Over the last two months, eight friends and acquaintances of my family have died. Some deaths were expected, but many took us by surprise: two road-accidents, a sudden heart-attack occurring during sleep, a few cancer-deaths that suddenly took a turn for the worse etc. Some of the dead had been pious, some had distanced themselves from the Church, some hadn’t cared about religion at all. For the bystanders and mourners, death has a way of pulling them out of the hustle and bustle of the everyday; everything comes to a standstill, and what really matters is able to come to the forefront. The ultimate seriousness of it, the finality, the last judgment that everybody must expect shakes one out of one’s daily cares and the kind of day-dream we are prone to live in (Simone Weil wrote that we tend to live in a “waking dream peopled by our fictions” in which “we are amusing ourselves with lies”).
Though it is a great consolation to know that we can pray for the dead and can help them, if they are still in a state of purification, the final choice has been made. In the light of the possibility of a final “no” to God, Greek tragedy pales and seems like a light-hearted comedy. Hence the nature of people’s death, the time they’ve had to prepare, takes on a much greater significance in the light of eternity. Though the famous story of the St. Curé d’Ars telling a widow worried about her husband’s salvation (he had committed suicide) that he had a change of heart between the bridge and hitting the water, tells us something about God’s grace, how free will can make choices at variance with one’s past until the last moment, and how final moments can seem longer to the dying than to the bystander, we generally feel more comfortable having some time to prepare for death.
All these deaths in their particular circumstances made me think about the intertwining of Providence and free will in determining the hour of our death. God is Master of Life and Death, and He determines the hour of our death is what I’ve always thought. But is it really as simple as that? If I take drugs, drink lots of alcohol, smoke like a chimney or just lead an unhealthy life-style, chances are that I am shortening my life-span. God doesn’t want me to drink, take drugs, smoke huge amounts and fail to take care of my body; yet He also allows me to feel the consequences of my acts (though probably less than I think). So my decisions and those of others can have a strong impact on the way my life will end. I can decide to take my life tomorrow, or a raving maniac could stab and kill me as I am leaving my house. Or, like in the case of my friend Emmanuel last March, a reckless bus-driver can cause a crash, killing Emmanuel on the spot and his friend a few hours later. These are not things God wanted, since they involve sin, and yet somehow God is also strongly involved in something as momentous as the hour of one’s death.
Looking at it from a different angle can help clarify (or further complicate) the issue: how often have we seen in our lives or in those of others that some terrible fate has been averted from us or them? The truck which should have crushed us, that split-second moment it took us to get out of the way which saved us; more dramatically the plane somebody didn’t take which then crashed, or the accident which should have killed xyz, instead letting him get out of the car-wreck unscathed. In some cases, it seems, God takes action, since one’s time hasn’t come yet; in others, He lets things take their course. We all know the stories from 9/11 where some people were spared simply because they were late for work. Why were they saved and not others? We cannot pierce the mystery, but it does make sense that God, who has counted every hair on our head and who doesn’t let a sparrow fall from the sky without noticing it, is involved in determining the hour of our death. He may not prevent disasters from taking their course, terrorists from reaching their goal or imprudent drivers from hitting the road, but when these things happen, He integrates them into His plan for the salvation of souls.
He may not work a miracle so that a person is saved from a burning house, but my impression is that He will probably prepare that person in some way, especially if he or she has been faithful to him. A friend of mine, Caroline, died at the age of 21 in a car-accident; she was reluctant to leave for the trip, as if she had sensed that something terrible was going to happen. But she was a very pious girl, as was her best friend, Christine, who felt inspired to go on a retreat during this time. Christine had the impression she was meant to pray for someone, but she didn’t know for whom or why; suddenly she knew that she was “done” with praying. Later on she realized that her friend had died around that time. She believed that her prayer was needed, not to avert the accident, but to help her friend have a holy death despite its tragic circumstances.
How many times had Emmanuel been in a situation where he could easily have come to harm while driving on his motor-cycle? Probably many times, but for some reason this time he was not protected, and God let things take their course. But this doesn’t mean that God suddenly didn’t care about him anymore. On the contrary! Providence works together with our decisions and those of others, and for those who try to follow His will, He will make everything turn out to our good, as St. Paul already stated. God writes straight on our crooked lines, but He uses our lines to work out His plans and doesn’t just ignore them. Our freedom and our decisions are important to Him, otherwise it would mean that He is not taking us seriously. Some deaths seem very random, and in other cases the veil is lifted and we see more clearly how God is working through all of this. But however accidental a death may seem, God still has His hands in it, especially in the case of his faithful, for “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116).