JMC : The Christian Mind / by Dom Anscar Vonier, O.S.B.

Chapter XIII.
The Christian Mind and Death.

Nothing in all the happenings of this world is more capable of giving rise to a greater variety of philosophies, than the ever recurring and unavoidable event of man's death.

Death has been envisaged by man from the most various angles of mental perspective. It has provided the optimist and the pessimist with plenty of food for their respective mental attitudes.

Both the spiritualist and the materialist have made of death the corner-stone of their theories as to the real worth and value of human things.

But coming at once to the strictly religious attitude of men towards death, we find that the dire reality of man's ending has impressed the children of men in ways that are most varied, though they are seldom, if ever, contradictory.

The physical terrors of death, the sudden snapping asunder of all the interests of life, the uncertainty of one's individual fate in the great Beyond, the fear of God's judgments, the ending of all our human activities, and many other such considerations have made of death a source of sadness even for Christians, though it be a salutary sadness.

Death makes us "sorrowful according to God".

Such considerations belong of course to the general Christian mentality; the Incarnation presupposes them, and our Lord Himself made use of them in His Gospel, witness the parable of the foolish rich man, whose fields had yielded a plentiful harvest, and who had said to his soul:

"Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thy rest, eat, drink, make good cheer" (St. Luke xii. 19).

Christ's description of that foolish man's fate is extremely striking:

"But God said to him: thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee, and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided." (St. Luke xii. 20).

Yet who would dare to think that the Incarnation has not lifted the philosophy of death to a much higher plane?

St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews asserts that a new attitude of man towards death is one of the primary results of the Incarnation.

"Therefore because the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner hath been partaker of the same: that through death he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: and might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude" (Hebr. ii. 14 15).

It may be stated as a broad proposition that the Incarnation has heightened the reality of all the spiritual factors of the general Christian mind, whilst in the case of death it lessens those same general factors.

It lessens the terror of death, physical and spiritual; it lessens its uncertainties, its results. For as the doctrine of the resurrection of all flesh is a specifically Christian doctrine, death loses its sting through the Incarnation.

"O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" (i Cor. xv. 55.)

The fact that Christ died ought to reconcile all of us to the prospect of death.

A preacher who would put death before the eyes of the faithful merely as a naked reality of terror, bodily and spiritual, without softening his presentment with the sweet lights that come from the Son of God, Who tasted death in His own body, instead of building up, would merely destroy souls.

His terrors would be of the lowest order, with nothing essentially Christian.

But the Incarnation has done more than merely soften the horrors of death. Not only has it overcome death, and robbed it of its sting, but it has actually abolished the difference between life and death.

It has given to death the same spiritual value as to life.

It has made, for those who share actively the grace of the Incarnation, life and death to be one continuous, uninterrupted function of Christ's life in man.

It is St. Paul who gives us this high and specifically Christian view of death. In his Epistle to the Romans, referring to of an apparently small matter, he soars all at once to that wonderful height of Christian thinking where life and death become confounded in the higher reality of our membership with Christ.

The occasion for so glorious a pronouncement was the settlement of a practical difficulty amongst the early Christians.

To what extent were the faithful allowed to eat of the meat that had been sacrificed to the idols in the pagan temples, and was being retailed in the shops of the city butchers?

St. Paul wants absolute freedom for everyone, as the meat could not be considered to have been made sacrilegious through the circumstance of having been offered to the idols. For idols are nothing, and therefore could not be said to leave a curse on the meat.

Let every Christian use his own discretion, and consult his own conscience, and act in a way he thinks best calculated to give glory to the Lord.

"And he that eateth, eateth to the Lord: for he giveth thanks to God. And he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth thanks to God" (Rom. xiv. 6).

But in St. Paul's mind there was present then a much larger principle, which no doubt was a constant mental habit to him. For nothing shows better to what an extent a man has assimilated a comprehensive truth than the spontaneous ease with which he applies it to the facts and perplexities of the life of every-day.

"For none of us liveth to himself: and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord: or whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Therefore, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and rose again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living" (Rom. xiv. 7-9).

I feel confident that my reader will easily perceive the wonderful novelty, as well as the deep significance of this view of St. Paul about life and death and their respective values.

Nothing of the kind has been said by man before. In fact, how could man view life and death as mere functions of a higher life, as St. Paul does here, unless man believed that the Son of God had died and had risen from the dead, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Now such a belief is of course a specifically Christian doctrine, and therefore I am right in saying that the view of life and death set forth here by St. Paul is absolutely original, belongs to the specific Christian Mind, and is also the highest mental attitude to which man may rise when he ponders over the problem of death.

It might be said that St. Paul's doctrine about life and death is already included in that other gracious outcome of the Incarnation, the radical identity of human conditions in Christ, of which I have spoken already.

In Christ the rich are poor and the poor are rich, or, even more truly, both the rich and the poor of this world are rich in Him.

