“What are the four last things of man? Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell.
What is Death? Death is the separation of man’s mortal body and immortal soul.
Are we going to die someday? Yes.”
When it comes to existential questions, many people don’t agree with the classic answers of the small Catholic catechisms. But there’s at least one thing on which they agree with the Church: that someday, we are going to die.
However, a lot of people, even Catholics, never really think about death. They don’t see any necessity to think about it. Many years ago, somebody shared with me the testimonies of two former politicians of Québec; letters that each of them wrote a few days before his death. One of these men was a faithful and devout Catholic, and the other was not. The contrast is striking.
To keep this text short, I will only quote a few sentences of each letter. (Complete versions of the letters are available under this text.)
1st Testimony: Dr. Camille Laurin
“Since this thunderclap in October, announcing the near end of my earthly pilgrimage, my thoughts have taken a more loving and more eternal turn. In this painful hour, I unite myself to Jesus on the Cross, to give meaning to all my sufferings, my sorrows, my worries, my fears, my thoughts and my actions. This participation contributes to my purification and to opening my soul wider to Joy and Love.”
2nd Testimony: Pierre Bourgault
“I always made fun of death, mine and others’. But now, death is facing me in all its brutality, with a savage abruptness that uproots me with violence. It is the worst of all deaths, and it is mine. I have known, through all my life, unspeakable sufferings and heavy trials. But, put all together, they don’t weigh much anymore, compared to the torment in which I am immersed now.”
In the last days of their life, both men seemed to experience a “purgatory on Earth.” The difference resides in the fact that for Dr. Laurin, suffering had a profound meaning, whereas for Mr. Bourgault, the absurdity of suffering was even more painful then the suffering itself.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously said: “Life is a business that does not cover the costs.” Indeed, life is not easy. And if there is nothing after this life, if there is no relief for those who suffer with Christ and no recompense for those who die in the friendship of God, indeed life does not cover the costs. But if there is something after this life, if there is relief for those who suffer with Christ and recompense for those who die in the friendship of God, then life indeed is a business that covers the cost.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” (Romans 8:18)
“You must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” (Ephesians 4:17)
Memento mori. Remember you must die.
Complete Versions of Letters
1) Dr. Camille Laurin to his wife, a few weeks before his death
Since this thunderclap in October, announcing the near end of my earthly pilgrimage, my thoughts have taken a more loving and more eternal turn.
Jesus (“God is salvation”) has always been present for me, even if he was hidden under the veil of faith. I always intensively aspired to understand his joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. But despite their thirst of absolute and infinite, the sons of Adam can’t attain this understanding. But now, I have the joy of thinking that I will be soon in direct contact with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that beyond faith, I will find the answers to all my questions and be filled with the eternal joy of Light, Truth and Love.
While waiting death, watching our crucifix which is always in front of my eyes, I unceasingly give thanks to Jesus and His Father for the creation of the world, the creation of man and woman, the infinite love leading to the Incarnation, which made Jesus to be our human brother and made all humans to be the sons and daughters of God.
I also thank Jesus for my birth, my baptism, my parents, my family, my dear Francine and for all the graces that He never ceased to give me.
I thank Him for His teaching, which protected me and guided me to love God and my neighbors, especially the sick, the afflicted and those who thirst for justice.
I thank Him especially for His Eucharist, by which He is present in us, by which He tells us that He loves us more than we love Him, by which He gives us strength, support and light.
Finally, how could I not thank Him for the Redemption, which brought Him to suffer martyrdom for us, to endure the flagellation, the crowning of thorns, the bearing of the Cross and the Crucifixion. He gave His life to cleanse us from our sins, He resurrected from the dead to open for us the gates of the eternal Kingdom, where everything is Joy and fullness of Love.
