Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) was a Catholic convert, philosopher, and theologian whose deep thinking prepared him during his long life for fruitful meditations on death and eternity. Suffering for a number of years from heart failure, as the end approached his wife Alice reports that it took him only two weeks to write Jaws of Death: Gates of Heaven. In her foreword to the book she comments: “He knew that death came into the world as a punishment for sin. Therefore, in the first half of this book, he reveals its mystery and horror. He shows why we should fear death. It is meant to awaken fear in us, and does so in all but the most spiritually obtuse.”
Awakening was a key concept in Hildebrand’s philosophy of life. The child in its innocence who first discovers the fact of death is awakened to a horrible reality, often exacerbated by the gradual suspicion that if natural death alone is the end of life, what point is there to anything?
Much of modern scientific research is dedicated to prolonging life, but nothing in science has anything to say about what we should do with our lives if we ever defeated death altogether. Would earthly immortality not approximate an eternal Hell of a natural order? But the first really powerful awakening we experience, the one that shakes us to the very roots of our being, is the death of one we truly love. Speaking of his own first wife, Hildebrand shares his powerful experience of her death.
And then she dies. Her eyes are closed, motionless. She has ceased to speak. Communication with her has become completely impossible. She cannot hear my voice, nor can I gaze into her eyes or strain to hear her voice. Her body is cold. The very hands that once responded to my touch are lifeless. Her body is then committed to the earth, and I am surrounded by a dreadful emptiness, and unspeakable desolation…. She is dead, but everything else goes on as usual. Things which in comparison to her are quite valueless continue in existence: the clothes she once wore, the empty bed, the traffic in the street outside, the weather, the practical things of everyday life. All these have survived, but she is dead!
Even in the face of death and the body’s physical decay, the soul cries out against the loss of the beloved’s soul and refuses to believe it dies with the body. The precious love between the one still living and the beloved’s soul gone from its body cannot end. But where did the beloved’s soul go if it does not rest in the earth with the body? For Hildebrand the cry to remain in spiritual contact with the beloved is itself a kind of argument that the departed soul must still exist; that we must believe that not only for the beloved, but for ourselves, or else all is lost forever. Of all creatures on earth only man can explore the past and the future of his race. There must be a reason for the fact that man does not exist eternally in the present: he can reason himself to have been created by God, and he can reason himself to have been created for a purpose that will outlast his physical existence. Without God at the forefront in our sense of creation, the human soul cannot be regarded as any more important, sacred, or lasting than the animal spirits of our fellow creatures who were made for man but not made for eternity. Made thus to desire immortality and the immortal love of the beloved, how can it be that such desire should be denied by the very God who planted the desire in us? Only one who is without faith can feel the deepest sorrow of all in the presence of a dead loved one. Hildebrand cites a verse from Novalis about Christ:
Without you what would I have been?
What without you might I be?
A prey to fear and dread and sin,
I’d stand alone and nothing see.
For me no love would be secure,
The future but a dark abyss.
A Godless Death
For one who is without faith, so long as he is in good health and comfortable circumstances, the fear of his own death hardly ever occurs to him as a matter of great and terrible significance. Yet such a person cannot escape the growing conviction through advancing years that death is for him the ultimate end beyond which nothingness lies. He must come to conclude in time that at the end he will become stiff, lifeless, cold … decay, decompose, and stink…. The deep promises contained in love, goodness, and beauty would be a lie. Earthly life would indeed be ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ We can choose such a horrible death, of course; but who would want to choose it, and why?
Evading Personal Immortality
Apart from the evidence provided by religious faith that the soul exists and is immortal, there is evidence of a purely natural type. It does no good to insist, as some do for the sake of consolation, that beyond death and in the grip of nothingness there is no suffering. It is not suffering that the soul fears so much as nothingness. It is the loss of one’s personal existence that decides the matter once and for all. Atheism is tantamount to the acceptance of a kind of spiritual suicide. It is this suicide that historically all of mankind and all religions have fought against. Nor does it do any good, as pantheists do, to offer the consolation that at death we are merged back into the universe, and therefore do not actually cease to exist. In effect, we become all is morally equivalent to we become nothing in particular.
The Great Divide
The most disturbing thing about death is that, other than what our faith reveals, we know nothing of what it is like to exist without a body. How does consciousness carry on divided from the only partner it has always known … the brain? We will not know until we shed our body and venture forth without it. Shedding the body is not losing something we love, for the body is not an object of love – at least, in the deepest sense of that sacred term ‘love’. You might be sorry to lose a leg, but you do not love your leg, so you are not losing something you love. You might reverently bury your leg, but you do not offer prayers for it because your leg has no meaning for you beyond the use of it, and the use of it can substituted by an artificial device. The great divide between soul and body was also stressed by Plato when he rightly described the body as a prison for the soul. Being liberated from the body at death, Hildebrand opines, “Our natural ignorance about the fate of the soul after death goes so far that we have no idea what knowledge about this world survives in the soul of someone who has died.”
