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CHAPTER XXI. How We Should Learn to Die, And of The Nature of An Unprovided Death.
The Servant.—Eternal Wisdom! if any one were to give me the whole earth for my own, it would not be so agreeable to me as the truth and the advantage which I have found in Thy sweet doctrines. Therefore, do I desire from the very bottom of my heart that Thou, the Eternal Wisdom, wouldst teach me still more. Lord, what is that which belongs, above all things, to a servant of Eternal Wisdom, who is desirous to live for Thee alone? Lord, I should like to hear about the union of pure reason with the Holy Trinity, when, in the true reflection of the eternal birth of the Word, and in the regeneration of her own Spirit, reason is ravished from herself and stands face to face with God.
Eternal Wisdom.—Let not him ask about what is highest in doctrine, who still stands on what is lowest in a good life. I will teach thee what will profit thee more.
The Servant.—Lord, what wilt Thou teach me?
Eternal Wisdom.—I will teach thee to die and will teach thee to live. I will teach thee to receive Me lovingly, and will teach thee to praise Me lovingly. Behold, this is what properly belongs to thee.
The Servant.—Eternal Wisdom, if I had the power to fulfill my wishes, I know not whether, in this temporal state, I ought to wish anything else, as to doctrine, than how to die to myself and all the world, how to live wholly for Thee, to cherish Thy love with all my heart, to receive Thee lovingly, and to praise Thee lovingly. O God, how blessed is that man who is able to do this, and who consumes in it his whole life. But, Lord, dost Thou mean a spiritual dying or a bodily dying?
Eternal Wisdom.—I mean both one and the other.
The Servant.—What need have I, Lord, of being taught to die bodily? Surely it teaches itself when it comes.
Eternal Wisdom.—He who puts his teaching off till then, will find it too late.
The Servant.—O Lord, it is still somewhat bitter for me to hear about death.
Eternal Wisdom.—Behold, even this is the source of those unprovided and terrible deaths whereof the towns and convents now are full. Behold, death has often bridled thee secretly, and had fain ridden thee from hence, in the same way as he does the countless multitude, one of whom I will now show thee. Open, therefore, thy interior sense, and see and listen; see what grim death is like in the person of thy neighbour, do but mark the lamentable voice thou wilt hear.
The Servant heard with his understanding the voice of an unprepared dying man cry aloud and speak as follows: The sorrows of death have surrounded me.1111 Psalm xvii. 5 Woe is me, Thou God of Heaven, that ever I was born into the world. The beginning of my life was with crying and weeping, and now my departure from it is also with bitter crying and weeping. Alas, the sorrows of death have surrounded me, the pains of hell have encompassed me! O death, O furious death, what an unwelcome guest thou art to my young and joyous heart! How little was I prepared for thy coming! Thou hast attacked me from behind, thou hast run me down. Thou leadest me away in thy chains like one that leads a condemned man bound and fettered to the place where he is to be slain. I clasp my hands above my head, I wring them with anguish in each other, for gladly would I escape from him. I look around me into all the ends of the earth to see if any one will give me advice or help, and it cannot be. Death I hear thus fatally speaking within me: Neither learning, nor money, nor friends can avail thee; thou art mine by right. Alas, and must it be so? O God, and must I then depart from hence? Is a last separation really at hand? Woe is me that ever I was born! O death, what art thou going to do with me?
The Servant.—Dear man, why dost thou take it so hard? This is the common lot of rich and poor, young and old. Many more have died in their youth than in their old age. Or wouldst thou, perhaps, alone escape death? This would prove a great want of understanding in thee.
The unprepared dying man.—O Lord, what bitter consolation is this! I am not without understanding. Those are without understanding who have not lived for Him, and who are not frightened at death. Such persons are blind; they die like cattle; they know not what they have before them. I do not complain that I must die; I complain that I must die unprepared. I do not merely lament the end of my life, I lament and weep over the delightful days which are so utterly lost and vanished without any profit. For truly I am like an untimely and rejected abortion, like a blossom torn off in May. My days have sped swifter than an arrow from the bow. I am forgotten as though I had never been, like a track which a bird makes through the air, which closes behind it and is unknown to all men. Therefore are my words so full of bitterness, therefore is my speech so full of woe! Oh, who will enable me to be as I once was, to have again those pleasant times before me, and to know then what I know now! When those times were mine I did not rightly estimate them; I, foolish man, let them pass swiftly away; now are they vanished from me; I cannot recall them, I cannot overtake them. No hour so short but I ought to have valued it more preciously and thankfully than a poor man about to receive a kingdom as a gift. Lo, this is why my eyes shed salt tears, because they cannot restore what I have lost. Woe is me, O God; that I should have feasted so many days away, and that it profits me now so little. Why did not I learn to die all the time? O ye blooming roses, that have still your days before you, look at me and learn wisdom; turn your youth to God, and with Him alone occupy your time, so that what has happened to me may not happen to you. Ah, me! how have I consumed my youth! No one would I believe; my wayward spirit would listen to no one. Alas, now am I fallen into the snare of bitter death! My days have vanished, my youth has sped. Better were it for me had my mother’s womb become my grave than that I should so have squandered away my time.
