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Christ has broken the bonds of death


Dominican commitment: “Each friar is also obliged to recite five decades of the Rosary each week for those self-same deceased.” Photo:: CNS

THAT paraphrased quotation from 2 Maccabees 12:46 seems a particularly apt focus this November – the month traditionally ascribed by the Church for particular suffrages for the dead.

As it happens, the Dominican order places tremendous importance on praying for the dead, particularly deceased members of the order and its benefactors.

We are constitutionally required to recite Psalm 129 – the De profundis (“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord”) – in common every day, together with a series of accompanying prayers imploring God to have mercy on the souls of the dead.

In the Australian province the psalm is prayed as part of the Grace said before the main meal of the day – I often feel this focuses the mind in a rather pointed way before sitting down to take our daily bread.

Moreover, there is a Mass celebrated within each convent every week for deceased members of the order, benefactors and familiars.

In addition, there are particular days assigned throughout the year for the celebration of a Mass of the Dead for the anniversary of fathers and mothers; benefactors and familiars of the order; and brothers and sisters.

Each friar is also obliged to recite five decades of the Rosary each week for those self-same deceased.

The Order of Preachers has such a focus on the souls of the deceased – an inherent component of the broader mission to preach for the salvation of souls – that there is an old saying, once well-known: “It is best to be born Benedictine, live as a Franciscan and die a Dominican”.

The idea being, of course, that in ending one’s life within the order an individual is assured of countless and continuous prayers for the repose of his or her soul.

I am sure there are some in our secularised society who will recoil at this strong emphasis on death, decrying it as maudlin.

Yet I cannot help but point out that death is far more unavoidable than taxes, over which we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort.

If we were to spend our lives avoiding, or attempting to avoid, the fact that we will all die – an attempt seemingly made by increasing numbers of people, with greater and lesser degrees of success – then I doubt we would ever truly learn how to live.

Our priorities would be distorted; we would be forever skating on the surface of life, either refusing to accept – or failing to perceive – the profound depths that encompass us on every side.

There is a rather poignant moment in the film Calvary – released in 2014 – wherein an elderly man possessed of a fine sense of humour asks, “You know how you can tell when you’re really getting old? No-one ever says the word ‘death’ around you anymore.”

Aside from being a droll line, it also speaks a pertinent truth about our world today.

I cannot help but call to mind the number of parishes that I have visited during any given November which, instead of having a Book of the Dead, have a Book of Life.

It seems death has become something we are almost afraid to mention: we avoid its discussion, and appear to flee its reality.

Yet, as Thomas á Kempis once wrote: “If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow …”

I suspect the reason for this euphemistic language – at least within our Catholic parishes – might have more to do with an intimation of the eternal life to come, but it remains an inescapable fact that we have to die to first: “I want to see God, and in order to see Him, I must die.” (St Teresa of Avila)

An attitude which seeks to avoid or minimise death can only have been gleaned from a secularised society which lives in fear of anything it cannot control – death being top of their list.

Yet such fear cannot be the attitude of a Christian.

St Andrew, while being dragged to his iconic cross by his guards, managed to wrestle himself free and – to the astonishment of his captors – ran towards the instrument of his death and embraced it.

St Ignatius of Antioch took evident delight at the prospect of being thrown to the lions in Rome and was quite clear in his written admonition to the Christian community that they were not to do anything to rescue him.

St Peter Martyr, the first Dominican to die in the cause of truth, sang the Easter Sequence as he was clubbed to death by his assassins.

Why? Because all the saints firmly believed that having, “fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7) their death was all that stood between them and being reunited with Christ.

An anonymous Dominican friar wrote the Ars moriendi – the “art of dying” – during the 15th century, and it is perhaps time to rejuvenate our Christian appreciation of death.

To illustrate that a healthy attitude towards death is not something confined to the middle ages, I have one final story.

On our week-long retreat in June, undertaken before receiving the habit of the order, our retreat master recounted an experience he had once had upon being called to the bed of a dying man.

The family was of Irish extraction and his children and wife – inevitably called Mary – were all gathered around his deathbed while he was anointed.

The man lay there with his eyes closed, struggling to draw breath.

After what seemed like his final intake, he appeared to breathe his last.

After a brief, tension-filled pause, his eyes opened and he said, in a clear voice and with a twinkle in his eye, “What’s it to be Mary, horns or wings?” and he went to God laughing.

Even if laughter might be beyond most of us I pray that, when the time comes, we might all at least enjoy a similar sense of joyful sangfroid; secure in the knowledge that Christ has broken the bonds of death and that someone, somewhere, is praying the Rosary for us.

Written by: Guest Contributor
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