My grandfather’s brother was an atheist. Not a smug, proselytizing sort – just an unbeliever.
When he was in the end stages of cancer, heavily medicated, he would spend his few lucid moments visiting with family and then be wheeled off to his room to rest.
In his drug-affected reverie, he often spoke aloud quite clearly, saying things like:
“Really, Lord? …Then it was all true? …I am sorry…. I never knew.”
This happened several times over the course of his last days and many people heard it.
My cousins – devout evangelicals who’d been praying hard all their lives for their dad to come to the Lord – are unshaken in their conviction that my great uncle had a road-to Emmaus experience in the privacy of his own conscience days before he passed away.
A dear friend began to take her faith seriously only after the sorrow of a failed marriage that left her estranged from her children.
A gentle soul who came to profound friendship with God in middle age, she knew she was forgiven for her sins, but nonetheless carried the ache of missing her children around as a permanent personal purgatory.
What joy and peace were hers in the cancer-ridden final months of her life when the kids who wouldn’t approach her for years one by one made the sad good-bye pilgrimage! Both she and they were able to enjoy a short time of “things as they ought to be!” The necessary words were said on all sides, the pain in their hearts was mended.
My grandmother died in mine and my siblings’ arms moments after we conditionally baptized her. There’s a longer story to tell, but I believe she clung to life until she received the baptism she’d been promised in a series of discussions a priest friend of mine and I had with her when it became obvious she was failing.
The brother of a friend lived a life of dissipation and promiscuity. On the last day of his life, not only he, but also his homosexual partner, went to Confession.
Through these and a couple of other close encounters with death, I have become convinced that not only is approaching death a period of great emotional importance for families and individuals, but it is literally sacred time.
I believe the Lord in his mercy actively works in the soul into the last moments, drawing it to himself, even in cases like my great-uncle’s, where the person is objectively beyond the reach of human interaction.
I often wonder what would have become of all these people and their survivors if shortly after their difficult diagnoses they’d been given pills to hasten the inevitable, with an eye toward relieving physical suffering but no thought for spiritual and emotional healing.
I think of them, too, at All Souls’ Day, because of something Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi. We are familiar with the doctrine of Purgatory. We pray for the faithful departed to hasten their purification and entrance into full blessedness.
Benedict emphasizes something else, however: that God exists outside of time, and therefore our prayer is effective even when all seems “over”:
“My prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other – my prayer for him – can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.”
In other words, while we can “see” grace at work in the examples above, there may be many more such miracles of grace which are hidden beyond the veil of death, and helped along by our prayer for the dead. This is a profound expression of Christian hope.
The Pope says something else beautiful. Hope for others is also hope for myself:
“No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse,” he writes.
That means “Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”