Happy Death?!

“Happy death” sounds like an oxymoron. Like cold fire, which turns out to be Shakespearean.

“…Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!…”
(“Romeo and Juliet,” Act I, Scene I, Romeo; Shakespeare (1597))

A happy death is also something Catholics pray for. It’s very much a part of “Catholic culture.”

I expected to find detailed discussions of it in the Church’s assorted declarations, apostolic exhortations and encyclical letters.

I didn’t.

Maybe because it’s one of those things that’s obvious to folks who grew up in Catholic families. Or maybe not. Either way, growing up as a Protestant didn’t teach me what the term means. Not from a Catholic perspective.

So I kept looking.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1014, mentions an ancient litany of Saints that includes “From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us, O Lord;” and says that St. Joseph is the patron of happy death.

That’s helpful, but not particularly informative.

There’s no shortage of ‘happy death’ op-ed pieces in Catholic publications, which tells me that it’s part of contemporary Catholic culture.

“Everlasting Bliss”

Pieter Claesz's 'Vanitas Still Life.' (1630)I also found “happy death” in a prayer to St. Joseph at the end of Pope Leo XIII’s 1889 “Quamquam Pluries” encyclical.

“…Shield us ever under thy patronage, that, following thine example and strengthened by thy help, we may live a holy life, die a happy death, and attain to everlasting bliss in Heaven. Amen.”
(“Quamquam Pluries,” Pope Leo XIII (August 15, 1889))

That’s helpful, too. And tells me a little more about what, exactly, a “happy death” is.

About the encyclical’s title: I don’t know much Latin, but I think “Quamquam Pluries”would be “However Many Times” in my native language.

The late 19th century wasn’t any more serene than the early 21st, which is why Leo XIII said that the “…everlasting bliss in Heaven” prayer should be added to the rosary during October of 1889. Doing the same this year wouldn’t hurt, and that’s another topic.

Living Forever

The 2018 death of my father-in-law, sister-in-law’s 2019 death and recent deaths of two folks I know hasn’t left me feeling like the narrator in Poe’s “The Raven.”

But their deaths, filling out a Health Care Directive and COVID-19 have encouraged an awareness of death, judgment, Hell and Heaven: what Catholics call “last things.”

Which brings me back to “happy death.”

Oxymoronic musings aside, “happy death” sounds bonkers.

Death isn’t, by any reasonable standard, fun. Even without physical pain, death brings loss: separation from friends and family, an end to whatever we found pleasant in life.

And we’re praying for a “happy death?!”

What, we’re supposed to gambol to our graves, giggling all the way?

No. Not from what I’ve read and heard.

Backing up a little, death happens. (Catechism, 1007)

And it’s not permanent.

Living forever is good news or bad news, depending on what happens in my particular judgment. That’s a sort of a postmortem performance review. What I’ve done matters. So does whether I accept God’s love and mercy. Or not. (Catechism, 1021-1029, 1033-1037, 1042-1050)

Saying “thanks but no thanks” to what Pope Leo XIII called “everlasting bliss” strikes me as a bad idea. But it is an option. And not what a happy death leads to.

I gather that experiencing a happy death would — and, I hope, will — mean being on good terms with our Lord when I die, and being ready to say “yes” to God’s mercy.

On the Road to Emmaus: “Some Women” Were Right

This Sunday’s gospel reading starts with Luke 24:13. That’s where Jesus meets Cleopas and someone else on their way to Emmaus.

There’s been considerable speculation about why the two disciples didn’t recognize Jesus.

I strongly suspect it’s at least partly because they knew that our Lord had died.

And assumed, not unreasonably, that someone who’s dead stays that way.

The two chaps on their way to Emmaus and the other surviving disciples were on a steep learning curve — on their way to realizing that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t stay dead.

And that “some women” were right.

“Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning
“and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive.
(Luke 24:2223)

The Best News Ever

It took more than a month of meetings and working lunches, but eventually even Thomas realized that Jesus was no longer dead.

Then our Lord gave us standing orders, and left: with a promise that he’d be back.

That was two millennia back now.

If Jesus had been anyone else, we’d have stopped expecting his return long ago.

But Jesus isn’t anyone else, so we’re passing along the best news humanity’s ever had.

Our Lord died. And then Jesus stopped being dead. He was and is really, physically, alive. (John 1:14, 3:17; Acts 2:24; Catechism, 232-260, 456–478, 631-655)

God loves us. All of us. Each of us. And wants to adopt us. (Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:35; Peter 2:34; Catechism, 1-3, 27-30, 52, 1825, 1996)

I’ve taken God up on the offer.

