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Death & Decapitation

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

I really don’t like thinking about death, but I think about it a lot. It is brought to the forefront of my thoughts by tragic events happening on a daily basis, and I am anxious and afraid. Countering that anxiety are the hope and resurrection inextricably tied to death in Christ, which I am reminded of when we celebrate the feasts of the saints. We usually celebrate not the birthdays, but the death days of these holy exemplars - their entrance in Heaven, their birth into eternal life.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist, commemorating his grisly, heroic exit from this life and his triumphant entrance into that life more real ( for a wonderful picture of Heaven as the place where the truly real reveals our earthly realities to be ephemeral reflections, read The Great Divorce by C.S.Lewis). The head of St. John the Baptist being chopped off, put on a platter, and carried in to Herod’s wife was a messy business, as were many of the saints’ deaths. Speaking of decapitated saints, when we were in Siena, I knelt with Siena at the altar where the head of St. Catherine of Siena sits encased. I asked her in an excited whisper, “What do you think?! Here we are, with the relics of your saint!” and her one word response was, “Creepy.”

The Catholic Church is full of bones, relics, skulls, and memoirs of the brevity of this life. It is a little creepy, but it reminds us that the Church is not afraid of death. She points us to our ultimate end, helping us to keep things in perspective. As St. Alphonsus di Liguori said, "...if you wish to live well, spend the remaining days of life with death before your eyes." The saints to whom these body parts belong confronted death and, because of Christ, will overcome it at the Resurrection.

When we lost our children to death and I wept, I wondered why I was weeping when they were perfect and perfectly happy in the arms of God. But my husband pointed out that death, even when someone goes to be with God, is always an evil. It is a rending of soul and body, which are meant to be united, and even though they will be reunited in the Last Day, it is sad for those of us here to see them separated.

I was looking at a book yesterday called A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life by Nicholas Diat. The book explores how to die well, how to respond to our fear of death, and how these monks spend their lives preparing to die a good death. I was thinking I should read it, and it would probably help me with my own fear of death. I feel sort of guilty being afraid of death, since I am a Christian and I know that life with Christ in Heaven will outshine all the best and most beautiful things on earth. But despite believing that, I hate the thought of dying. Even when my anxiety or depression is at its worst and I feel utterly miserable, I still hate the thought of dying. I imagine that this has something to do with my desire to control things. I do find that when I put aside the ridiculous number of things on my plate and just contemplate Christ, my fears begin to subside. It is still a battle, but I am still fighting, and that is something.

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