The Servant.—Be converted to God; repent of thy sins; if thy end be well, then will all be well.
Unprepared dying man.—Alas, what do I hear? How shall I do penance? How shall I now be converted to God? Seest thou not how terrified I am, how exceeding great is my distress? Even as a little bird caught in the claws of a cruel falcon, and become senseless in the agony of dying, I am unconscious of everything except that I would gladly escape and cannot. Death and the bitterness of separation oppress me. Alas, the repentance and free conversion of him who is capable of right doing, what a sure thing you are! He who puts you off will hardly fail of being himself put off. O long protraction of my amendment, how much too protracted hast thou not proved! My good intentions without works, my good promises without performance, have ruined me. I have said to God, Tomorrow and to-morrow, till I am fallen into the night of death. O Thou Almighty God, is it not a misery above all miseries, ought it not deeply to afflict me, that I should thus have lost the whole of my life, my thirty, my forty years? I know not that I ever spent a day wholly according to God’s will, or that I ever rendered to God, as in reason I ought to have done, a truly acceptable service. Oh, how the thought cuts me to the heart! O God, how wretchedly shall I not stand before Thee and the whole heavenly host! Lo, now I am departing hence; and now, even at this hour, a single Pater Noster, uttered with devotion, would rejoice me more than if anyone were to put into my hands a thousand pounds of gold. Ah, my God, what have I not eternally neglected, what evil have I not inflicted on myself in not having seen this while it was in my power! What hours upon hours have escaped me! How have I allowed myself to be led wrong by small things in the great affair of my salvation! It would now be more agreeable to me, and would procure me more eternal reward if, from divine love, I had foregone the pleasure I took at the sight of a friend, when such pleasure was contrary to God’s will, than if that friend were to demand a reward for me from God thirty years long on his knees. Hear, hear, all men, a lamentable thing: I go begging round and round, because my time is short, and beg a small alms out of the merits of good people as an expiation for myself, and it is refused me; for they are all afraid lest they should want oil in their lamps. Alas, Thou God of Heaven, let this move Thy compassion, that with my healthy body I could have earned such great reward and wealth on so many a day when I went about idle, and that now this small alms, begged only as an expiation, not as a reward, for which, moreover, I should stand indebted, no one will give me. Oh, let this, ye old and young, go to your hearts, and hoard up in the good season while ye can, so that ye may not become beggars, and be denied in an hour like this.
The Servant.—Alas, my dear friend, thy distress rends my very heart. By the living God, I conjure thee, give me some advice so that I may not come into trouble.
The unprepared dying man.—The best advice I can give thee, the greatest wisdom and prudence on earth, is this: That thou prepare thyself by a full confession of and an abstinence from all those things with which thou knowest thyself to be infected, and that thou hold thyself at all times ready, as though thou shouldst have to depart hence in a day, or at latest in a week. Imagine now, in thy heart, that thy soul is in Purgatory, and doomed to remain there ten years for her evil deeds, and that this year alone is granted thee to help her in. Look at her very often, see how woefully she calls out to thee and speaks to thee: O thou my best beloved friend, reach me thy hand, have pity on me, and help me to pray that I may speedily come out of this raging fire of Purgatory, for I am so miserable, that there is nobody, except thee alone, to help me, with charitable works. I am forgotten by all the world, because every one is busy about himself.
The Servant.—This were a choice doctrine for whoever might actually feel it like Thee in their hearts. But though Thy words are so piercing, yet do people sit here and give little heed to them; they have ears and hear not; they have eyes and see not; no one will really die before his soul departs out of him.
