Not so very long ago, Catholics were taught to remember the Four Last Things – death, judgement, Heaven and hell. We are certain to experience the first two – but we will attain only one of the final two.
This was to remind us of our mortality and of the reality of eternity; and that the latter is of greater importance than the former. In other words, it was an aid to keeping things in proper perspective. As a visual reminder of this, many people possessed a ‘Happy Death Crucifix’, on which was found a small skull and crossbones, beneath the feet of the Crucified Christ. This particular Crucifix could be specially blessed so that the user could obtain particular indulgences at the hour of death. It kept the thought of death, judgement and eternity before our eyes.
Today, it can seem as though we have perhaps lost something of that sense of our mortality, of the finiteness of life – and this can sometimes extend almost to the point of our believing that we are immortal. The reality, of course, is quite different.
In the Divine Mercy devotion, we are constantly reminded of the reality of eternity. The Merciful Lord frequently bemoans the loss of so many souls, lost forever as a result of the choices they make in life. He offers souls a final choice in life, the option to choose Heaven over hell, God over self. It can seem extraordinary that a soul would choose hell over Heaven – but in life, we set our course repeatedly and so in that sense, the final destination can perhaps be guessed by looking at the choices we make – although we must always be careful never to presume to know the eternal fate of any soul, good or bad. And for this reason, we should never neglect to pray for any soul because we believe them to be already in Heaven – God alone can judge and only He sees into hearts.
However, the Divine Mercy devotion reminds us of something crucial – that God is mercy, and He constantly offers us the means to choose wisely, even so late in the day of life. Even in the very last moment of life, God’s mercy is offered to us – we need only embrace it. Such is the limitless mercy of God that He spares no effort to wrap us in His tender mercy, pleading to us to come back to Him; even if our sins have been as scarlet, He will wash us whiter than snow. But our ability to choose ends at the moment of our death.
To embrace the mercy of God takes trust. And trust is the heart of the Divine Mercy devotion. The Lord gives us the Image of Himself as the Merciful Lord, on which are found the words – ‘Jesus, I trust in You’.
Those souls near the point of death are the very souls which are most in need of that trust; but they are also the souls for whom it can be hardest to trust. To trust means to abandon oneself into the merciful Heart of the Lord, to let go of self. For a soul consumed with self throughout life, this is not easy. Nor is it easy for a soul who is broken and hurting because of the bitterness of life, to believe in those last moments that God truly is Love – and that this Love is unconditional – and, believing this, to step into eternity. Other souls are filled with anger, with pride, with envy, or with simple indifference. All these human emotions can be very deeply rooted. And yet, the grace of God can accomplish all things. The Divine Gardener can bring beauty out of the most weed-strewn garden – but only when we permit Him to do so, for He will never over-step our free will.
Even for the soul who has lived in the grace of God during life, the approach of death is often a fearsome thing – it is unknown, unpracticed and we experience it alone.
Many of the Saints, close to death, looked back upon their lives and reproached themselves for so many wasted or lost opportunities to do the will of God. Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, for example, died saying ‘pray for me, poor sinner’. Whilst sentiments such as this are a mark of humility, they are also a mark of the closeness of the soul to God, that we see – finally – as the Lord sees, rather than with human eyes. Such a soul sees the gravity of all and every sin, the offence it causes to the Lord and to His Divine Justice, the damage it does to our soul and the just reparation it demands. But that perception is tempered by the knowledge that God is indeed Mercy, that the Son of God died upon the Cross precisely for souls in need.
The Diary of St Faustina speaks often of the need to pray for the dying; it points out the reality of our ability to assist those poor souls by means of our prayers and sufferings, and it gives us a most powerful means of doing so – the praying of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
St Faustina records in her Diary that she heard these words from the Eternal Father –
“At the hour of their death, I defend as My own glory every soul that will say this Chaplet; or when others say it for a dying person, indulgence is the same. When this Chaplet is said by the bedside of a dying person, God’s anger is placated, unfathomable mercy envelops the soul, and the very depths of My tender Mercy are moved, for the sake of the sorrowful Passion of My Son.”
And on various occasions during her life, she was directed to pray for particular souls who were approaching their final end, often going on to describe the grace and peace which enveloped those souls as they passed from life to eternity, such as on this occasion –
“I saw someone dying.. and just then, I heard a voice in my soul: ‘Say the Chaplet which I taught you’.. I knelt by the dying person and, with all the ardour of my soul, I began to say the Chaplet. Suddenly, the dying person opened her eyes and looked at me; I had not managed to finish the entire Chaplet when she died, with extraordinary peace. I fervently asked the Lord to fulfil the promise He had given me for the recitation of the Chaplet. The Lord gave me to know that the soul had been granted the peace He had promised me. That was the first soul to receive the benefit of the Lord’s promise. I could feel the power of mercy envelop that soul.”
On another occasion, St Faustina writes this –
“This evening, a certain young man was dying; he was suffering terribly. For his intention, I began to say the Chaplet which the Lord had taught me. I said it all but the agony continued. I wanted to say the Litany of the Saints, but suddenly I heard the words, ‘Say the Chaplet’. I understood that the soul needed the special help of prayers and great mercy. And so I locked myself in my room and fell prostrate before God and begged for mercy upon that soul. Then I felt the great majesty of God and His great justice. I trembled with fear but did not stop begging the Lord’s mercy for that soul.. His suffering then ceased and he died peacefully. Oh, how much we should pray for the dying! Let us take advantage of mercy while it is still the time for mercy.”
And so, clearly it is within our power to assist those souls approaching death. And it is equally clear that the Lord wishes us to do so, for He offers us a very particular and immensely powerful means of obtaining mercy for souls who will shortly enter eternity. All we need do is make use of those means, praying the Chaplet – like St Faustina – with great confidence for souls.
The Lord tells us, through the Diary of St Faustina, that if a soul prays this Chaplet only once, it will receive mercy at the hour of death; that alone should be a great encouragement to us to pray this extraordinary prayer of intercession.
But how much better, to pray this Chaplet often for the intentions of the dying, begging the Merciful Lord to grant His final graces and mercy to all the souls who will shortly stand before Him for their particular judgement – and especially those who do not trust in His mercy, or are fearful of approaching Him, or whose choices in life have taken them far from the Lord. In mercy and in charity, let us keep all the souls of the dying constantly in our prayers.
One day we, too, will stand amongst those souls nearing death – and which of us would not hope for such a soul to pray for us in that moment?