Meditations On The Life Of The Blessed Virgin For Every Day Of the Month, Suitable for all seasons and especially the month of May.
DEATH OF ST. JOSEPH.
I remember once seeing a beautiful picture. The painter had lived in solitude and prayer; he had meditated much before God, and his hand had well expressed the holy thoughts of his soul. I have never forgotten either this picture or the artist's explanation of his work. Would that our conference of to-day might make the same impression upon us all. This picture represented the poor house at Nazareth. Humbly stretched on a pallet, the aged St. Joseph seemed at the point of death; his eyes were closed, but by his joined hands, and his lips, on which there was a smile, he seemed still to be in prayer, and on that venerable countenance there was a peace and joy which made this scene of sorrow sweet to look upon. At the head of this bed of death, Jesus was seated in divine majesty and filial tenderness; with one hand He was supporting the head of the patriarch, with the other He was blessing him, and the gentle Saviour, who was moved by the grief of the widow of Nairn, and at the tomb of Lazarus, restrained not His tears at the last sufferings of him whom He had called father. At the feet of the dying saint, the Blessed Virgin was praying and weeping. She saw departing the holy protector of her youth, the companion of her first sufferings; she knew that she would soon remain alone on earth. There was but one radiant face in this picture; it was that of the dying saint.
Who would not wish to die thus in the arms of Jesus and of Mary! Happy Joseph! For him the passage will be very short between the place of sorrowful exile in which the just of the old law are awaiting their deliverance, and the heaven the gates of which Jesus is about to open to him. His head is resting on the heart of Him who will one day say, " I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in Me shall not die for ever." And Joseph believed in Him, believed with his whole soul; his life was consecrated to preserving Him, loving Him, and defending Him. His last sigh breathed forth an act of faith and love. Thus death, conquered beforehand, cannot trouble the calm confidence of his soul, and the smile of happiness which beams on his countenance seems to say: " O grave, where is thy victory, O death where is thy sting ?" Let us often ponder on the blessed end of St. Joseph. The piety of the believers of old has chosen him as the patron of a good death, and proposes him to us as an example and an intercessor in that terrible hour towards which we are drawing nearer every day of our lives; but we must not wait until our last hour to imitate his holy example. To die like St. Joseph we must also live like him. "We know well that the necessity of dying is the just chastisement with which sinful man was struck. " If thou eatest of this fruit thou shalt die." Such was God's just warning to Adam. A life of labour, fatigue, and suffering, ending with death, such is the horizon which opened before him after his fall. Before reaching the end of his own chastisement, Adam saw his innocent son perish, struck by the hand of his wicked brother. Good or wicked, innocent or guilty, all must suffer, labour, and die. Such is the sentence which the just wrath of God lays upon the whole human race.
But let us once again admire and bless with our whole soul the goodness of our God, whose justice ever makes way for His mercy. We have seen the promise of the Redeemer follow immediately on the sentence of condemnation. We have seen this Divine Saviour born in poverty and grow up in labour, to sanctify our wants and our labours. Soon we shall see Him die in the midst of the most cruel sufferings, to expiate the offence of our first father, to conquer death, and to take all bitterness from the last hour of the faithful Christian. The sufferings and death of our Saviour have changed into blessings and means of salvation all the chastisements inflicted on guilty man. Blessings in voluntary poverty and suffering; a blessing in the labour which roots from the earth its brambles and thorns, and renders it as fertile as before the fall; a blessing in the work of the mind, which seeks what is good, aspires after truth, and devotes itself to the salvation of others; a blessing even in death, which is then but a passage from a laborious and suffering life to a blessed life and eternal rest.
Hence that hope which accompanies all the trials of the faithful Christian, and tempers their bitterness. The trial exists, because, while it is a chastisement, it is also a means of salvation; but hope masters it, and it is perfectly true to say that the faithful soul finds peace and contentment, even in death itself, the most terrible of all our earthly chastisements.
But in order to lay in store for our last hour this peace and this hope, we must labour long, for a good death is the reward of a holy life; it is the last page of the same book. Compare for a moment in your mind the life of a. Christian and that of a sinner. The one has had for his law the word of God alone, and heaven for his sole aim; he has suffered patiently for the love and after the example of his Saviour; he has looked on life in this world only as a toilsome journey to a better life. When death comes he hails and blesses it; for though it is the last hour of his mortal life, it is the dawn of the day that will never end. Jesus, his sweet Saviour, is at his bedside, and supports and consoles him in his last moments. Filled with humble trust in the goodness of God, he sees heaven before him, and regrets not the earth. What is there more beautiful and more desirable than such a death? Does it not in all ways resemble, that of the blessed St. Joseph, and does not holy Scripture justly tell us in its own magnificent language: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints—Pretiosa in conspectu Domini mors sanctorum ejus." (Ps. cxv. 15.) And then look at the sinner. Pride and selfishness have been his only law. He has sought only his own pleasure; he has loved himself alone. He has willingly shut his eyes to the distant hopes of heaven, and has confined all his happiness and all his hopes to earth. He has dismissed the thought of death, as he would a bad dream. Poor wretch! his life is past like a season, like a day, and behold death comes to him in its terrible reality. What fear, what despair, seizes him! To him it is the end of all he has loved, the beginning of a fearful eternity.