The unprepared dying man.—Wherefore, when at last they are caught on the hook of death, and cry aloud in woeful distress and cruel pain, they are not heard. Lo, even as among a hundred persons who wear the appearance of holiness (of others I will say nothing), not one pays attention to my words, that he may be converted and reform his life, so is it come to that pass that among a hundred, not one but falls into the snare of death unprepared; as also certainly happens to those who die suddenly, or in an unconscious state; for the comforts of the body, perishable love, and the greedy pursuits of sustenance, blind the multitude. But if thou wouldst be delivered from this miserable and unprovided death, then follow my advice. Behold, diligent meditation on death, and faithful assistance given to thy poor soul, who appeals so piteously to Thee, will advance thee so far that thou wilt not only be without fear, but more, thou wilt expect death with all the ardour of thy heart. Think of me every day, and write down my words in the bottom of thy heart. In my bitter distress see what thy future lot will be; look what a night this is. Oh, happy the man, that ever he was born, who arrives well prepared at this hour, for his passage will be a good one, however bitter his death; behold the bright angels will guard him, the saints escort him, the celestial court receive him; his final marching forth will be a glorious entry into his everlasting fatherland. But me, alas! where will my soul lodge this very night in that strange, mysterious country? Oh, my soul, how art thou utterly forsaken! O God, how very miserable she will be among all miserable souls! Who is there that will help her with entire fidelity? And now let me put an end to my sad complaints; for my hour is come. I see now that it cannot be otherwise. My hands begin to grow cold, my face to turn livid, my eyes to lose their sight. Alas, the shocks of furious death wrestle with my poor heart. I begin to fetch my breath very hard. The light of this world begins to vanish from me. I begin to see into the next world. O God, my God, what a sight! The horrible forms of black Moors assemble together; the wild beasts of hell surround me. They gloat over my poor soul to see if it will be theirs. O Thou just judge of the severe judgment seat, how very heavy in Thy scales are those things which in ours are so light! The cold sweat of death bursts, from very anxiety, through my flesh. Oh, the wrathful aspect of the severe judge, how very sharp Thy judgments are! Now let me turn in spirit to that world where I am led by the hand into Purgatory, and where, in the land of torments, I see anguish and distress. O God, I see the wild, hot flames dart up on high, and meet over the heads of suffering souls. They wander up and down amid the dark flames, and great is their affliction. What heart would like to contemplate our pangs, the bitterness of our woe? Many a sad cry is heard. Help! help! ah, where is all the help of our false friends? Where are the fair promises of our false friends? How have they deserted us, how have they utterly forgotten us! Oh, have pity on us, some little pity; at least you our best beloved friends! What services have we not rendered you, and how are we now repaid. Oh that we should not have warded off these sufferings when we could have done so with things so trifling! Is not the least torment here greater, much greater, indeed, than any torment ever was on earth? One hour in Purgatory lasts a hundred years. Lo! now we boil, now we burn, now we shriek aloud for help; but, more than all it is our misfortune to be deprived so long of the joy of His countenance; this it is that cuts through the heart, the sense, the soul!—And thus I expire.
The Servant.—O Eternal Wisdom, how hast Thou forsaken me! O God, how has death all at once become present before me! Alas, thou soul of mine, art thou still in my body? Lord of Heaven, do I still live? Ah, Lord, now will I praise Thee, and vow reformation to Thee till death. Oh, how very terrified I am! I did not think death was so near me. Truly, Lord, this sight shall not fail to profit me; every day I will be on the watch for death, and will look about me that he take me not by surprise. I will learn how to die; I will turn my thoughts to yonder world. Lord, I see that there is no remaining here; Lord, in sooth, I will not save up my sorrow and repentance till death. Oh, how terrified I am at this spectacle, I marvel that my soul is still in my body! Begone, begone, from me, soft reclining, long sleeping, good eating and drinking, perishable honours, delicateness and luxury! If but a little suffering here is so painful to me, how shall I ever endure immeasurable agony? O God, if indeed I were now to die thus, how would it be with me? What a load have I not still upon me! Lord, this very day I will set a poor man1212 According to a practice of the middle ages. to pray for my poor soul, and since all her friends have forsaken her I will befriend her.
Eternal Wisdom.—See; this shouldst thou diligently look to whilst thou art in thy youth, and whilst thou hast still time to make things better. But when, in truth, thou hast reached this hour, and thou canst not make things better, then shouldst thou look at nothing on earth, except My death and My infinite mercy; so that Thy trust may repose wholly in Me.
The Servant.— O Lord, I prostrate myself at Thy feet, and I beseech Thee with bitter tears to chastise me here as Thou wilt, only keep it not in store for me in the next world. Woe is me, Lord, the fire of Purgatory and its unspeakable torments, how could I ever be so foolish as to think lightly of them, and how do I now stand in such great fear of them!
Eternal Wisdom.—Be of good heart, this thy fear is the beginning of wisdom, and a path to salvation. Or hast thou forgotten how all the Scriptures declare what great salvation is contained in the fear and diligent contemplation of death? Thou shouldst always praise God, for not to one in a thousand has it been granted to know Him, as to thee. Listen to a lamentable thing: they hear it spoken of; they know of it beforehand, and yet they allow it to pass by, and heed it not till they be swallowed up by it, and then they howl and weep when it is too late. Open thy eyes, count upon thy fingers, see how many of them have died around thee in thy own times; talk with them a little in thy heart; join thy old man to them as though it were dead; question them together; see with what fathomless sighs, with what bitter tears they will say: Oh, blessed is he that ever he was born, who follows sweet counsel and, in the misfortunes of others, learns wisdom! Prepare thyself well for thy departure hence; for truly thou sittest as a bird on the bough, and art as a man who stands on the water’s edge, and looks at the swift sailing ship in which he will presently take his seat, and sail away for a strange land whence he will never more return. Therefore, so regulate thy life that when the ship comes for thee thou mayest be ready, and mayest joyfully take thy departure hence.
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