“Die before you die. There is no chance after.” CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces
Sometimes death scares me.
I wish I was a braver and more stoic person, but I have to be honest. If you are anything like me, intermittent waves of fear hit you, especially during this time during the COVID-19 outbreak. But there are times when even in the face of death, I am filled with a sense of calm and peace.
How do we hold on to this peace in the face of death?
I am going to answer this not as someone who has conquered all of his fears, but as a fellow traveler on the road, seeking his courage along with most of you.
Part of the problem is that we are a very death-denying culture. Yes, we know that death is a reality and its presence is always in the back of our brains. But its firm finality is something we tend to push from our consciousness. It is one of the reasons that we constantly throw ourselves into entertainments and distractions. How many hours do we waste flipping through social media or playing games on our phones instead of coming to grips with death’s reality?
Hamlet summed up one of the reasons death is so feared. It is that “undiscovered country, from whose born, no traveler returns…” (Hamlet ACT III, Scene 1). It something that we have never experienced ourselves, though we have seen others do it. This unknown factor leads to more fear. And we cannot get a foretaste of it to see if it is good or bad.
Or can we?
Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). One of the central teachings about the Christian life is that we must die to ourselves.
Dying to self means to put our ego and self-centeredness aside. This is the monumental task of all human life. The heart of our existence is love. And real love means to put someone else before yourself. Think about your day today. How often have you already made the internal calculus to favor yourself before someone or something? Did you skip prayer because you were busy? Did you take the last pop tart? Did you fight over a roll of toilet paper at the grocery store?
Inside our hearts we have a little throne. For most of us, if we are honest, we are each sitting on our own throne. The task that Jesus puts us to is to step off of the throne and let Him sit on it. This requires us to die to ourselves.
Jesus said, “pick up your cross every day.” (Luke 9:23) Notice he did not say pick up your work or your responsibilities. He said “pick up your cross.” The cross is the thing on which you will die. In other words, you are carrying death on your back.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means looking at my own desires and seeing how they might get in the way of loving other people. For me, I struggle with laziness. If I am on the couch watching TV, I feel unmotivated to do anything. But I often have stinging at my conscience all of the good things I could do with the time the Lord has given me. I could call my friends and see how they are doing. I could offer my time to the service of my Church or soup kitchen.
And this charity can begin in the smallest ways at home. My wife loves fountain sodas. Can I anticipate her needs and get them for her? My students often have questions and email me while I’m at home. Do I ignore them because this is “my time?” Or do I die to myself and put their needs before my own.
Dying to self does not mean that we hate ourselves or disdain life. I don’t put others first because I believe that my life has less value. We are all children of God. Pope St. John Paul II would often remind us that man finds himself most when he gives himself away. The more we die to ourselves, the more we find ourselves. That is the paradox of Christ’s words about the grain of wheat. This is the mystery that all of the saints learned. St. Francis died to himself in such epic and severe ways. But he was one of the most fully alive people who ever walked the face of the earth.
So how does this help with fear of death?
Because if we spend our lives dying to ourselves, then the day that death comes for us, then it will be just another day that we have to die.
We will have been training for this moment our whole lives.
But remember, we can only do this by the power of God. He will give us the strength to die to ourselves, because we will enter into a deeper relationship with Him. When we do that, we will experience how Christ died to Himself for us and we will want to be more like Him. And the more we know Him, the more we will want to be with Him. And if I’ve lived this life well, then hopefully I’ve shared this grace with the people I love. That way, death will not be a permanent parting, but only a temporary separation.
As Fr. Larry Richards says about those who live this life, “What is the worst that can happen to us? That we end up in Heaven with God forever?”
And maybe if I can take these words to heart, they can change. Death will no longer hold its dreadful grip on my heart if I can simple learn to do this:
Die before I die.
Copyright 2020, WL Grayson