In this painful hour, I unite myself to Him on the Cross, to give meaning to all my sufferings, my sorrows, my worries, my fears, my thoughts and my actions. My sufferings are small compared to what He suffered. But through them, I want to participate to the Redemption, my redemption and the one of my loved ones, the redemption of all humans, particularly the one of all those who don’t want to recognize His love. As St. Paul said, I want to complete in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. This participation also contributes to my purification and to opening my soul wider to Joy and Love.
This thunderclap also brought me and continues to bring me closer to you. I painfully felt the major upheaval that it provoked in you, the radical break that it brought into your life, the trouble, the obscurity and even the temporary loss of meaning that resulted from it. I saw in this an absolute proof of our unity, of the depth of our love. But it didn’t prevent me to share at every moment your dismay. What a terrible trial we are going through!
But your love is now slowly taking over. This love, I feel it intensely every day by a thousand signs: the meekness and the tenderness of your voice, your attentions always delicate, the constant and infinite care that you give me, the little pleasures that you ingenuously procure me, your support, your encouragements, etc. Our love is alive, is radiating more than ever, and nothing could fulfill me more.
Love is eternal. The forms, the circumstances, the modes can vary. But the bonds uniting souls are the first and only things that matter. Our bonds are solid, full of peace and happiness, and they will endure forever!”
2) Mr. Pierre Bourgault’s journal, two weeks before his death
“My heart is beating faster than usual and my brain is exploding. I am wondering which one will collapse first. Unless I take care of this myself, which would not be a bad idea after all.
I am drowning in contradictions. I am alive, but I am dead. I am resigned, but I want to fight. For a moment, I imagine myself going along the walls without raising my eyes; but then, I decide to raise my head and to bear the terrible looks of all my accusers, who, even yesterday, were still loving me.
I want to live and I want to die. I want to ignore the executioner, who doesn’t know what he is doing, but then I seek revenge. I want to sleep, but I want to keep vigil. I’m on, and then I’m off.
I always made fun of death, mine and others’. Everything stops and that’s it. I never wished my death, but I never tried to ignore it as well. I knew it would come in its time. I only wished that it would come softly and quickly, that it would take me by surprise, without any warning.
But now, death is facing me in all its brutality, with a savage abruptness that uproots me with violence.
Now I understand why it’s better not to know the day of your death. Because otherwise, you become a zombie. One morning you wake up, everything is fine. Then somebody tells you that you are going to be executed in the afternoon. Between the morning and the afternoon, there is an eternity. Not life,; but eternity, which as we know, can sometimes look like hell.
Yes, this is what I’m talking about: hell. I am plunged in it for the last 5 days, surrounded by all these demons, mine and others’. They are assailing me from everywhere and are dragging me through the mud.
I am nothing anymore. I am less than nothing. And yet, I still have rage. Yes, this type of rage that is more than anger, the incandescent rage that is burning and consuming me like fire does with the stake.
This has been going on for 5 days now. Not only is the fear not diminishing, but it is becoming permanently fixed. I know that the gun already spat its fire, but I don’t know when it is going to burn my brain. Unconsciously, I am already going along the walls and I don’t look my neighbors in the eyes anymore.
I am waiting. A waiting filled with every anguish, with every nightmare. I only move slowly now, as if I was frightened to get too fast to the goal. I look at my dog with more tenderness than usual, and I only see my flowered terrace through a kind of fog. I barely see the flowers, which are now vague stains of color vanishing in the blinding sunlight.
Now I know what craziness means: isolation, withdrawal, departure for elsewhere. I feel I am going crazy. I’m starting to understand that death and craziness are maybe one and the same thing. I can’t bear it anymore. Kill me, so that I might be done with this as soon as possible.
I am dead and I am alive. Absolute horror.
It is not death itself. It is death coming out of nowhere with humiliation and reproach. It is not simply death. It is death accompanied with an unjust judgment and a condemnation without appeal. It is death coming through shouts of revenge. It is the worst of all deaths, and it is mine.
I have known, through all my life, unspeakable sufferings and heavy trials. But, put all together, they don’t weight much anymore, compared to the torment in which I am immersed now.”