Man’s Metaphysical Grandeur
God saw fit to endow man alone with his sense of God, with his sense of good and evil, with a sense of his eternal destiny, and with a sense of himself as the most gifted of all God’s creatures. In short, man alone is a metaphysical being. Hildebrand cites a famous passage from Pascal’s Pensées: Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him…. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. It is death that brings our natural human greatness to an end, for it is by death that our grasp of the entire universe, including our human body, is brought to an end. But our supernatural being, our soul which is nobler than the universe, cannot be brought to an end. For (and this is the most metaphysical of questions) why would God create so vast and unthinking a universe, and put in it so noble a creature, if all were for nothing in the end?
Longing for Death
The horrors of death are normal, mainly because we do not know exactly what lies beyond; what we do know is that we must die. For the person without faith, there is a kind of certainty that all does not end well, that we become in our entirety fodder for worms. This notion does not give joy, but rather a conviction of despair. Living with such despair is the enemy of our lust for life, and is the seed of all thinking about suicide. Suicide is in fact a kind of murder, and is a sin because all murder takes from God the right to call us to Him. It is, moreover, the one sin we cannot repent of since we are dead before we can repent. Yet there is longing for suicide among those who despair because they see death as a form of liberation from their physical or mental suffering. Hildebrand cites the experience of the young lovers Jacques and Raissa Maritain when they were students under the influence of the positivism that was rampant at the Sorbonne. They had decided to commit suicide together because of the conviction they had acquired that absolute truth does not exist. They were only saved from despair first by a meeting with Henri Bergson, and later by coming under the influence of a Dominican friar who introduced them to Thomas Aquinas.
Another kind of longing for death will be found among those who have lost a loved one, and therefore have lost the most precious thing that gave meaning to life. This will be especially common among the elderly. The feeling is developed that the only way to restore the loss of the loved one is to join the loved one in eternity. But here again we do not know whether being joined again to the loved one will happen. This is because we do not really know the shadowy land of the far country beyond death. That the soul will find supreme beatitude we are promised; and promised also that we will see God face to face. But, Hildebrand offers, “The place to which our soul goes cannot be reached by thought. Where is Heaven? Where is Purgatory? Where is Hell? Here we come up against an impenetrable mystery.”
Our Life as a Pilgrimage
Life is a pilgrimage that would not have any meaning if we did not know our destination: eternal life beyond death. The fact that in this world we are working toward that destination makes this world “even more meaningful and charged with dramatic interest.” Heaven or Hell is in the offing. The mystery of where we are to end ought to make solving the mystery more interesting than anything else in life. The person who is indifferent to eternity, or even cannot seem to imagine the idea of eternity, has a metaphysical compass on a par with dumb brutes. Such a person is bereft of imagination, hope, and reason. The person who sees the combat within him of good and evil, and knows that good must overcome evil, knows also that there is a reward for good and a terrible consequence for evil. It is so in this world (where the good are free to prosper and the wicked – many of them anyway- are imprisoned) and it will surely be so again in the world to come.
The Christian approaching death has the advantage the atheist will not have. Whereas the latter believes his conscious self is doomed to dust along with his body, the Christian knows that an awesome judgment approaches, and he is anointed with the baptism of hope to believe that he will come face to face with his Creator. And so the dying Christian’s fear of God’s judgment is tempered in a way the unbeliever will not experience, though a deathbed conversion likely offers the unbeliever at least a moment of calm before the end. While the atheist can only breathe his last breath with grudging sorrow and resignation, Hildebrand notes, the believer is not resigned at all; indeed, his heart aches to meet with “God’s infinite mercy and with our Holy Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who has opened for us the gates of Heaven.”
While death is a solitary experience, it is followed by the communion of saints. We will be united to all those we have loved who have themselves been saved. Best of all, we will be united with Jesus Christ forever, an ecstasy that will be denied to those who have denied him and sought in every way to resist his love (Matthew 10:32). As Thomas Aquinas assures us in his hymn Adoro Te Devote:
Jesus! Whom for the present veiled I see,
What I so thirst for, O, vouchsafe to me:
That I may see Thy countenance unfolding,
And may be blest Thy glory in beholding.
