“He died singing, in the forty-sixth year of his age, and the twenty-fifth of his conversion”.
Today, October 3, we mark the Transitus of Saint Francis. May your Transitus be filled with blessings.
His biographers were keen to show that Saint Francis died happy, and we will repeat this line during the marking of his Transitus tonight. “He died singing.” Joy accompanies the “crossing over” of Saint Francis from this world to eternal life on October 3, 1226.
This cheery approach to dying can be off–putting. A Jesuit admirer of Saint Francis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was heard whispering throughout the day of his death, June 9, 1889, “I am so happy! I am so happy!” Even my dear friend Father John Wardman with whom I spent hours in the weeks before he died, was inspiring in his eagerness to step into the next page of the adventure God had for him.
For most of us, our own Transitus will not be so uncomplicated. We are circled with images of difficult dying: Will we die lonely in a nursing home? Will we die in pain? Will we die in an instant in a terror attack? These ways of dying are statistically unlikely, but even so it is hard to avoid these negative predictions of the way in which we will die.
But the cheery approach shown by saints to their death also has its problems. My main sadness about my dying is the break that it will mean with my beloved wife, children, grandchildren and others close to me. While I am dying, I am sure the disruption of my loves will cause me much grief. While I am convinced that dying is a door to a wider life than this present one, free from pain and full of praise, it is not unmitigated joyfulness.
The point about the Transitus of Saint Francis, the point about learning from saints how to die, is to restore the balance of our expectations about death. Because we love, we will grieve, but St Francis, poet Hopkins, John Wardman, and all the other happy deaths keep reminding us that we can make a good death.
When I was eight years old, I sang “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky”, and believed that heaven was just above that blue dome. [Or was it just behind the blue altar curtain in St Mary’s, Tambellup?] Now I think of heaven in more existentialist terms, a state of being in the presence of God eternally, and I look back and see the many ways in which my concept of the afterlife has grown more sophisticated. The sense of mystery about it has also grown. The more complex my conception of it, the more it is shrouded in a sense of unknowing.
So part of making a good death is constantly interrogating one’s picture of the afterlife and updating it as we update our understanding of God and how completely his love covers our existence.
Practising for a good death includes taking now every opportunity for joy and praise. For me as a musician, singing must be part of my preparation for dying.
Preparing for a good death also includes being conscious of those we love and continuing to work at those relationships, not to increase our grief, but to celebrate the great love which God shares with us.
So while it may be true that I will die in some sadness at leaving behind those I love, I also dare to hope that those with me in those last hours will also be able to say, “He died singing”.
In marking the Transitus of Saint Francis today, we can resolve to turn our attention, however old we are, to preparing to die singing, held by love.