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Death the Awakener

by Valentine Long, O.F.M.


In this pamphlet, Fr. Long teaches us how to live happily by focusing on our ultimate destination, heaven. He says, "When a man’s vision stops at the horizon of this world, he becomes nothing more in his own mind than an earthbound prisoner serving a life term, and he can only wait for death to put an end to it—and to him. Where there is no touch of heaven in daily routine, there can be no splendor of hope to brighten the outcome…Death, in sanctifying grace, is but death to our exile; it is the discovery of home."

Publisher & Date

St. Anthony's Guild, 1962

She was his pin-up girl; he, a policeman who meant nothing to her. She probably did not know he existed. The whole country, of course, was learning more and more about her.

She was hailed as a rising celebrity. People said she was "going places." They were right: already a standout in the Follies, she was now, upon invitation, packing her trunk for Hollywood. She left the East, a marvel of health and youth, tingling with the hope of coming back to Broadway in pictures. As for the policeman, he remained on his beat, secretly nursing his admiration for the chorus girl whose beauty would soon look out upon the highways of America from a thousand billboards.

The Chorus Girl Makes Good

Arrived in Hollywood, she set to work with a will. In that bedlam of competition there was no stopping her. She accepted minor roles in stride, facing the cameras with a consummate skill, an innate poise, which seemingly required a minimum of coaching. She was a "natural," and had only to bide her time to receive — as she soon did — the assignment of a lead. She gave it her fullest effort, which proved more than enough: the picture was destined to take the country by storm. She had lived up to expectations, and was now a Hollywood star.

However, the strain of achieving that stardom was more than her health could stand. By the time the picture was released its leading lady found herself back East, in a hospital. Medical science did its best by her, but she continued to grow weaker as the fame of her picture mounted. Nationwide tribute was hers. Schoolgirls envied her. Mothers called their babies after her. Men pretty generally shared the policeman's sentiments. She had all America talking of her, culling the newspapers for the story of her dramatic rise. She had indeed returned to Broadway, as she had fondly dreamed, in a great picture — her first and last.

One night particularly, the fortunate theater could not sell tickets fast enough; curiosity ran high in Times Square; all the Great White Way, it seemed, poured in to see the former Broadway chorus girl. But she was not there to see herself. Atop the Times Building, overlooking the gaiety of night life, the blunt news was making its rounds in huge electric bulbs that she was dead.

A policeman in civilian clothes tarried in that gay setting. He looked as if he might have lost his way. He stood amid the swirling crowds — to all appearance, a one-man tableau expressing Contemplation. A cluster of lights, blinking merrily from the marquee of the movie house, held him spellbound. Those lights, their reflection flitting brightly on and off his face, were flashing her name. "The poor girl," he thought to himself—and was jolted out of a pedestrian's way. His mood was plainly not in tune with the bustling frivolity of the street. He found not one face in all that crowd that gave any sign of missing her loveliness. He glanced over the Square. Lights everywhere were working frantically in a riot of advertisement, a riddle of merriment and wasted energy. What was it all worth, this dazzling maze of competition? A beseeching look came over the policeman's face: the beloved name on that marquee had no answer. Its winking sportiveness only mocked his bewilderment.

In the theater, he had not gone far down the aisle when he stopped, his heart missing a beat. There was the close-up of a face on the screen, as if its familiar youthfulness had rushed out of the photoplay to greet him. How lustrous were those eyes, gazing into the theater's darkness like deathless stars! A gasp was audible here and there in the crowd; the atmosphere seemed charged with a sense of tragic irony. In a moment the close-up had faded back to the story, and the policeman sat down to view the airy trivialities, which surrounded the heroine. She acted her part with abounding vitality — to a curiously quiet audience. Her laughter rippled out over the rows of solemn faces, receiving no laughter in return, so that the building was filled with queer little echoes of her mirthfulness. Her every attempt at repartee fell as into a huge reservoir of hushed curiosity. The audience was obviously gripped by the realization that the spirited actress chattering her lines, flaunting her charms, falling in love, would do none of that again.

The Policeman Thinks It Over

The policeman closed his eyes to the quick-moving scenes, yet upon the screen of his imagination she persisted. He could not close out the haunting reality of her. But he saw her in another kind of setting: a softly lighted room in which groups of onlookers stood by, a wealth of flowers offered their fragrance, and she, America's latest glamour girl, lay unaware, her hands folded across a stilled bosom, her loveliness asleep under the fitful gleam of candles. The visualization drew a sigh from the big man; and presently his lips were moving to the rhythm of a remembered line. Then her voice from the photoplay cut merrily into his thoughts. What was she saying? Certainly not that "the paths of glory lead but to the grave." He reopened his eyes.