Focus on Hope
No one can fail to notice that Christians from their early years on have their focus on eternity. Anyone not a Christian (and therefore more easily duped by the devil whom they deny exists) will be swayed by various demonic strategies to ignore eternity and dwell only on the here and now. Christian children at baptism are imbued with a metaphysical view of life. They understand from the teachings of Christ that death is meaningful, not because it is the end of life, but because it is the moment of judgment that opens one of two doors into eternity. Behind one door stands hell’s grinning Satan waiting to punish; behind the other stands Jesus Christ waiting to bestow eternal friendship on those who desire it and have proven their love. This makes of life a tremendous adventure with great triumph or loss at stake. The unbeliever sees death not as an adventure, but on the contrary, as an easily defined gateway to nothingness.
“Christian hope is directed to our union with Jesus,” Hildebrand says. The inherent humility of the Christian is that he cannot save himself by himself. The unbeliever lacks this powerful humility; for the unbeliever is like one who, seeing that he cannot by himself save himself from death, reckons death to be the absolute end point of life. Proudly he refuses the helping hand of Jesus, which is forever offered to help him up the ladder of perfection. If he points out that there is no Jesus to offer a helping hand, he is stuck in the dilemma of not knowing this for a certainty. While he may regard all things religious with a comfortable skepticism, he is dogmatic about there being no Christ and no helping hand to guide him to his eternal destiny. About Jesus he is rabidly skeptical, even to the point of doubting whether Jesus ever truly walked the earth; but about his own cynicism he is never in doubt.
Christ Transforms Death
Hildebrand puts it thus: “The light of Christ illuminates the darkness of death.” If we do not die, we do not get to see God face to face. Christ therefore has, for Christians, transformed death from a curse into a blessing. Indeed, the death of a saint is a moment of joy, not dread, because as the apostle Peter reminds us, God is calling us “out of darkness into His marvelous light.” From the supernatural view, we may look at life as a long sleep in the darkness of the soul, and death as an abrupt awakening to the great world after this one and the ecstasy of suddenly realizing that the anxieties of our natural life are overcome by the long awaited embrace of Jesus Christ. That is a thing to look forward to, rather than to dread.
Longing for Permanence
The human soul longs for permanent perfection in this life. But this does not and cannot exist. Change is the law of all nature. This does not stop certain dreamers of permanent perfection on earth from pursuing their dream. The so-called “progressives” are forever scheming ways to create social utopias that are perfect and unchanging. One notices that among these dreamers the name of Jesus Christ is rarely mentioned with veneration, but often enough with loathing. It is a virtual given among unbelievers that if perfection cannot be found in the next world because there is no next world, it may possibly be found in the here and now. Even the decay of our bodies by natural aging is opposed as scientists frantically pursue medical ways to slow down, or even stop, the aging process itself. But all such is in vain, as the only perfection to be found that will answer our longing is to be transfigured once and for all by the love of Jesus Christ.
Death as a Punishment and a Gift
Since Adam and Eve the end point of our existence has always been heaven or hell. Death was the great punishment for the original sin. Before that sin there was no need to be anxious about death. Our knowledge of that punishment, however, now induces us to take our end more seriously. As Hildebrand puts it: “Death now sorts out what really matters. Now what matters is how we have lived our earthly life. What have we done here? What have we failed to do? The worthless things, of course, which appealed to us because of some pleasant feature, now sink into insignificance.” Death then, is not just a punishment but a gift. As Death approaches we are awakened (awakening is the gift) to the seriousness with which God regards us after all the years and all the sins we have committed. God’s final embrace is not a certainty, and so we are given by a loving God the final chance to re-examine our lives and contritely prepare ourselves for final judgment. The enormity of the moment of dying is not to be taken lightly. Even many an atheist has, at the hour of his death, learned to choose hope over despair.
Christian View of Death
Death will be approached without absolute horror if the fullness of grace within us makes this possible. Now the Christian believes, and should believe without doubting, that God’s grace flows into him and fortifies him against despair. This is precisely the nature of grace (grace defined as all the gifts we get from God) that it flows constantly into us if we are open to receiving it by an act of free will. The flow of grace is turned on by God, and turned off by us, either by our sinning or from our lack of faith, or both. God does not force grace upon us. It is we who forcibly stop that grace from entering us. Grace is a current of spiritual energy so that we can climb the ladder of perfection that reaches to heaven. Therefore, the Christian’s death ought to be a peaceful one. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Having climbed the ladder of perfection as far as we were able, death is, for the Christian, the moment when he can cease his struggle and rest in the embrace of Jesus Christ.
