With each new day bringing reports of new COVID-19 deaths, people around the world are finding themselves suddenly grappling with a fear of death. Of course, death comes for all of us (unless you’re the Mother of God), and so it is good to remember that we are mortal and will one day die. But for Christians, contemplating death can be a puzzle.
We know that Christ conquered death, and that if we are in a state of grace our death means union with him in heaven. But we also have a natural fear of death, and worry about the grief our loved ones will feel when we pass. How can we balance these feelings? And does a fear of death mean that we don’t have enough faith?
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble is a Daughter of St. Paul, and she has spent a lot of time thinking about death. She has been a strong proponent of bringing back the ancient practice of “memento mori” (“remember your death”) and has written a prayer book, Lenten devotional, and journal all focused on the daily meditation of death and the last things. Sr. Theresa stopped by Morning Air® this week to explain why faith and fear of death are not incompatible.
“I think a lot of people are struggling right now,” she acknowledged. “Because I think sometimes there can be this tendency in some Christian circles to think that faith means a kind of relentless positivity, even when we’re talking about something negative. And obviously this pandemic is a negative experience that we’re all undergoing. People can kind of think that the Christian thing is to turn that around and make it seem like everything is all sunshine and rainbows. When, in reality, we’re experiencing the Cross through this.”
And while our faith can certainly be a help and comfort to us during these difficult times, the goal of faith is not to erase all suffering and negativity in our lives.
Sr. Theresa said, “I think it’s really important for us to understand that … faith doesn’t just make all of our feelings disappear. These are human feelings. And our feelings, the Catechism tells us, are neutral.”
“Fear is not a negative thing,” she pointed out. “It’s actually very rational for us to fear death and to not want to die suddenly. The Church has prayed against sudden death for so many years.”
In Scripture we see over and over the command to be not afraid. We read in the First Letter of John that perfect love casts out all fear. So how can we read that and not come to the conclusion that our fear is due to a lack of faith or love of God?
Sr. Theresa explained that when we are told to be not afraid, “It’s not a call to just erase our feelings. It’s a call to recognize our feelings, to recognize that we’re feeling afraid, that we’re feeling anxious about the future. We’re feeling uncertainty. But in the midst of that fear, we can turn to God and ask him to help us move forward, even in this darkness that we’re experiencing and this uncertainty that we’re experiencing.”
Sr. Theresa shared her own experience of meditating on death, inviting God into that fear of death, and how it has affected her faith life.
“My meditation on death has actually decreased my fear of death,” she said. “I’m so grateful to God that practice came into my life before this happened, because it prepared my heart a little bit. But it did not erase my fear. It can decrease our fear, but it can’t erase it. So that’s really important, even for the practice of going to God and meditating on our death. But going to God in any sort of prayer or meditation is to be able to open our hearts and to recognize what’s happening inside of us, so that we can bring it to Jesus.”
“And that’s the reality of our faith. That in the midst of our fear, in the midst of our suffering, we can trust that we have a good, all-powerful God who can bring good out of terrible situations.”
Listen to the full conversation below: