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When people face death, what are their thoughts?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 23, 2014

In November of 1968, a Phillips gas drilling platform was hammered by a Winter gale. The waves of the North Sea pummeled the rig some twenty-three miles out of Great Yarmouth, England. During the height of the storm, with winds averaging about 50 mph, the rig crew suffered an enormous blowout from the hole they were drilling thousands of feet below. Instantly the entire platform was destabilized and filled with gas. As the men clung to safety nets dangling from the rig, the standby rescue ship Hector Gannet slammed into the platform and was holed. Three crewmen went down with her—the most obvious chance for survival lost to all the others.

The ship personnel and the those working the rig alike were tough and rugged men with all the faults of their kind, working hard during their “tours” and partying hard during their periodic shore leave. Ethnic prejudice was rampant, fights were common, injuries frequent and the abuse of their sexuality was practically a way of life. What were such men thinking as they clung desperately to life, certain that many of them would die?

I am aware of this particular disaster only because I’ve been reading Robert Orrell’s account of it in his 1989 book Blowout. Orrell, who was the radio man on the drilling rig, survived the initial disaster and the later attempt to plug the hole. He is extraordinarily frank in his portrayal of the lives of the men involved. I would not recommend the book to the faint of heart; in fact I am not recommending it at all. It is just something I’ve been reading because of my interest in sailing and other sea adventures, which eventually led me to this unusual title.

But precisely because Orrell is so frank, his book presents something very close to a paradigm for prompting the big question. His subjects lived lives of prolonged physical brutality, more or less continuously removed from what we might call improving influences, including spiritual influences. They were caught up in the high pay occasioned by the gas boom under the sea, and a great many of them apparently lived almost exclusively to earn and to spend in obedience to their own sensuality. Would such men think only of survival? Or would they think of salvation too?

The answer to that question is deeply rooted in what such men had heard of Jesus Christ, of God’s love, and of His infinite mercy. It is these hints, even if not previously followed, that a man facing death can dredge up in his last moments—but only if he has heard them.

We do not know when or under what circumstances the Holy Spirit will prompt a soul to turn to God. But we do know that it is very difficult to turn toward something about which one has heard nothing. We Christians may grow very weary of seeing our witness to Christ rejected, falling on deaf ears, producing no positive response, month after month and year after year—frequently ignored by family, friends and strangers alike. We may, in fact, become discouraged or, what is worse, timid. We may hold back. We may not wish to cast pearls before swine, and we may even come to believe that vast majority of men and women are swine.

But against those temptations is something just as real. I mean the monumental thing that we do not know, the circumstance and the moment the Holy Spirit will choose to prompt both a memory of the Savior. Our Christian comments may seem like so many ill-timed interventions, doing no good whatsoever. Yet the Spirit can and does prompt remembrance at the moment when it can do the most good.

So what are the last thoughts of someone in terror of approaching death? The answer makes a huge difference. Very often, it depends on us.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 27, 2014 12:13 PM ET USA

    Outside the acute setting the spectre of death is often denied or resisted. Whether 8 or 98 there is no good day to die. This mentality is also seen among Christians no matter the unseemliness of it all. There is a certain violence to death. We ought to do more to be proactive about death and the things pertaining to it.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 24, 2014 7:24 AM ET USA

    "Yet the Spirit can and does prompt remembrance at the moment when it can do the most good." A very encouraging thought. And, if we are to reach finally those who daily scorn the message we know to be absolutely essential, how should we try to present ourselves? I think we must keep the example of Pope Francis before us: say what has to be said in a calm and reasonable voice and remind our reluctant listeners not to despair, that mercy is just the other side of the door. They need only open it.