Christ is all things in all. So with life and death. To be dead is not a disadvantage, because we are dead in order to live for Him: and if we are still alive, our life is not ours, but His.

Yet there is a peculiar originality of thought in St. Paul's expression that no Christian dies to himself, and that we who die, die unto the Lord, which invites further meditation.

It is a comparatively easy concept that a Christian is not meant to live to himself, but unto the Lord. A Christian's life ought to be entirely dedicated to Christ: life's activities ought to have that peculiar unselfishness which comes from our having been bought at a great price, the blood of the Son of God.

We are not our own, but His, and all we are and do ought to be impregnated with the purpose of glorifying Him.

But it is not so obvious a thought that is expressed in the second half of St. Paul's aphorism. that "no man dieth to himself and that "whether we die, we die unto the Lord".

The phrase would be more than clear, if it were a question of laying down one's life for Christ's name, through martyrdom.

But evidently St. Paul spoke his great words irrespective of the glory of being Christ's witness in one's blood.

St. Paul speaks of the ordinary natural death of the Christian. If death then were the total cessation of man's higher life, St. Paul's phrase would be meaningless. For a cessation of all activity could not be something good, that is unto the Lord; St. Paul's words essentially imply that death, as well as life is a gift of man to Christ his Redeemer.

Now a pure cessation and negation could never be a gift.

We have to conclude therefore that the Apostle's words imply a continuation of activity, a survival of something very positive.

The state of death is only another phase of our spiritual incorporation in Christ. His death was the most positive, the most spiritual thing.

The Christian's death is a membership in that most adorable mystery, Christ's death.

Therefore life and death for the Christian are merely two phases of the same glorious event, our life in Christ, embracing both the state of the living and the state of death

I say it once more, such a mental attitude is of unsurpassable beauty and truth, and its originality is as great as its beauty.

Such an attitude of mind is not possible outside the grace of the Incarnation.

St. Paul corroborates his view on death with the statement that "for this end Christ died and rose again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living".

This clearly supports my contention that St. Paul considers the state of death as another phase of life. Christ's dominion over the dead is a dominion of graciousness over positive, living, conscious beings, as much as His dominion over the living, not a power over vague shadows, or distant memories, or unconscious personalities.

The Son of God in St. John's Revelation gives, so to speak, the phases of His own existence:

"I am the first and the last, and alive, and was dead and behold I am living for ever and ever, and have the keys of death and hell" (Apoc. i. 17 18).

Yet there is no more undivided, no more simplified existence than the existence of the Son of God, as He exists through the unchanging duration of the Word.

The successive phases He describes are yet one life. So for the Christian life and death are one life, through the unchanging oneness of Christ's personality. "Therefore whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's".

Our Christian Minds then find, in the grace of Christ's total proprietorship over us, that wonderful philosophy which has been man's dream from the beginning, but which has proved a mere illusion outside the grace of the Incarnation, I mean a practical and workable conviction that life and death, at bottom, are one and the same thing.

The preceding considerations may serve as a commentary on another passage in St. Paul's Epistles, as beautiful and significant as the one in the letter to the Romans.

It is in the Epistle to the Philippians, and I need hardly do more than just quote it:

"According to my expectation and hope: that in nothing I shall be confounded, but with all confidence, as always, so now also shall Christ be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ: and to die is gain. And if to live in the flesh, this is to me the fruit of labour, and what I shall choose I know not. But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better. But to abide still in the flesh is needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all, for your furtherance and joy of faith" (Phil. i. 20-25).

The occasion for Paul to pour out his innermost feeling in the manner he does here is different from the circumstance that brought about that great mental flight of his when writing to the Romans.

With the Philippians it is the anticipation of a possible separation from his dear friends through death. But the leading idea is the same: death or no death, it is all one in Christ. Life is profitableness in Christ, death is nearerness unto Christ.

It is difficult to choose between two such excellent states: "And what to choose, I know not."

A third passage with the same ultimate meaning is to be found in the second Epistle to the Corinthians.

Life is there described as a bodily absence from the Lord, whilst death, which implies an absence from the body, results in a presence with the Lord.

But the practical mental attitude is the same for life and death: "And therefore we labour, whether absent or present, to please him" (ii. Cor. v. 9).

The frightful hiatus between life and death is one of the things that seem most repulsive to the modern mind.

The modern mind wants continuity in all things. One of the commonest efforts to suppress the hiatus, is the exhortation to feel happy at the thought that man's personality at death passes into the great Universe as a new force.

In order to preserve continuity of life, men sacrifice personality. Yet man will not go to Christ for the very thing he yearns for. "And you will not come to me that you may have life" (St. John v. 40).

As a philosophy the continuance is of course a deeper concept than the hiatus. But it is only the Christian Mind that reconciles continuance of life with continuance of personality.

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