My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
The ninth declaration of our fourth diocesan synod states: “The art of dying in God’s grace is the key to everlasting happiness in eternal life. The Christian faithful die to sin through the saving waters of baptism. By dying to their selfish desires through acts of mortification and self-sacrifice, the Christian faithful grow in love of God and neighbor. The whole Christian life aims at reaching this goal of everlasting happiness in eternal life by turning from sin and growing in virtue through God’s grace.”
The expression “dying in God’s grace” can be understood in a couple of different ways. In its most literal and physical sense, “dying in God’s grace” refers to our souls being in the state of grace when we come to the end of our earthly existence and enter into eternal life. In a spiritual sense, “dying in God’s grace” refers to the symbolic death of baptism by which we die to a life of sin and enter into the Christian life of grace.
St. Paul wrote of this death to sin and life in Christ in his Letter to the Romans: “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him … . His death was death to sin, once for all; his life is life for God. In the same way, you must consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.”
St. Basil explained how we die to sin and are reborn to a new way of life in these words: “We imitate Christ’s death by being buried with Him in baptism. If we ask what this kind of burial means and what benefit we may hope to derive from it, it means first of all making a complete break with our former way of life, and our Lord himself said that this cannot be done unless a man is born again. In other words, we have to begin a new life, and we cannot do so until our previous life has been brought to an end.”
The spiritual sense of dying in God’s grace helps to prepare us for the literal sense of physical death. If we are in the state of grace when our physical lives come to an end, God welcomes us to the kingdom of Heaven either immediately or at least after a period of final purification in purgatory. If we die in the state of mortal sin, we are condemned to hell for all eternity. This is called the particular judgment that occurs at the very moment of death.
But there is also a general judgment that will occur at the second coming of Christ. As recorded in the Gospel of St. John, chapter 5, Jesus spoke of his second coming and the day of judgment, saying, with reference to himself, that “the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.” This resurrection of the dead will not simply be a spiritual rebirth, but will be an actual raising up of our physical bodies. The bodies of the righteous, that is, those who die in the state of grace, will be transformed into a glorified state, freed from suffering and pain, in a glorified form.
This resurrection of our bodies has tremendous implications for how we are to live. St. Robert Bellarmine wrote The Art of Dying Well in Rome in the year 1620, emphasizing that one must live well in order to die well. By this he did not mean living a wealthy and comfortable life, but leading a life of virtue so that one might die in the state of grace. Today, authors who refer to “the art of dying well” often use that phrase to refer to the actual moment of physical death. For them, the debate focuses on whether it is better to die at home in one’s bed surrounded by loved ones or die in a hospital bed or nursing home surrounded by medical technicians. But to fixate on the physical circumstances of death misses the more important point of being spiritually prepared for death.
The “art of dying in God’s grace” is indeed an art, because there is no scientific formula to assure that we will die in God’s grace. In the end, what really matters is that we are spiritually ready to die in the state of grace so that we may see God face to face and dwell with Him for all eternity in His heavenly kingdom.
May God give us this grace. Amen.