There are, of course, various levels of faith among the faithful. A weak and confused faith does not contribute much more than hope. A strong faith produces both hope and conviction. As death approaches, it is only the strong faith that will ease our anxieties as we get ready to die. How we make our faith stronger, then, is of the utmost importance. Those with doubts need to search for convincing answers to their doubts. Catechesis is important, but so is constant prayer for the grace of conviction. Avoiding literature that challenges faith is likewise important. Some Christians are lured into skepticism by reading such popular books against Christianity as those by Bertrand Russell, H.L. Mencken, Ayn Rand, and others. Rather, we should read books of spiritual uplift, such as those about the lives of the saints and how they grew in their faith even when seriously tested. Seeking encounters with lay Catholic groups will reinforce our conviction that our faith has produced much good for us and others. Accordingly, we begin to realize that we do not pass alone through death’s door to judgment.
To those who say that faith is comforting but illusory, the table should be turned by asking about the consequence of unbelief. In today’s world we do not have to look very far to see how the lack of faith has produced not only discomfort, but more importantly, an environment (where lack of faith is dominant) in which the devil more easily has his way. The decline of religion throughout the world can be seen to have produced the startling rise of immorality of every kind that people living a hundred years ago could not have believed possible. Not only that, but we see a willful and bolder effort by secularists to persecute people of faith. The illusions secularists attribute to Christians come back to haunt them. It is illusory to suppose that a world without God is going to be a comfortable or a sane world to live in. Because unbelief is based on a lie we wish to believe (Jesus, speaking a truth, called the devil a liar and a murderer) murder most foul will follow as unbelievers burnish their weapons for the destruction of Christianity. At that time the courage to have faith will matter more than ever in preparation for death and the final judgment.
Christian faith is recognized as the first of the three great virtues (faith, hope, and charity) named by St. Paul. Faith generates in us the hope and love of God, which God has a right to expect of us. Without faith there is no love of God, no way to answer his first commandment to love Him above all and our neighbor next. So we are obliged to choose between love of God and love of Satan. Our faith in God is not only a recognition of how worthy God is to be loved, but also to be thanked for all the good things in life he has bestowed upon us. The Christian knows a depth of gratitude that the unbeliever cannot know, for the unbeliever generally does not believe there is a God to thank. So the believer, as death approaches, sincerely utters the words of thanksgiving that his faith has generated in him.
A Death Pleasing to God
We do not for a certainty know the time or place of our death, which is the doorway into eternity. It is therefore imperative that we be prepared for judgment by regarding the occasion seriously enough to pray constantly that we will have a death pleasing to God, a death in which we have been reconciled to Him without reservation, a death in which we have pleaded for more mercy than justice. God favours those who ask, but how likely is it that He favours those who think themselves so good that judgment is beyond their concern? For this reason, even prayers before sleep (taught to children to encourage the lifelong habit) can be a wholesome remedy for dying in one’s sleep. Blaise Pascal pondered that we might think always to pray daily as if we had eight hours left to live. This would not be a morbid habit so much as a spiritual tonic. The rosary’s “Hail Mary” is filled with incessant pleadings to Mary to intercede for mercy at the hour of our death, just as she interceded on behalf of the bride and groom at the marriage feast of Cana. Jesus protested that his hour had not yet come, but she overcame his protest. When our own hour has come, she might do so again.
Dying with Jesus
Departing this life brings sorrow for leaving behind the ones we love most. But because we love Jesus more than all else, the pangs of parting from those who live on are softened by the anticipation of at last meeting in person the One we ought to love most, the One without whose love for us nothing else would matter, nor would we even exist. As Hildebrand puts it: “Love has two innermost tendencies or intentions: union and benevolence, which can almost be spoken of as the genius of love. These can develop fully only when the lovers meet each other in Jesus Christ, only when their love is anchored in Jesus.” For Hildebrand, when we love someone who does not love Jesus, we find immediately a rupture (mild or severe) in the union that ought to exist in order to find pure love and benevolence. It is not difficult to notice that when one of two lovers belongs to Jesus and the other does not, there is a barrier to true and benevolent union. The one who does not belong to Jesus can hardly know the same graces of love bestowed upon the one who does, and this lack of grace in the end can sometimes lead to enmity, or abandonment, or betrayal.
Hildebrand aptly closes Jaws of Death: Gates of Heaven with a quatrain from the medieval prayer, Anima Christi.
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come to Thee,
That with the saints, I may ever praise Thee
Forever and ever! Amen.
Alice von Hildebrand spoke eloquently of her husband’s death in 1977:
Dietrich von Hildebrand received Holy Communion for the last time on Tuesday, January 25. I shall never forget the ardor with which he recited the Anima Christi, that prayer he loved so deeply. With an intensity of faith that sprang from the very core of his ardent soul, he repeated three times to Christ the words, “Jube me venire ad te” – “Bid me come to Thee!” These were practically his last words – he who had spoken so often and so beautifully about eternal life. My husband had a very restless night. Then, early Wednesday morning, he asked for a drink of water. After receiving it, he fell back on his pillow. Dietrich von Hildebrand was about to taste the waters of eternal life.