God forbid that this hour should come upon any of us while we think not of it. God forbid that we should then bear the burden of a guilty life! Holy Scripture tells us again : " The death of the wicked is very evil—Mors peccatorum pessima." (Ps. xxxiii. 22.) The choice lies with ourselves. It depends upon ourselves whether we die without hope, like the wicked, or like St. Joseph in the arms of Jesus and Mary. But, once again, death is the consequence of life; it follows it as the fruit follows the flower, and the harvest the sowing time. Let us then pray to St. Joseph, that he may obtain for us grace to imitate him in life so that we may be like him in death.
"What does the Gospel tell us of the Foster-Father of Jesus? That he was a just man—Vir justus. These two words contain the whole character of a saint. They show us St. Joseph, such as we have known him in the history of Mary; a descendant of the Kings of Israel, and contented in poverty, filled with a simple and strong faith, his whole soul devoted to the spotless Virgin and the Divine Child, whom it was given to him to guard and protect on earth; brave and constant in suffering, danger, and exile; patient and untiring in labour. "What man is there who cannot imitate the life of St. Joseph, according to the strength given him, and be, like him, a just man, that is to say, true, loyal, and religious in all things, like him, animated with a courageous faith, loving Jesus and Mary, loving his family and his home, which for every Christian father represents the Holy Family and the house of Nazareth, labouring like St. Joseph, without discontent or repining ? There is nothing here that all cannot do, and since we can all imitate the life of the holy patriarch we may all hope for his death.
Let us then prepare for death every day of our lives. Let us make use of this salutary thought to judge ourselves, and let us measure all our actions by this strict rule. No error will be possible, if we sincerely ask ourselves this question: At the hour of death, will the remembrance of this action be for me a subject of hope or of fear ? Will this make us more anxious or more sad ? Why should it ? Shall we not, on the contrary, be happier when our conscience tells us that we have begun to lay up that treasure which in the last day will be our only riches ? We are always more afraid of that which we will not look in the face. If we calmly consider death, if we shed on this terrible phantom the true light of Christian hope, all its terrors will vanish, and we shall see only heaven. I once read these words on a tombstone: " In order to find life in death, he lived as one who must die." Blessed is the Christian who has left such a memorial! Let us remember these words; they may guide us to a happy end.
Neither let us forget the duties towards our parents, neighbours, and friends, that this stern and salutary thought imposes upon us. Alas! before we ourselves die, we taste many times the bitterness of death, by seeing those whom we have most loved disappear from amongst us. May our own grief never make us neglect the most sacred duty that our tenderness can perform towards them. May our devoted care soothe their sufferings, but, above all, may our faith and our brave affection call early to their bedside the priest, who consoles them in the name of God, and soothes them better than we can, by easing their conscience of the burden of sin. There must be in this hour neither weakness nor cowardly conduct. If the sick man is a good Catholic, he will receive the priest with joy, as if Jesus Himself visited his bedside. If he is not, all the more reason for warning him early, and giving him all the time that he has still to live, to prepare himself to appear before God. And let us remember that this duty is imposed upon every Christian who sees in peril the soul of his brother in Jesus Christ. If no one around the dying man has dared to speak, or has understood the danger, it is the duty of the friend or of the neighbour to interfere, to spare him the most terrible of miseries, an unprepared death. Let us be faithful to this duty, if we desire ourselves one day to find friends with courage to perform it.
Delay in sending for a priest exposes the sick to die without the sacraments, or to receive them ill, because the priest has not time to excite in their hearts the dispositions of faith, contrition, and purpose of amendment, without which the sacraments do not remit sin.
