19th Per Annum 2019
On Friday we celebrated the Feast of St Theresa Benedicta, who died in the Nazi concentration camps in 1942. She’d ended up there because she had been born Jewish, even though she’d later converted to Christianity and become a nun. The concentration camps were, of course, horrendous places where millions were executed. We have an eyewitness account of St Theresa Benedicta arriving at Auschwitz on 5th August 1942: “She made a striking impression by her great calm and composure. … Sister Benedicta walked about among the women, comforting, helping, soothing like an angel. Many mothers were almost demented and had for days not been looking after their children but had been sitting brooding in listless despair. Sister Benedicta at once took care of the poor little ones, washed and combed them, and saw to it that they got food and attention.” This calm and patience was after she’d been transported in a truck over several nights and stolen away from her convent.
How would you have behaved in such a situation? What would have been your priorities? Lying low? Thinking of a way out? Finding your own friends and family? Telling everyone how rough your experience had been? Or, like St Theresa, soothing like an angel. Indeed St Theresa by these acts of love and her ability to focus on them in the midst of such unkindness and such hatred revealed herself to be a great inspiration of the faith. Faith, after all, as we heard in our second reading from Hebrews 11, and only faith can “prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen.” Theresa showed compassion in a place where it was hard to see and this required faith, faith in God, faith in His promises and faith in His power. And we heard a long and inspiring list of people who have showed faith: Sarah when she thought her age would hinder her becoming a mother; Abraham when he thought his background would make it impossible for God’s promises to be fulfilled.
Faith is our business here and now: this is what we are to be about, proving the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen, showing God’s love. Jesus tells St Peter this in our Gospel reading: “‘What sort of steward, then, is faithful and wise enough for the master to place him over his household to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Happy that servant if his master’s arrival finds him at this employment.’” My friends, are you ready for the Master’s return? Yes, Jesus will come back again to judge the living and the dead. It might be this evening. It might be tomorrow morning. It might be in a hundred years time long after our own death. But we can’t claim that we weren’t told about it! “See that you are dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” Jesus says to us in the Gospel this evening. I want to think briefly about the two different ways our life will end on earth: our individual, natural or sudden death and then the possibility that Christ will return and our lives will end with everyone else’s.
The death of a faithful, ordinary Christian soul is nowhere so beautifully and perhaps so famously given than in Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem, Dream of Gerontius, set to music by Edward Elgar some hundred years ago. The opening line is, “Jesu, Maria, I am near to death and thou art calling me; I know it now.” The first thing the dying Gerontius asks for is prayer: “So, pray for me, my friends, who have not strength to pray.” The prayers the assembled dutifully mutter can be heard reemerging in his consciousness. Gerontius then dies and describes it thus:
“I went to sleep; and now I am refreshed,
A strange refreshment: for I feel in me
an inexpressive lightness and a sense
of freedom, as I were at length myself,
And ne’er had been before.”
He recalls the fading away of the prayers of his friends and then a silence. And then something fills the silence:
“Another marvel: someone has me fast
Within his ample palm; ’tis not a grasp
Such as they use on earth.”
This grasp on Gerontius’ hand is his guardian angel, who introduces himself saying, “My Father gave in charge to me this child of earth, e’en from its birth, to serve and save, alleluia, and saved is he.”
Notice the support that is given here by the prayers of the friends and the tight-holding of the hand by the Guardian Angel. All this unites Gerontius to the work of redemption won by Christ. We can choose to be availed of this support or to live our lives creating our own pretend supports which will ultimately fail us. The choice is ours.
This is an important thing for us to remember when we come to consider the other way our life might end, namely the return of Christ in judgement when the whole of humanity will be raised, some to eternal blessedness and others to eternal damnation. We see it in the parables Jesus gives in the New Testament where sheep and goats are separated out (Matthew 25:31-46), where those who have actually practised their faith and not just nattered on about it are differentiated from those who simply say, “Lord, Lord,” (Matthew 7:21). Remember the somewhat daunting image contained in the revelation given to St John in the last book of the Bible: that of a book in which is contained a record of our deeds and of those things we could have done but did not do. St John records seeing: “the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.” (Revelation 20:12-13). We’ll know already some of things to be recorded there about, but there’ll be some there that will surprise us no doubt because we have not sufficiently reflected on our life.
The difference between our own individual death and the final judgement will be that the latter will be a shared experience, of course. Everyone being done together, we might say. George Herbert imagines this scenario in a couple of his poems, referring to this moment when God “shalt call for every man’s peculiar book,” this book in which the deeds are recorded. The soul continues:
“What others mean to do, I know not well,
Yet I hear tell,
That some will turn thee to some leaves therein
So void of sin,
That they in merit shall excel.”
In other words, the temptation for some will be to have the audacity to say to Jesus, “I never did anything wrong,” which itself would be a lie, of course.
Elsewhere this experience of being raised with others is described somewhat comically imagining bodies lying next to each other being raised to new life:
Make no delay
Summon all the dust to rise
Till it stir, and rub the eyes;
While this members jogs the other,
Each one whispering, Live you brother?”
Faith proves the existence of realities yet unseen, my friends. And that includes the reality of our own death which so many seek to control by overly planning their funeral, or by having odd things at their funeral, or by living lives so immaturely that death never seems nearby. The reality of death is not to make us sullen, or mournful, but will stop us being preoccupied with stuff that has no relevance in eternity and will mean when we’re in our equivalent of St Theresa Benedicta’s concentration camp we will find ourselves “soothing like an angel.” Amen.