The Word: Dying Christ’s death

Published 10:31 am Saturday, August 26, 2023

In November 1640, two Jesuit priests trekked forth from their missionary base in Canada to evangelize a native tribe called the Neutrals in the vast wilderness above Lake Erie. Enduring tree splitting cold , they were insulted and turned away by nearly every Indian they met. In one village, a native finally agreed to let them have shelter in his hut, but the priests knew that meanwhile, a council was deliberating over their own execution. When the friendly native returned to his shelter to inform the priests of the goings on (which had ended with a narrow defeat of the death sentence), he was astounded to find the missionaries stretched out on the floor, sound asleep as if nothing were amiss These holy men, Jean Brebeuf and Joseph Chaumonot, knew perfectly well that death hung over their heads, but they were able to sleep peacefully. Strange as it sounds, they had practiced for death; and so, when they faced it, they were able to keep their equanimity.

How can one practice for an event so singularly irreversible? Archbishop Fulton Sheen writes, “We learn to die by dying, dying to our selfishness, our pride, our envy, our sloth, a thousand times a day. This is what Our Lord meant when He said: ‘If any man will come after me, let him…take up his cross daily, and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).

Death is the one second in our life that will determine where we spend our eternity. One dies as one has lived. If we spend our lives trying to follow God’s plan for us (despite the cost), trying constantly to act against our self centeredness, and obeying the laws of the Church (and repenting if we slip up), then when we die, we will have already built habits that will allow us to surrender ourselves peacefully to Our Lord.

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This does not mean that death will be painless or devoid of fear. We can hope, however, for it to be peaceful, not because of our efforts in themselves, but because of God’s mercy in conjunction with them. If having died slowly in our daily lives mean s that we let Christ live in us, then dying once and for all means letting Christ, Who died so painfully on the cross, die our death peacefully in us. Caryll Houselander writes of this in her book The Way of the Cross. Jesus gives us “His own will to surrender ourselves to Him…. When the time comes, Christ identifies Himself with us so closely that fear gives way to trust and anguish to peace. He has… died all of our deaths….”

Ultimately, Houselander is telling us that if we have striven make the words of St. Paul a reality in our lives, “For me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1,21) 1,21), then this identity with Christ will serve us well at the moment of death. “This is the supreme mercy that comes to us in the hour of death.”

Br. Maximilian Watner is on the staff at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Buckingham County. He can be reached at