How superbly she played her role! How sure of herself she was! She dined, she danced, she flitted from pleasure to pleasure as if her capricious will were the center of the universe. She drew the playboys around her, only to treat their homage as lightly as a cigarette to be inhaled and tossed away. That strange authority which beauty imparts, she had in abundance. She blithely dominated every situation. The dialogue, the settings, everything in the motion picture revolved about her vital pride of person. Who would have guessed, that so soon… The policeman brushed away the thought. He had had enough.

Leaving the theater, he walked fully ten blocks before realizing he had been walking at all. Then, from force of habit, he halted consciously. He had often turned off the Avenue here. Would he do it now? Not far down the street to his left stood a familiar tavern. A few drinks would ease the gnawing sense of futility that possessed his soul. Yet, did he want to ease it in that way? It would only revive tomorrow, troublesome as ever, unless he went to the root of its cause. And there came to his mind the thought of a church, situated not much farther away than the tavern, but in the opposite direction. He remembered passing that church frequently; remembered, too, from the talk of friends, that confessions were heard there continuously, till well into the night. He looked at his watch: there was still time. At that crossroads of traffic, he knows now, he was facing the crisis of his life. The grace of God prevailed. At the crossroads of his destiny, he turned heavenward.

The Policeman Turns A New Leaf

It was not easy after so long a neglect of the Sacrament; but, with the help of an understanding priest, he did it—unloaded the accumulated sins of nineteen years. If he had shirked the brief difficulty of lifting that dead weight from his soul, he would have had a long continuation of misery in exchange. He has never regretted that he did the hard thing then. He felt the difference at once: the exaltation of a great new joy surged through his veins. He could hold his head up again in God's world; he could look an angel in the face. Absolved in the Name of the Blessed Trinity, he had recovered his right to kneel at the communion rail and once again "taste and see that the Lord is sweet." And that made him feel good through and through, brightening his routine, his environment, his whole outlook. Life no longer bore for him the look of a mad pursuit of pleasures stopping at a tombstone. Now there had come hope, a spiritual light upon his path, which he had only to follow to find God waiting at the end with a Father's outstretched arms. It was as simple and inviting as that, and the policeman set forth with the eagerness of a boy. To be sure, he was still an exile on earth, but he was going home.

And with the confidence of that new vision in his soul, with candor born of gratitude, this policeman likes to tell his story to others, bidding them tell still others. It is not an unusual story. The like of it crops up constantly in the history of famous conversions. St. Margaret of Cortona had been nothing better than a pampered concubine until the sight of her slain lover forced her to her knees — and her senses. St. Francis Xavier had watched death toppling one celebrity after another from the insecurity of worldly eminence, when the divine question clinched the issue. "What does it profit a man," he had heard St. Ignatius quote — and needed to hear no more — "if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his soul?" And almost to the detail did the policeman's awakening parallel that of St. Francis Borgia.

Courtier Into Saint

A favorite in the court of Charles V, who happened to be emperor as well as king, the saint had in his youth borne the title of Duke of Gandia. But he would have surrendered his dukedom, if that had been necessary, just to be a page of the Empress Isabella. To Francis, she possessed the beauty of a paragon, the poise of a goddess. Whatever she did, he thought, was done in a manner befitting her personal sovereignty. She glided down the winding stairway in her trailing robes with authoritative charm; she stepped upon flowers thrown in her path as if her foot conferred a privilege; she walked by statesmen with the confident grace of an innate superiority. It didn't seem possible that the ravages of time would ever touch her.

But they did. Death struck her down. And the shock, too great a heartbreak to be taken lightly, left the Duke of Gandia in a quandary of grief. He stood at her bier, looking, bewildered at what he saw. Could it be possible that this motionless form lying in state had once swayed to the rhythm of the dance, a glittering daughter of gaiety, alive with laughter and charm? Could it be true that beneath those cold eyelids the sparkle had burnt out? That from those pale lips the red warmth had faded? That what remained of her silenced beauty was even now going the way of all flesh, and against the threat of contagion would have to be sealed away, at once and forever, in the tomb?

It was a changed man who turned away from that royal bier. He had had enough of the transitory splendor of the gayest court in Europe, having seen how it must always end. Its favorite duke would give up his title, become once again plain Francis Borgia; and he did. As with the policeman, when his nonpareil of feminine grace had closed her eyes in death, he opened his to the true meaning of his life on earth. The death of his idolized Empress was to mark the birthday of his own sainthood.

Let us repeat: it is an experience, under whatever variation, that has happened to God alone knows how many others. For the records indicate that nothing can so startle a soul out of its worldly illusions, nothing has proved so effective in bringing a man or woman sharply up to reality, as the snatching from life of someone who has been taken for granted. A funeral can be a spiritual education.

