The Details of Death

The Song of Songs by Marc Chagall

Lazarus died twice. In both instances, Jesus was far from his side. The first time he died in the uncertain hope of his people. The second, Lazarus entered death’s darkness, knowing Christ’s resurrection. 

Have you ever thought about how you’d like to die? Most of us don’t. When we imagine our deaths, we picture funerals filled with grieving relatives and friends, but not the details of our departure. Yet, as Ernest Hemmingway pointed out, “every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”


Consider then Saint John of the Cross, the details of his death. He died with ulcerating wounds, caused by Erysipelas, an acute infection of the skin and lymphatics. The friars with whom John had been living had sent him away to die. He was a soft spoken man, a silent dreamer with a warm smile, but John had introduced reforms into Carmelite religious life that roiled many.  Even the house where he was to expire was reluctant to receive him. The chill was so strong, one wonders if John hadn’t prayed to die as Jesus did, like one rejected. 

When death did come, the friars performed the expected. They gathered around the dying man to intone death’s penitential psalms. You know them. 

Psalms 6: “Do not reprove me in your anger, Lord, nor punish me in your wrath. Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shuddering.” 

Psalm 38 “Lord, do not punish me in your anger; in your wrath do not chastise me! Your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me. There is no wholesomeness in my flesh because of your anger; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.”

But the prayers had barely begun when John roused himself and requested something different.  He wanted to hear the Old Testament’s great ode to love, the Song of Songs.  It begins,

Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth,
for your love is better than wine,
better than the fragrance of your perfumes.
Your name is a flowing perfume—
therefore young women love you.
Draw me after you! Let us run!
The king has brought me to his bed chambers.
Let us exult and rejoice in you;
let us celebrate your love: it is beyond wine!
Rightly do they love you! (1: 2-4).

Odd verses for the deathbed, but, like his father before him, who had spurned a family fortune is order to marry the woman he loved, John of Cross had emptied his life of every attachment save love and faith.  He died of an infection, but it was love that took him.  In his poem, "The Dark Night of the Soul," John had already expressed the deep longing of his soul for union with God.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me—
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

As John saw it, his life of exiled longing was finally at an end. He had reached the threshold of the bridal chamber. That’s why he wanted to hear the Song of Songs.

Martin Heidegger said something very similar to Hemmingway about death. “Every man is born as many men yet dies as a single one.” He meant that at birth we differ from others only in circumstance and genes. The great divisions come as we make decisions about what matters to us.

Everyone dies. Even our Lord. Lazarus did it twice. No one escapes it, but the grace has been given to each of us to determine what death will mean and how we will embrace it.

Ezekiel 37: 12-14   Romans 8: 8-11  John 11: 1-45

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 9 months ago
How very inspiring, St. John of the Cross! May he pray for us. But about me, I do think about my death, which as a youth terrified me. But now, as an old man, terror has been replaced with wonder and awe, rooted in the Resurrection of Jesus. I understand and accept that if the Resurrection is a fable, only one thing is left – oblivion, nothingness, about which I will know nothing when death happens and there is nothing I can do about that! However, Faith tells me what’s coming is indescribably wonderful and on that “hat rack” of trust, I hang my hat! The details of burial I leave to my wife and children, making only two requests, #1 that I be buried at a Mass and #2 that having given my brain as a teaching tool for student doctors in a Senior Study, family will honor my intention and I have been assured they will. In fact my wife jokes with me saying, “As visitors pay their last respects, I’ll say to them, ‘I always said he didn’t have a brain’!” And my response has been “In the Land of the Living I’ll be singing with the heavenly choirs, the Scarecrow’s song from the “Wizard Of Oz,” ‘If I only had a brain’!” So, we are having fun with the whole thing. Talking about death, the following true story comes to mind. There was a Religious Order priest, considered by many to be exemplary in observing all the rules and customs, but very judgmental against those he deemed less fervent, even lax. As Superior of the Community his reputation was that of a “holy terror.” Then death came. As the priest lay dying he was terrified of God’s judgment mindful of the words of Jesus, “As you judge, so shall you be judged!” The poor man was miserable remember how harsh and judgmental he had been towards all. His Religious brothers gathered around him comforted him by reminding the good Father, that God is all merciful and totally forgiving. Fortunately the tormented priest did die in peace and I am sure now resides in the presence of God. That story has been formative in how I relate to people, and I understand well the “Who am I to judge” remark of Pope Francis, narrowly focused, but widely applicable. The Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that at death he hopes to hear Jesus say to him, “My Mother told me about you!” My good friend and holy priest Fr. Benedict J. Groschel, CFR once said when he sees Jesus at death he’ll say only one word, Merrrrrcy!” That suits me just fine too!
Beth Cioffoletti
4 years 9 months ago
What I struggle with, in death, is leaving the people I love. How do you do that? How did John of the Cross do that? How did Jesus do that?


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