Love is as strong as death. Death separates the soul of him who dies from the body, and from all the things of the world; sacred love separates the soul of the lover from his body and from all the things of the world: nor is there any other difference, saving that death does that in effect, which love ordinarily does only in affection. I say ordinarily, Theotimus, because holy love is sometimes so violent that it even actually causes a separation between the body and the soul; making the lovers die a most happy death, better than a hundred lives.
As it is the special character of the reprobate that they die in sin, so of the elect it is, that they die in the love and grace of God. But still this happens in different ways. The just man never dies unprovidedly; for to have persevered in Christian justice even to the end, is to have well provided for death; but he does sometimes die of unexpected or sudden death. For this cause the all-wise Church does not make us pray in her Litanies that we may simply be delivered from sudden death, but from sudden and unprovided death. It is no worse for being sudden, if it be not also unprovided. If weak and ordinary souls had seen the fire from heaven fall upon the great S. Simeon Stylites's head and kill him, what would they have thought but thoughts of scandal? Yet ought we to have no other thought than that this great saint, having most perfectly immolated himself to God in his heart, and being already wholly consumed with love, the fire came from heaven to perfect the holocaust and entirely consume it; for the Abbot Julian, being a day's journey off, saw his soul ascend to heaven, and thereupon caused incense to be offered in thanksgiving to God. The Blessed Homobonus of Cremona, on a certain day hearing Mass on his knees with extreme devotion, rose not at the Gospel according to custom, whence those that were about him, looked at him, and perceived that he was dead. There have been in our time men most famous for virtue and learning, found dead, some in a confessional, others while hearing a sermon: yea some have been seen to fall down dead at their going out of the pulpit, where they had preached with great fervour; and all these deaths were sudden, yet not unprovided. And how many good people do we see die in apoplexy, in a lethargy, and a thousand other ways, very suddenly? And others die in delirium and madness, out of the use of reason; and all these, together with children who are baptized, die in grace and consequently in the love of God. But how could they die in the love of God, since they did not even think of God at the time of their departure?
Learned men, Theotimus, lose not their knowledge while they are asleep; otherwise they would be unlearned at their awaking, and have to return to school. The like it is in all the habits of prudence, temperance, faith, hope and charity; they are ever within the just man's heart, though they are not always in action. While a man sleeps it seems that all his habits sleep with him, and when he awakes awake with him; so a just man dying suddenly, whether crushed by a house falling upon him, or killed by thunder, or stifled by an effusion on the lungs, or dying out of his senses by the violence of a burning fever, dies not indeed in the exercise of holy love, yet he dies in the habit thereof. Whereupon the wise man says: The just man, if he be prevented with death, shall be in rest: for to obtain eternal life it suffices to die in the state and habit of love and charity.
Many saints, however, have departed this life not only in charity and with the habit of heavenly love, but even in the act and practice thereof. S. Augustine died in the exercise of holy contrition, which cannot be without love: S. Jerome exhorting his dear children to the love of God, of their neighbour, and of virtue: S. Ambrose in a rapture, sweetly discoursing with his Saviour, immediately after he had received the holy Sacrament of the altar: S. Antony of Padua after he had recited a hymn to the glorious Virgin-mother, and while talking joyously with our Saviour: S. Thomas Aquinas joining his hands, elevating his eyes towards heaven, raising his voice very high, and pronouncing by way of ejaculation with great fervour, these words of the Canticles (the last which he had expounded): Come my beloved, let us go forth into the field, let us abide in the villages. All the Apostles and almost all the Martyrs died in prayer. The Blessed and Venerable Bede having foreknown by revelation the time of his departure, went to Vespers (and it was Ascension day), and standing upright, leaning only on the elbows of his stall, without any disease at all, ended his life at the same instant that he ended his singing of Vespers, as it were directly to follow his Master ascending unto heaven, there to enjoy the fair morning of eternity, which has no Vesper. John Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, a man so learned and pious that, as Sixtus Senensis says, one can hardly discern whether his learning surpassed his piety, or his piety his learning, having expounded the fifty properties of divine love mentioned in the Canticle of Canticles, three days afterwards, having a face and heart full of life, expired pronouncing and repeating many times, by way of ejaculatory prayer, these holy words, drawn out of the same Canticles: O God! thy love is strong as death. S. Martin, as everyone knows, died so attentive to the exercise of devotion, that more could not be. S. Louis, that great king amongst saints, and great saint amongst kings, being struck with the plague, never ceased to pray; and then, having received the divine Viaticum, spreading out his arms in form of a cross, his eyes fixed upon heaven, yielded up the ghost, ardently sighing out these words with a perfect confidence of love: I will come into thy house; I will worship towards thy holy temple and I will give glory to thy name. S. Peter Celestine, being wholly steeped in cruel afflictions which can scarce be described, having reached the end of his days, began to sing, as a sacred swan, the last of the psalms, and ended his song and his life with these amorous words: Let every spirit praise the Lord. The admirable S. Eusebia, surnamed the stranger, died on her knees and in fervent prayer, S. Peter Martyr, writing with his finger and in his own blood the confession of the faith for which he died, and uttering these words: Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and the great Apostle of the Japanese, S. Francis Xavier, holding and kissing the image of the crucifix, and repeating at every kiss these ejaculations of his soul: |O Jesus! the God of my heart!|