St Jerome visited by angels by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi
The Catholic Church has always admonished her spiritual children to reflect often, even daily, on “the four last things”: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. For there is nothing better conceived than this powerful meditation to bring forcefully before our minds the essential purpose of life, namely, to save our souls and avoid Hell. The saints have recommended it most highly, especially the great Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori. The present little book by Fr. Martin von Cochem is a reflection on many aspects of this famous meditation, and it is construed thereby to help us with our own meditations when we approach the subject. No one could be expected to dwell upon every aspect of this book every day, but rather any one aspect of the whole subject is meat enough for a profound daily reflection on our final end. The present book is an excellent took to assist us in making this exercise regularly. The reader should realize that Father von Cochem is emphasizing in this little book God’s justice, rather than His mercy. Today, one hears almost exclusively of God’s great mercy and of His love for mankind. These qualities of our Creator are indeed true, nor, in a sense, is the emphasis on His mercy overdone, for we can never comprehend the great mercy of God nor His infinite love for man that causes Him to extend Himself continually in so many ways (for the most part, of course, only to be rejected by the majority of souls).
On the other hand, the complimentary quality of God, His infinite justice, is just as great a reality, and if we could save our souls, we all must satisfy it by repenting of and avoiding mortal sin; and if we wish to avoid Purgatory, by repenting of all sin and making amends for our unexpiated wrong-doing. What the reader should bear in mind while reading The Four Last Things is that the author has purposely concerned himself mainly with God’s justice, rather than with His mercy. Obviously, the author is cognizant of God’s mercy, but that is simply not the subject of this book. However, as a result of this emphasis, the reader should not thereby adopt a lopsided view of the task we have of saving our souls, thinking it to be impossible. Just as on the side of divine justice there are many sobering aspects to take into account, not least of which are our own weakness and perversity; nevertheless, on the side of God’s mercy, there are equal, if not in fact overwhelming, factors that give us hope of our salvation. In the 20th century alone, Our Lord has appeared to numerous mystic souls, giving messages of His infinite mercy and love—if sinners will only repent and turn to Him. Some of these privileged souls are Sr. Josefa Menendez (d. 1923), Sr. Faustina Kowalska (d. 1938), Sr. Mary of the Trinity (d. 1942), and Sr. Consolata Betrone (d. 1946). But there have been others as well. Further, the Catholic Church possesses the sublime Sacrament of Confession, whereby sinners may unburden their hears and gain forgiveness of their sins; and she also grants indulgences. Especially worthy of note are plenary indulgences, whereby a person can make expiation for all the temporal punishment due to all his sins in just one act—one plenary indulgence. Indeed, Almighty God has been merciful to an incredible degree to us poor miserable sinners.
The Four Last Things, besides focusing our attention on the principal reason we exist and our principal job in this world, is also excellent for the many somewhat “lesser-known” truths of our holy religion that it enunciates, for example, that at the hour of death the devils intensify their efforts to cause a soul to be damned. For it is then that the person is weakest—physically, mentally, emotionally and even, one might say, spiritually, because he or she could easily be in a state of confusion due to conern about unforgiven or unexpiated sins. During the healthy, mature years of our lives, therefore, it behooves us to contemplate our death and our final end, and to prepare for a happy and holy death in every way possible, realizing that at the hour of death Satan will mount his most powerful attacks and we will be in the greatest danger of losing our souls.
The author says that death is a time of confusion for all, which in one sense is very true, for did not even Our Divine Lord cry out just before expiring, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). Death is not natural for us, and it is something we all wish to avoid. But if we rely on the help of Our Lady, surely our death will be as peaceful as possible—and many good people achieve a peaceful, holy death—yet many of the great canonized saints were terribly concerned for their eternal salvation even on their death beds—a very sobering thought.