Even though there’s a catch. Sort of.

Like any other family, God’s has family values. I figure acting as if I accept those values makes sense. (James 2:1719; Catechism, Catechism, 1814-1816)

They’re quite simple.

I should love God and my neighbors. Everyone is my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

That’s simple, and incredibly difficult. But I think it makes sense.

I’ve talked about life, death and choices before:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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6 Responses to Happy Death?!

  1. I remember first learning about the term “happy death” back during high school (I went to a Bosconian one, all boys and run by Salesians and all), where our student handbook also had a prayer for such included. Though right now, this post makes me think more about how to differentiate holy martyrdom and plain suicide. So yeah, what’s the difference? And on that topic, I was told by another Catholic blogger friend about some praised virgins who chose suicide over being raped, something I find curious. Is that something akin to when King David could only eat holy bread once? I really wanna help properly resolve more and more of these problematizations about our faith for God’s sake, see, hahaha…

    • Good question. Catholic traditions have no shortage of martyrs, virgin and otherwise. I don’t, offhand, remember any who died by “plain suicide” – in the sense of deliberately ending her own life when other reasonable options were available.

      The closest, maybe is Dymphna. That’s one of may spellings, and that’s another topic. (Wikipedia has a pretty good page about her https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dymphna )

      Apparently she took a vow of chastity at age 14. Then her mother died.

      Her father, a petty king in Ireland, took his wife’s death hard. Very hard. His counselors said he should remarry. He agreed, but wanted his new wife to look like Dymphna’s mother.

      Long story short, Dymphna looked more like her mother than any other woman her father found. So he decided to marry her.

      Dymphna thought that was a bad idea, and fled. Her father eventually caught up with her, killed at least one of the folks who had helped her: and cut off Dymphna’s head when she wouldn’t cooperate.

      Suicide? Well, maybe. Someone in Dymphna’s place could have decided that marrying a king – petty king, but king nonetheless – old enough to be her father was a good career move.

      All she would have had to do was ignore the fact that he in fact **was** her father, play along with his incestuous marriage, and wait for him to die. Leaving her with whatever local law, custom and her ingenuity could extract from the the old coot’s wealth.

      Instead, Dymphna refused to marry her father – which, somewhat predictably, resulted in her death.

      Suicide? Maybe.

      I suspect – and I’m no theologian – that the matter of intent is involved in the Dymphna case.

      Her intent, apparently, was to avoid breaking her vow of chastity. And several other rules concerning marriage.

      Acting on this intent had the effect of preventing her from breaking her vow and committing incest.

      It also had the effect of ending her life, at the hands of her arguably-deranged father.

      The first effect was intended. The second, arguably, was not.

      For that reason, my guess is that Dymphna didn’t exactly commit suicide.

      That situation has a parallel in the discussion of legitimate defense, as discussed in the Catechism, 2263 and following.

      King David only being able to eat holy bread once may be new to me. I don’t remember that detail from either my Protestant upbringing or ongoing Catholic study.

      And good questions/comments – – – there’s an enormous archive of knowledge, wisdom and stories in Catholic traditions. (Lower case “T” and that’s yet another topic.)

      • Hm, this brings me back to when I learned in high school Christian Living Education classes about how sins are evaluated according to intent, action, and circumstances (That’s how it goes, right?). Sin is still sin, but it’s also got a range of weights. Thanks very much for the reply, then. I feel like I just got refreshed on something I’ve been taking for granted again, see.

        Also, apologies for the vague information, particularly about that King David story. I feel like I’ve known about it already, but it’s a blurry memory, so yeah.

  2. This is one of your best posts ever, Brian. Thanx.

    Despite hearing of Christ’s resurrection, the two men on their way to Emmaus did not recognise Jesus walking beside them. This is because they were pre-occupied with their own problems. Jesus is dead. Their leader is no more. What is to happen next? Who will save us and save Israel?

    A bit like us when we focus on our own problem and not realise that Jesus is beside us. Literally. Ready to help. Only a prayer away.

    Thanx Brian. God bless.

    • Wow! Thank you!

      Your “pre-occupied with” viewpoint makes sense.

      There is a thread of shortsightedness running through the Gospel accounts of the disciples’ actions and words. Small wonder, perhaps, since they were involved in something really, really big.

      And good point: “Only a prayer away.”

Thanks for taking time to comment!