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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Mystery of Death and the Need for Prayer

When friends draw close to death, a certain intensity of life presents itself. This is true in Christian death. It is meant to be a sacrificial offering of oneself to God if we give it to Jesus with the help of his mystical Body, the Church. Faith in Christ Jesus opens up this possibility. A recent visit to see a friend helped me remember that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross allows dying Christians to share in his work of redemption even to the point that their very death releases anew the power of God's love in the world.

For the Christian, as one's own sacrifice is united to the sacrifice of Christ, death becomes the supreme moment of life, one's finest hour, in which a man most fully becomes who he is. Indeed, it is only by giving ourselves in love that the truth of who we are is realized. When death becomes an offering of oneself to God in love, the majestic self-donation that makes man in the image and likeness of God attains its most magnificent moment. This is a hidden mystery, a great secret disguised in suffering. When the body is exhausted under a burden of pain, the lips unable to form words, and the mind so engulfed in suffering that all awareness of everything and everyone one is lost, faith's greatest prayer is unknown to all but God. It's power is nonetheless unleashed for the life of the world even as every other earthly sign of life falls under mortality's shadow. Such a prayerful death opens itself to the most profound union with God until, in final agony, the last breath becomes one's greatest act of adoration. The man I visited is a priest and long time friend in Colorado. Msgr. Michael Glenn and I studied together in Rome and Steubenville. He invited me and my wife to join his prayer group when we first arrived in Denver. When he was made rector of Saint John Vianney Seminary, I served him as academic dean. He has tried to live a holy priesthood and to work for the renewal of the priesthood even in this turbulent time of grave scandal. He has always believed in the power of prayer, penance and the practice of lectio divina. He has been battling brain cancer and for a while seemed to be winning. Despite the efforts of his medical team and the love and support of his friends and family, his final agony is begun. When I stepped into his hospital room, I was struck by the love, faith and prayer that surrounded him. Dying is difficult, but offering a noble death in faith requires the support of the whole Church. A hosts of bishops and priests have ministered to him. Many friends have come to pray with him and support him. He sometimes opens his eyes to acknowledge someone. On rare occasion, he lifts his head. We do not really know how much he is able to join us when we pray the rosary for him - but what he is conscious of, or not conscious of, is not really the point. We are joined together with him, implicated in his plight and he in ours too. This solidarity of life in the face of death is what it means to be in the Body of Christ - for there is no more important moment than the moment of death to bear one another's burdens out of devotion to the Lord. He endeavors to offer himself as a living sacrifice in a manner deeper than what the body or mind suffers, deeper than what the intellect can search or the intuition guess. It is deeper not only than what falls in the scope of consciousness but also in what remains underneath unconscious impulses too -- at the very core of one's personal existence. From this sacred place of the soul's substance, this deepest center where the whole Trinity abides, a drama of love unfolds, even for a priest. Every Eucharist springs from this very place - for here the mystery of the Risen One communicates new life all the more when we die. A dying priest realizes this in a particular way. He, just as is true of every disciple, must confront his own hostility to God and to the great purpose for which the Word summoned him into existence. At the same time, the sacred office entrusted to him is also implicated - so that even in death, he continues his ministry in the Church. Aside from this, there is little that he can disclose about the race he is running or the fight that he fights or the prize that he seeks to win. His faith is taking him across the unseen frontiers of fear, inadequacy and misery. If storms of pride and humiliation, doubt and regret threaten his heart, all of this is part of death when we seek to make it into an offering pleasing to the Lord. Those who pray for him enter into this arena with him. They do so without regard for what they understand or do not understand about the pathway Christ has called him to follow. They have come to help him make this final offering to the Lord, to accompany him as he follows the footsteps of His Crucified God. By adoring Christ with and for him, we keep him company on his journey to the Father's house. All this however is passing to the disciple resolved to persevere until he can persevere no more - and I believe Fr. Michael is this kind of soul. Such a faithful heart finds itself carried to the finish line by a love that surpasses its every expectation - and this is also true for priests. For the whole Body of Christ walks through the Valley of Death together under the Lord's rod and staff, and our prayers for one another flow from the springs and meadows through which He leads us. Our enemies assail us when we are at our weakest, but, by prayer for one another and perseverance in this great fight, victory is assured. We have this assurance because of the One who has gone before us. Indeed, when the struggle becomes too much, He lifts us on his shoulder and carries us to the sacred banquet prepared for us. Praying with Fr. Michael reminded me that with every act of love offered to God by a dying soul, peace envelops, establishes and shines through one's whole existence. By the prayer of faith, even in death, the whole world is made vulnerable to a love that it cannot contain. The passion of Christ is renewed. A pledge of future glory is given. This means that there is something Eucharistic in my friend's final agony - a sacred action is being accomplished by God as this dying priest struggles to surrender everything to Him. By the most humble assent, a baptism of divine fire surges through and infuses all one's powers of consciousness. The Holy Spirit produces an abundance of undaunted noble passions and the holy freedom to love, no matter how feeble they have been rendered by the disintegrating power of death. By even the most imperfect act of faith, spiritual space is made for the Father to raise up his Beloved again. This dying body and soul is transformed into an altar and an offering is made perfect even in the face of this most brutal trial. In the hidden offering of Christian death, spiritual worship is accepted by the Most High. Such a living sacrifice truly extends the saving power of Christ in space and time as the history of humanity unfolds. Each sacrifice of praise offered in the dying body of even the least of the children of God, Jesus humbly accepts in the Fire of Divine Love. With solemn gratitude, He joins this final holocaust into the mystery His own sacrifice on the Cross so that it might bear fruit for the glory of the Father. By the ministry of Christ's Body, one's death actually consoles God's Heart like no other gift man has to offer. For in death, those who believe become most like His Beloved Son. This sacred and unrepeatable sacrificial offering can only be made with the help and new solidarity of the Body of Christ. Indeed, the mystery of death, even as it would alienate the dying disciple from everything and everyone he cherishes, only increases the very loving solidarity and communion of holy things for which the Church exists. This is why at death such mysterious conversions take place. A new torrent of Divine Mercy is unleashed through all the imperfections of a soul's last offering to God. Sobered before such love, we find ourselves eager to repent and forgive and to seek forgiveness - and unexpectedly desiring to reconciled, wanting to be more patient, striving to persevere with one another just a little longer. Such great spiritual works remain hidden in the limits of human weakness, disguised in powerlessness even as time rushes on too quickly or not quickly enough. Is it not precisely because it is so hidden that the beauty of these graces are so heart-piercing? Sorrow and hope collide on this mysterious meeting place with God. As an update to this post, Monsignor Michael Glenn died on Friday, March 1, 2019. I am grateful for the blessing he has been in my life, in the life of my family, and in the lives of so many others. May he rest in peace.

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