Another little-known and almost never-mentioned truth of our religion that the author brings out is the fact that we do not know for sure if we are truly pleasing to God, i.e., whether we are actually in the state of grace and free from mortal sin, or whether we are in the state of mortal sin and worthy of Hell. And he cites Scripture to reinforce this point. Many today think that most people are in the state of grace and destined for Heaven; whereas, the catechism teaches that most adults commit mortal sins. This realization alone, that we do not know for sure if we are pleasing to God, should make everyone humble, if nothing else will. The author also touches upon the topic of whether most people are saved or damned. The predominating opinion among the great writers of the Church is that most souls are lost eternally because they do not cooperate with the graces that God makes available to men to save their souls. And they cite several indicative passages of Scripture to this effect, especially the famous passage in Matthew (Chapter 7, verses 13 & 14): “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!” Also, in Matthew 20:16, Our Divine Saviour boldly proclaims in the following manner: “So shall the last be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.” And there are many other passages in Scripture to indicate this same meaning.
There are also several minor aspects of Fr. von Cochem’s book that need explanation as well: For example, he speaks about God being “angry” with us because of our sins; in fact, the Bible in many passages speaks of “the wrath of God.” However, we know from reason and we are taught by philosophy and theology that God is perfect, and as such is perfectly serene, or impassible, that is, He does not become angry as we understand it or undergo any suffering or change. Speaking as if He does is simply an anthropomorphism to express His justice with us, which takes the form of some sort of punishment sent our way. It is an allegorical manner of speaking and should always be taken as such. There are sophomoric minds who would dispense themselves from taking seriously such a sober study as this book simply because of their own puerile interpretation of such language. Those who would judge thusly do so only to the detriment of their own souls.
Fr. von Cochem calls a mortal sin “an infinite evil,” and this because it is committed against the infinite goodness of God. This is an aspect of sin we cannot fully comprehend, or even appreciate, while yet in the flesh, but it is one which we shall more fully comprehend when we see God face to face. Then he quotes Scripture to the effect, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 110:10, et al.). Now to many of the uninstructed this passage is monstrous, for they would deny that God wants us to fear Him since Jesus was “good and gentle,” “meek and humble of heart,” etc. and since this view violates the goodness and mercy of God. On the contrary, the truth is that God is so august, is so good and is so holy that when a soul begins to advance in holiness himself, he comes to an appreciation of just how good “perfect” is, as in the passage, “Be ye therefore perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). And the soul is fearful of not being able to satisfy the justice of God, and fearful as well of “offending” the infinite goodness of God. In any event, the burden here is on the skeptic to explain why the Bible in so many, many places uses this phrase. Also, the author mentions the famous difficulty of a rich man being saved, as enunciated by Christ: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25). Here we must understand that the “eye of the needle” was a low, narrow gate in a town’s walls left open at night for entrance to and egress from a city after the main gates had been closed. It was so small that armed men would have difficulty going through it, but for a camel to go through would be nigh impossible. At the very least it would have to be unburdened of its load, symbolic of the riches which the rich man would have to shed before he could enter into the kingdom of God. But even then a camel is too tall and too wide to have been easily squeezed through this gate—though the job was not totally impossible. The people of Our Lord’s time knew exactly what He meant, and the analogy was perfect.
Finally, the author speaks of the Resurrection of the Body at the End of Time, when all souls will be reunited with their bodies, which will be in a perfect state. In speaking of that event, he says that the soul will address the body and the body will speak to the soul. Again, this manner of speaking should be taken in the allegorical sense, for obviously bodies do not speak when they are separated from their souls. This device is simply a graphic depiction of the mind of man in dialog with itself. We all speak to ourselves when alone; we do so when we write; this is the way the mind reasons when it figures out its problems. As we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27), so we have, it would seem, like God, a three-part mental faculty that can speak back and forth to itself and also observe and evaluate the on-going conversation. In conclusion and to reiterate briefly, the great value of The Four Last Things is to bring before our minds the fact that Hell lasts for eternity, and if we should go there we shall suffer, and suffer indescribably, forever. On the other hand, Heaven also lasts for eternity, and if we go there, we shall never again want for anything—our every desire will be fulfilled. Further, the fact is that death can come at any time and after that we shall have our Particular Judgment, when our fate will be sealed for eternity. Yet the great consolation from this book is that nothing is settled yet and that we have it completely within our power to opt for God, for Heaven and for happiness—if we will just have the courage to cooperate with God’s grace and use the means He has placed at our disposal to save our souls.