Even Novels Have Funerals

It does, at any rate show up the world for what it is. Our modern realistic novels prove that. When death strikes near, their more intelligent characters take thought. It stuns them, brings them to a temporary standstill in their absorbed pursuit of the things of mortality. And they begin asking themselves, in their own style, the same old question, which prevailed with the policeman, with Margaret of Cortona, with Francis Xavier and Francis Borgia. Only, lacking the guidance of the Faith, or the will to follow, these typical characters of our pagan times seem unable to find the answer. They are left sunk in a misery from which they seem to know no way out.

Sophia Baines in Arnold Bennett's Old Wives’ Tale is such a one. She meets her divorced husband at last, when he lies dead on "a naked mattress." The sight forces a cry of anguish from the once haughty woman who, trembling from head to foot, pictures herself as one day "lying on a bed like that." The picture is to materialize sooner than the divorcee expects: she dies about twenty pages later.

But what are the questions wrung from her stricken soul? Two of a kind: "And what shall I have lived for? What is the meaning of it?" The author follows up with the comment that the riddle of life was too much for her. "She seemed to drown," he says, "in a sea of inexpressible sorrow." She was, of course, a woman without God.

And she missed her chance. Death had done its part; she failed to learn. That corpse had pleaded with her in vain.

The same applies to Philip Carey, the pivotal figure in Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage. An introvert by nature, he was thoroughly driven into himself by the double shock of Cronshaw's, then Hayward's, death. Both had been his friends. One evening after work, Philip walked in on Cronshaw. He found lying huddled in bed, an open-mouthed human form that needed an undertaker. "Philip gave a cry of dismay," runs the text. And it took him the rest of the chapter to get over his deepened sense of life's futility. "Philip was puzzled, and he asked himself what rule of life was there… Life seemed an inextricable confusion." Nor was he any nearer a solution when Hayward died. Once again, the inevitable question asserted itself. "Philip cried out in his soul: 'What is the use of it?' " Then follows, in Maugham's best manner, a paragraph on the vanity of human endeavor, the kernel of which is, sure enough, the familiar refrain: "What did it all mean?"

Poor Philip Carey! Poor Sophia Baines! They were near, but fell short. The answer of the saints eluded their grasp. These visits of death to their little social circle had indeed laid a wilting frost upon their prospects. Yet all the disillusionment notwithstanding, they were no wiser for the experience. Their cry was that of exiles, who in a pagan wilderness had lost knowledge of where their true home was. They felt that life was hurrying them on to nothing more than a measured hole in the ground, to be covered over, and forgotten. Was it worth living for?

An Archbishop Goes Home

By contrast, the hero of Willa Cather's story Death Comes for the Archbishop lives through the chapters with a serenity that grows ever more beautiful. Nothing can shake it — sorrow but feeds that deep, abiding tranquility, which has in it the pent-up songs of a great hope. The Archbishop is simply saving those songs for the Beatific Vision, and quietly, submissively, grandly, goes about his high duties. "I shall not die of a cold, my son," he tells an attendant at his sickbed. "I shall die of having lived." Then comes the climax; the long wait is over; and at last the bell is tolling in his beloved cathedral, calling Santa Fe to attention, announcing the glad tidings to the saddened hearts of his flock. Their "Father Latour" has left — for home. Death is not something that befalls the tired old saint; it "comes for" him.

All three novels have admirably dealt with life as it is. If The Old Wives' Tale and Of Human Bondage gather nothing but gloom from funerals, if they lack the piercing vision of faith which reflects heaven on the dying Archbishop's face, the cause lies in the characters portrayed. Willa Cather deals with a son of the Church; the other two authors, with religious orphans. Such thorough pagans as Sophia Baines and Philip Carey cannot logically be expected to see beyond the grave; their philosophy goes no further. Shortsighted materialism, if honest, cannot make any other but pessimistic reading. When human life is reduced to a mere animal level, it naturally loses all zest of aspiration so that even its treatment of love is not very lovely. A Philip Carey under the spell of the "grand passion" does not find it grand at all; but why should that be surprising? He is of necessity shown to feel "as a dog"—or worse, for a dog has no regrets. Nor does a dog have its pleasures embittered by fears of death. It is not unfair characterization; it is rather a faithful concentration of pagan emotion, pagan uncertainty, and pagan gloom, in one man. His kind, if one may trust the verdict of modern fiction, all seem to develop their individuality from the common denominator of four experiences: they grow up—fall in love — see their mistake — look forward to being hauled away in a hearse.

