he lived more as one who was about to go. Yet even here it is possible to feel that he regretted not only a mistake, but the missing of a great source of joy. If the passing away was a glad thing to him when it came, he would regret that he had failed to get the joy of its anticipation. The abbot Pammon saw his past life in the light of that which was dawning for him. We catch in his summary of his life's accomplishments something of the triumph of St. Paul's -- "I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course." Yet all that he was, or did, or felt seems nothing to him in comparison to the vista of devotion which stretches before him. Some regret there is in what he says, but in the main he speaks to us of expectation. To the abbot Agathon the hour of death brings a certain doubt. He, too, sees the life that is past, but his vision of that which is to come stops short at the judgment act. God is to pronounce that he has done well or been mistaken. He is not sure, even at the last, what God's pronouncement is to be. This is his doubt. But it is a doubt which neither terrifies nor unmans, for it is covered by a larger faith. The pronouncement is to be God's. That insures that it, at least, will be just and right. The man may have been mistaken. Death takes him where his mistake is surely to be rectified. For Sisois the hour of death brings an unspeakable rapture. St. Antony is with him, and the prophets and the apostles. He speaks to the angels, and they to him. Death means union with all whom he loved best. It is the satisfaction of long unfulfilled desire. Yet even for him there is regret. He knows that he is not good enough to join such company. Sins only half repented of crowd to his remembrance. He asks for time for more repentance. He is answered by the beatific vision of the Lord Himself, and love made perfect casts out fear.


How in the hour of death Pammon was fain to confess that his service of God had been but very imperfect.

The abbot Pammon in that hour when he was passing away from the body spoke thus to the other holy men who stood around him, "Brethren, since the day that I came here to the desert, amid built this cell of mine, I do not think that I have ever eaten anything except what the work of my hamids earned. I do not remember that I have reason to repent of any exhortation which I ever gave to the brethren. Yet, if indeed I am now going to God, it seems to me that I have not yet begun to learn to worship Him."


How in the hour of death the abbot Agathon, though he knew nothing against himself, yet was not thereby justified.

At the time when the abbot Agathon lay dying his eyes were fixed for three whole days, as if he were in a trance. The brethren who were with him touched him to awaken him, and said, "Father, where are you now?" He replied, "I stand gazing at the God who judges me." Then the brethren said, "Surely you are not afraid." He answered them, "While I was with you on earth, as far as in me lay, I strove to obey the commandments of God. Yet I am but a man, and now I am not sure -- how can I be sure? -- that the things I did were really pleasing in God's sight." The brethren said, "have you no confidence that your deeds were in accordance with the will of God?" He replied, "I have no confidence now that I am standing in the sight of God. Man judges about what is right and wrong. That is one judgment. God also judges what is right and wrong. His judgment is another and different."


The glorious vision of the abbot Sisois in the hour of death.

Many elders gathered round the abbot Sisois when the time of his falling asleep came to him. They saw his face shining with a wondrous radiance, and he said to them, "Lo, the abbot Antony is coming to me." After a little while he said, "The company of the prophets is along with him." Then his face shone with a brighter light, amid he said, "The blessed apostles are beside me." It seemed, then, to those who stood by as if he spoke to someone, and they asked him to tell them with whom he talked. He said, "The angels have come to bear away my soul, and I am asking them to grant me yet a little while for penitence." Then the fathers said to him, "Surely you have no need of penitence?" But he replied, "Verily I say to you that I have never yet grasped even the beginning of true penitence." Then they felt that in him the fear of God was indeed perfected. Suddenly his face was lighted with all the splendour of the sun, and he cried out to them, "Behold, behold my brethren, the Lord Himself is come to me." Then while he spoke these words, his spirit fled, and all the place was filled with a sweet smell.


The words of Theophilus the Archbishop, which he spoke in the hour of death.

Theophilus the Archbishop, of blessed memory, when he was about to depart, said, "Blessed art thou, Arsenius, for thou hast always had this hour before thine eyes."

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