Burying our spiritual heads in the sand like ostriches will not make the problem of eternal salvation go away nor take it off our own shoulders, where God has placed it. But meditating on the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell will give us a realistic and accurate understanding of the job to be accomplished by anyone who would save his soul and, by forewarning and forearming us, will the better prepare us to be successful in the only endeavor that really counts in life.
By Thomas A. Nelson October 27, 1987
The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven by Fr. Martin von Cochem
It has ever been the practice of the Catholic Church to recommend to her spiritual children the meditation on man’s Four Last Things – death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Keeping these sobering aspects of human destiny ever before our eyes, we will be that much less likely to fall into mortal sin and be lost eternally. Gives many facts we should meditate on as we contemplate death. This book has converted numerous Protestants in our day because of its cogent reasons for rectifying our lives.
St. Francis Looking Toward Heaven, by Francisco de Zurbarán
From The Archdiocese of Washington D.C.
Traditional Catholic theology has distinguished the “Four Last Things” : Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. We are admonished to meditate upon these things frequently. We WILL die, be judged, and spend eternity either in Hell, or in Heaven (likely after some time in purgatory). All men are appointed to die once, and after that face The judgment (Hebrews 9:27) The video posted below is of a song by Johnny Cash on the topic of judgment. Here are some of the words:
You can run on for a long time Run on for a long time, run on for a long time Sooner or later God’ll cut you down Go tell that long tongue liar, go and tell that midnight rider Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.
We will all one day die, or as the song puts it, be cut down. We will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (cf 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 4:13; 1 Peter 4:5).
The reality of judgment and the possibility of Hell bothers a lot of modern Christians who have had God’s love emphasized to the exclusion of just about everything else about God. For example that He is Truth, and utterly Holy, that nothing unholy can tolerate His presence and so forth.
How to explain the possibility of Hell to a generation with a rather simplified notion of God? Perhaps the word “respect” can help. God want to save us all and have us live with him forever. This is clear in Scripture. But God has made us free and wants us to freely love Him and accept His invitation. This is His respect for our freedom. Now everyone want to go to heaven as they describe it. But NOT EVERYONE wants to go to real heaven which is God’s Kingdom in perfection. You see, in heaven, God’s Kingdom, there is love for the truth, love for chastity, love for the poor, love for justice, love for one another, mercy and forgiveness are esteemed and God is at the center. But NOT EVERYONE wants these things. Not everyone wants the truth, wants to be chaste, not everyone wants to forgive and love everyone. Not everyone wants God to be at the center, they prefer that spot for themselves or some other idol. As we discussed a couple of days ago many people can’t stand to go to Church at all, or if they do they want it to be as short as possible. If we don’t want to spend time with God here what makes us think we will want to do so after death? If the liturgy is boring or loathsome to someone now what makes them think they will enjoy the liturgy of heaven? And The Scriptures clearly describe heaven as primarily a liturgy of praise (cf esp. Rev 4-8) centered on God. So God invites, but not all accept or are interested in the real heaven to which God invites them. In the end, God respects our choice and this is why there is Hell, it is for those who do not want what the Kingdom of God is. God still sustains the souls in Hell but he ultimately respects their choice to reject the Kingdom and its values.
So we ought to pray for a deepening desire for heaven. Death is on the way, sooner or later we will all be cut down. And the Lord Jesus will judge us among other things with this question: “What is it that you want??” Do not think that we will magically change at that moment. By that time our choice for the Lord and his Kingdom or for something else will be firmly fixed. Behaviors become habits, habits become character, character becomes destiny.
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years (Deut 30:19-20)
Saint Francis of Assisi in his tomb, painted by Francisco de Zurbaran (1598 – 1664)