“Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you have died; and your life is hid with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3. 2-3
The Church encourages us to meditate on the Final Things on – on death and judgment, heaven and hell – and to think of them not only when others die, but to prepare ourselves for the end of our own lives. Countless works of art and literature have been devoted to this meditation. The Divine Comedy, Vasari’s Dome, the Sistine Chapel – each of these is a meditation on the Final Things rendered in dramatic scale to help remind us of their great significance, and to probe our hearts, so that, in the midst of life, we might have eternity in mind.
The striking thing is that these meditations remain a glimpse; however masterful, they fall short of their goal, for death is ultimately a deeply individual and dividing experience. We die alone, and we face God alone. We leave all else behind. Even in the death of these closest to us, we remain on the side of natural life, and continuing to live in the world, we cannot accompany them where they now rest. However tragic the severance, it remains exactly that: a deep separation that can not be undone. And it is meant this way. Our attempts to bridge the divide propel us to a deeper experience of the union between the material the spiritual dimensions of our own lives. We long for eternity and communion even as we remain expectant. Strangely, death begets either despair or hope; if hope, then the longing grows and tends heavenward as it desires reunion.
St. Paul’s exhortation to “mind the things that are above” speaks of this longing as a reminder that if our present is heaven-bound, the limitation of the human heart to ascend to those things at are still beyond our grasp and understanding is slowly perfected. The divide will not be so vast if we live now for the life that is to come. This kind of thinking helps reflect on the gifts of the life of grace, through which already now we enjoy a foretaste of divine intimacy. “Mind the things that are above” he exhorts us, as if to say that the time is now to already live the life and the union of love that is promised us in eternity.
We read accounts of holy men and women who look forward to death for this reason. A strange thing happens when hope is purified: the fear of death no longer blinds us, or holds us bound to this life. The vision of what we mean when we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body” slowly unfolds, and reveals to us that the things that are below must undergo the Cross to be redeemed. As we worry about our natural decay, we forget that the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation is the elevation of fallen human nature and frail human flesh past the threshold of the grave and into the new life of risen glory.
Each a time we experience the harshness of death around us, we have a choice to make: to grieve the natural loss of life with hope, or to do so in abject despair: to believe in life after death, or to succumb to the dividing abyss of terminal lifelessness.
Five years ago, as we mourned the death of a daughter, I would have said that the Incarnation mattered, as if it were an idea worth noting. In the years that have followed I have come to see how much it does, and further, how it changes everything. That God became a man, and that Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead to give us a share in that same Resurrection, is a reality that places us at the heart of the mystery of redemption.
“And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
We can experience the harshness of death and think of the resurrection as a distant hope that we assent to ideologically, or we can know it is the truth—our final end—and have it give us life already now. “Where I am, you may be also.” It seems then, that the strongest bonds of human love are given us to develop a far greater union, for the human heart can love what is human, but it can also ascend beyond itself and love God, and in that love begin to hope for and love that which is properly Godly: the life of God himself, which is Life in superabundance.
It is a marvel that throughout the course of history each death that has come to pass has not destroyed this love. One would think that for all the grief and heartache in the world, for all the separation of death throughout the ages, we would have long given up on loving God. But it turns out that the strongest loves we know beget even deeper loves. As a mother loves a daughter, and as that love sometimes grows in absence, one is given to see the mystery of this kind of union – an invisible threshold only hope can trespass. Once crossed, what is unleashed in the human heart is nothing short of the full power of grace, which in collaboration with our reason leads us to understand that however real the stark separation of death is, so also real is the communion of eternal life.
And so it is that we can express this stark reality as St. Paul does: “You have died”. In referring to the death of sin, he makes a point about natural life as well. Yes, those who are dead are not alive, at least not in the natural sense of being alive, and we grieve them. And yes, we are dead spiritually as well. Sin deadens the life of God in us. We can grieve as well what is spiritually dead in us – those tendencies towards despair and doubt, towards habitual un-charity, towards bitterness and self-love.
Yet, in both senses, the death St. Paul speaks of is not the end of the journey. “You have died”, he says, but he continues: “and your life is hid in Christ”. The conjoining of death and hidden life is precisely the experience of learning to believe and love what is veiled, what is not evident, what is not with our reach or before our vision, what we may grieve never having known, what we may not be open to receiving through the mystery of grace. But to say we will never know it is to betray ourselves. For what we do not see is merely hidden, veiled for a while, often silent to human ears, perhaps too brilliant for tired eyes.
What is this limitation for? Why the struggle, the blind searching, the tears, if not to teach us, to give us a chance to learn that ultimately any life, our own life, depends on the one who is Life, and who became one of us, to be the Way by which we will live once for all.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”
1 Corinthians 2.12
In the end, those moments of overwhelming loneliness, of grief, of futility when all we do seems in vain, lead us into this meditation—the meditation of the things that remain hid in Christ, whose meaning only grace can reveal, whose emptiness only He can fill. The test of faith is played out in shadows, in realizing we are dead, and in the living out of this death, to be recreated—to be born anew.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, I hope in His word; my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for daybreak.”
In the hours of the night, should we dare enter the tabernacle of our souls, we might find the burial cloths set aside, and hear again the voice of angels announce the dawn of hope. For He has not left, and though He died, yet He is alive. Hidden. Among us.
“The dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new.”
+ Maria Caterina Agnese Giovanna Grizzetti
12 June 2012
On the fifth anniversary of her death