It is not a flattering, yet it is a searchingly true picture of human nature without divine faith. When a man’s vision stops at the horizon of this world, he becomes nothing more in his own mind than an earthbound prisoner serving a life term, and he can only wait for death to put an end to it—and to him. Where there is no touch of heaven in daily routine, there can be no splendor of hope to brighten the outcome. But at least it is the haunting specter of death which shatters all pretense in the godless Sophias and Philips, and forces such cries from them as show clearly that to enjoy even this world deeply, a person must first believe in the next. The philosophers who reason otherwise can no more stifle these cries for something above earthly reality, than they can expect to blow out, with their paltry breath, the stars of night. Our realistic novelists have recorded the bitter truth.

The Church Sees Through Death

The prospect of annihilation does indeed take the edge off earthly striving, and the joy out of pleasure itself; but right here the Church of God raises her voice to contradict the pessimism of the world. "You misinterpret funerals," she tells the materialist. "Man is more than you realize. His soul defies the coffin. His body will one day escape the grave. Nothing can destroy his existence. Let him but avail himself of sanctifying grace to possess, already on earth, a happiness not subject to breakdowns — a serenity which, having no fear of death, has no fear of anything — a composure which finds in every pain a means of merit, in every pleasure a foretaste of the culminating ecstasy of the Beatific Vision — yes, let him first avail himself of so exalted a security, then let him throw back his head, fling out the laughter of his faith to the very stars, speak his mind with the defiant irony, the divine disdain, of St. Paul: ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ "

The Church is not afraid of death; she sees through it. In a good man's death she certainly finds nothing to weep over, for she is convinced it has put an end only to his chronic homesickness — by taking him home. To her faithful ones she plays up this stimulating truth. To those of her children, on the other hand, who need warning, she does not hesitate to say that the devil is making fools of them, and that they must stop him before death makes, in the most literal sense, damned fools of them. But she sounds the warning from the same motive as prompts her encouragement of the faithful. She wants to be able to tell death, when it arrives for each one of us: "This soul is for heaven. Through the merits of Jesus Christ, take it there!"

Nobody Can Escape

The Church emphasizes the inevitability of death, to be sure; but not for death's sake — for life's. She reminds the plutocrat that he cannot buy off death; the glamour girl that she cannot charm off death; the philosopher, the magistrate, the prima donna, that they cannot argue away, order away, sing away death; indeed, any and all that, however fleet of foot or cunning of mind, they cannot sneak out of this world alive. She has even accorded death the honor of a festival on Ash Wednesday, lest we forget or belittle its paramount significance. It is not an empty gesture, it is an expression of her alertness in an impractical world, that through her priests she marks our forehead, uttering the while that stern reminder: "Dust thou art." For that matter, she has utilized an extremely popular prayer for her purpose, closing every Hail Mary with the plea that the Mother of God remember "us sinners now and at the hour of our death." The Church goes further still, invading, in her sermons, the very haunts of hilarity: spotlighting the loveliest girl she can find there, in this night club or that dance hall, in order to describe her as she will one day lie, encased in the silk lining of a mere box.

However, the Church does all this only because she loves that girl, and all mankind, with a mother's heart. And loving us so, she will spare herself no effort to have us prepared. She is no killjoy — on the contrary, she is the lone saviour, in a mad world, of our true happiness.

The great mother of souls has the divine courage to face the issue. Worldly criticism has never been known to deter her from driving home her lesson. She will not shrink from citing the highest-sounding names, if she thinks that will invigorate or lend dramatic force to the obviousness of her moral: that death plays no favorites. In one breath she may tell how death lurked in the traffic of a busy street to claim some unknown pedestrian; and in the very next how, in 1942, it awaited the crash of a transport plane to claim the famously beautiful Carole Lombard, who had bought her ticket for California, but landed in eternity instead. And with every other actress of those Hollywood studios, the Church is not reluctant to add, death has a date — and it shall be kept. On the calendar, somewhere between January 1 and December 31, just as there is for each of us a birth-date, so—the Church will never let us forget — there is a death-date, a day destined to be, though we know not which it is, our last on earth.

It is her solicitude, which, in a hundred such ways, coaxes us not to set our hearts upon the transitory, nor yield our souls to the mirage of the false, but rather to cultivate the wisdom of sanctifying grace, an intimacy with the Christ of her altars — as did her saints, and Archbishop Latour, and in the end that policeman. Approach death we must: why not in the friendship of Jesus? He alone of all our intimates can sweeten the anxiety of our last hour. He alone of all our companions can still be our Companion, in Holy Viaticum, when that dread hour strikes and we must go.

The Only Way To Heaven

If we go thus divinely, our soul shall find death nothing worse than a triumphal arch. It will not cost us our life; it will open upon a glory exceeding, beyond the reach of imagination, that perfect natural bliss our first parents once forfeited in the Garden of Eden. Death, in sanctifying grace, is but death to our exile; it is the discovery of home. Why, then, should we have merely faith enough to go the hard way, and not a sufficiency to go, as did Francis of Assisi, with a song on our lips? What is there so terrible about heaven?

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