Besides, whence comes this absurd custom of waiting until there is danger before calling the priest to the bedside of the sick man? Is he not the friend of every family ? Is he not mixed up with every joy as well as every sorrow, when he baptizes and instructs the little children, blesses the marriages, and prays over the graves of our departed? Is he not the representative of God, who consoles and heals? Then why not call him for ourselves and for our neighbours, at the beginning of illness ? Has he not kind words to inspire courage? And if we have on our conscience the remembrance of any sins, shall we not be relieved and calmed when we have thrown off the burden at the feet of this kind friend, who pardons in God's name ? Oar gracious Saviour when on earth said: " They that are well have no need of a physician, hut they that are sick—Non necesse habent sani medico, sed qui mali habent." (S Mark ii. 17.) Let us then without delay call to our sick bed Him who came into this world " to heal all manner of sickness and every infirmity—savans omnem languorem et omnem infirmitatem." (S. Matt. iv. 23.) Let us recognize the minister whom He in His goodness sends us, and if it is salutary for us in the labours and toils of life to have recourse to the sacraments which His infinite love has instituted to strengthen and console us, how much more evident is the necessity in the hour of the last combat and of the last suffering !
If that hour is not yet come, if it is not God's will that the sick man should die, we know that the sacrament of Extreme Unction, instituted to strengthen the soul of the dying Christian, has power also to heal his body, and restore him to life. Have we not ourselves many times seen the illness cease and the cure begin on the day on which our gracious God had deigned to visit His suffering servant, and strengthen him with His adorable sacraments ? Peace of soul and calm confidence in God are great remedies even in bodily illness. Let our faith and submission be complete, and let us be sure that the help will be proportionate to the. necessity of the moment, be it what it may. Let us say to our sweet Saviour what the sisters of Lazarus said of old, "Lord, behold he whom Thou lovest is sick," Let us call Him for our parents and for our friends, as we are firmly resolved to call Him for ourselves. And this sweet Jesus will come, full of pity and tenderness. If the hour of deliverance is come, He will support His servant in his agony, and will open heaven to him. If he has not yet finished his pilgrimage on earth, He will shorten his sufferings, accept his merits and strengthen him for life, as He would have strengthened him for death.
And then, after having faithfully accomplished our duties towards the dying, let us not forget our duties towards those who are no more. While weeping over them on earth, we too often forget that their immortal soul is living in another world, whither our tenderness and our charity can follow them, and where our prayers are able greatly to shorten their sufferings. Alas, there are very few souls pure enough to enter immediately from this world into the kingdom of God; the sufferings of purgatory must complete the expiation of their sins. It is of Faith that the prayers and good works of the faithful on earth are able to shorten these sufferings. And this doctrine, which shows us the Church militant on earth, and the Church triumphant in heaven, united by charity beyond the grave, is one of the most wonderful parts of our faith. Let us then pray for those whom we have loved. Let us consider that our prayer is to them an alms ; while they were living, should we have wished to see them in distress ? Should we not have worked for them, and sat up to nurse them ? Why, then, forget them because we see them no more ? Do we not know their wants as well as if we had them under our eye ? Let us pray for those who have gone before us in life, for our parents, who brought us up, and supported us in the sweat of their brow. What should we say of the son who refused bread to his father ? We should justly regard him with horror. Are there not children who forget to pray for their departed parents ? And yet prayer, which delivers the soul, is more useful than bread, which feeds the body.
Let us then pray for our parents, for our brethren, for all the souls suffering in purgatory. Let us pray, not on one day only, but all our lives. What a happiness would it be if our prayers could deliver one single soul from purgatory! What a friend, what a protector, should we have in heaven!
O Blessed Virgin Mary, who didst weep over the holy companion of thy toils, who didst console him on his bed of suffering, and who wert his benediction in the hour of death, as during his life, teach us the secret of that true tenderness which brings to the dying Christian all the consolations, all the helps, and all the hopes, which our holy religion has in store for him, to strengthen him against the terrors of this last passage. Teach us to repress the outbreaks of our private grief as a secondary matter, and to think only of the salvation of those souls who are about to see their Judge, and to labour for it till the end! And when they have left us alone and weeping upon the earth, O Mary, patroness of true and salutary sorrows, obtain for us that ours may not spend itself in fruitless tears, that it may flow into the bosom of God through prayer, that it may daily implore His mercy for those dear souls who are living far from us, and who are perhaps looking to our faithful prayers for their deliverance from sufferings more severe than we can understand. And when our hour comes, O holy Joseph, patron of a good death, pray for us in remembrance of thy death. Obtain for us the grace to die like thee, resting on the Hearts of Jesus and of Mary. In their name implore pardon for a life which but too little resembles thine. May we, through the help of thy holy intercession, make a holy end of the days of our pilgrimage on earth, so that we may be reunited in heaven to all those whom we have loved. Amen.
Often to invoke St. Joseph for ourselves and for others, as the patron of a good death.