Standing on the Edge

Have you ever paused on the edge of a life-changing decision, one in which you contemplated an irreversible choice that would separate you forever from everything that you know and love? Maybe you traveled to a new country, knowing you would never return. Or perhaps, you came from an anti-Catholic family, converted to Catholicism and got married in the Faith, with little prospect of seeing your parents and siblings again. Or maybe, before you got married, you simply pondered the radical change your life would take thereafter.

Recently I was faced with something similar and thought that sharing the experience may prove helpful. To provide background: in January I contracted the Wuhan virus and wound up in the hospital for 52 days. As I write this (6 months later) I am still recovering little-by-little.

After about ten days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), the doctors and other members of the medical team determined that I would not likely pull through. Even though they were doing everything possible to stop the progression of the disease, the inflammation, the clotting, and other problems caused by the virus, it appeared that their efforts would be in vain. One day, at separate times, each doctor and the head nurse entered my room and told me that I had a choice–either go on a ventilator where I would be sedated and would likely die. Or I could “go naturally.” I was too sick to fear death. I answered that I preferred the latter. I hoped there might be the opportunity to pray, should I regain that ability. I requested that my Traditional priest come to give me the last rites, which, with proper precautions, he was able to perform later that day.

It was around this time that I had the experience I am about to relate. Already I had found it impossible to pray. When I tried to pray the Rosary, I wound up reciting numbers idiotically. I could not even form the words of a single Hail Mary or any of the simplest prayers or ejaculations, or even the name of Jesus. I tried to accept God’s Will, but was unable to express it.

I thought I was conscious, but I am not certain. I found myself drifting away from the hospital, from the room, from the staff, from the bed, from everything. I had the overwhelming sensation that I was sliding away into death. I was floating weightlessly, gently descending into a dark chasm. I could feel an ever-increasing dry heat. I tried to see the face of Our Lady or Jesus, but all I saw were strange geometric objects–a chaos. It reminded me of the “Dies Irae”–day of wrath, a day of confusion.

Suddenly I was tormented by an unconfessed mortal sin. I was not certain what was the sin, but I was afraid that I had missed something in my last confession, and there would never be another opportunity to cleanse myself of it before I died. Then I had the overpowering realization that I would never see anything of the world again–nothing, no one. There was no second chance for anything. This was the final threshold from which there would be no going back. Though I desperately looked for Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or any heavenly being, I saw none. All was confusion, chaos, and increasing darkness. I felt myself giving in to the process of dying.

It was at this point that I realized, despite all the years of Traditional Catholicism, I had never truly prepared for death. I needed more time–more time to pray, more time to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to unite with Him in holy communion, more time to atone for my countless sins, more time to increase my fervor. Yet, despite my realization, I continued to descend into the darkness and increasing heat.

When it seemed that I was near the point of no return, I looked up toward the light and made a determined effort to reverse the direction of my fall. I strained to redirect my movement to the chaos above me and I simply asked God for more time to prepare. While I still could not pray, I gradually felt that He heard my request, that I might not die now, that I might have time to learn to pray again, that I might be more prepared the next time. Eventually I fell into a deep sleep.

The following day, my race toward death seemed to slow down, ever so slightly–more like the arrest of the rapid decline than a movement toward getting better. The main thing was that I didn’t die, that God heard my request for more time.

To my relief, I realized the anxiety over the unconfessed sin was a temptation of the devil. A week later, I again called the priest who had given me the last rites. He was confused at first. “Who is this?” he demanded. When I gave my name a second time, he said, “You were supposed to be dead! I expected the next call would be for the funeral arrangements.” I assured him that I was still alive and, with a bit of reluctance, he agreed to bring me Holy Communion. When he arrived he reaffirmed he was quite surprised by my call. All indications were that I was not going to live. I told him I began to improve the day after he had given me Extreme Unction. His reply was simple and direct: “I’m not surprised.” I expressed my overwhelming gratitude for the countless prayers that were being offered for my intentions and recognized that God’s Will was the only reason I was still alive.

So what is the reason for sharing a description of this most personal event? There are several. First, that readers may not have to undergo a similar experience in order to realize the awfulness of the step into eternity, one that is irreversible, total, absolute. Second, to convey the reality that dying means leaving everything behind–everything and everyone, without exception. Third, to caution readers against the temptation to despair as the devil makes his final assault. Fourth, to remind everyone, including myself, that we must prepare for death, since at the last moment, we may not have the opportunity to do so. In fact, even if we have the time, we may not have the wherewithal to utter the Holy Name of Jesus.

“Take heed! Take heed! Make no mistake. Do not be foolish. The moment of death is the one which is the least decided by will and desire; it is the echo of life. …what makes death holy in the sight of God is not so much the edifying circumstances which surround it, or by the fine sentiments expressed by the dying person, but the real virtues practiced during life, and the degree of purity of love in the service of God of the soul at the moment of death.”1

God willing, when the time of your death arrives, you will have prepared better than I and will be ready to leave everything behind…forever.

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1 On the Threshold of Eternity: Preparation for Death to be made each Month, by Rev. Emile Bauduin, 1928, pub by Refuge of Sinners Publishing,