When death comes for me, what last word will I utter?
Whither will my thoughts turn?
Whom will I remember?
Seldom do we ask these sorts of questions. We avoid them because we fear death. But if we give them some thought, they can help us prepare for our death, however and whenever it will come.
The fifth canto of Dante’s Purgatorio tackles these questions directly. There, Dante encounters a group of souls who repented of their sins just before dying violent deaths. When he first runs into them, they are singing David’s Miserere, the great penitential psalm. Once they notice the pilgrim poet, they strike up a conversation and describe themselves to Dante with these words:
We all were victims of some violent death,
yet sinners till we reached our final hour.
Then Heaven’s light dawned and made us see things clear,
so that, repenting and forgiving all,
we came from life remade at peace with God,
who heartens our desire to see Him still. (Purgatorio 5, 52-57)
Given the circumstances of their passing, these souls could not profit from seeking out the sacraments or from fully making their amends to God and those neighbors against whom they sinned. However, as they neared their death, God’s grace enlightened them to see their sins and to go to Him whose “arms enfold and grasp all who turn to Him” (Purgatorio 3, 123).
After meeting these souls, Dante promises to pray for them and invites some of them to share their stories. One of those who speaks is Buonconte di Montefeltro, a great Ghibelline general who died in battle fighting against the Florentine Guelphs (in whose ranks was Dante himself). Buonconte tells Dante that, wounded on the battlefield, he made his way to the Archiano river. He continues:
I’d got to where this river’s title fails,
fleeing on foot, and wounded in my throat,
a line of blood behind me on the plain.
And now I lost my sight. And all my words
ended in uttering Maria’s name.
I fell – my flesh alone remaining there.
But tell the living this – I’ll speak the truth –
God’s angel laid his hands on me. Hell shrieked:
“Why do you rob me, Heavenspawn, of this?
You’d prise him from me for one little tear,
and carry off his everlasting part?
Well, I’ll rule otherwise his other half!” (Purgatorio 5, 97-108)
He ends the tale by recounting how the river, moved by infernal powers, swallowed up his body and undid the cross he had formed with his arms as a sign of repentance.
Buonconte’s story illustrates well the drama of our death. We all find ourselves in the battlefield of earthly life, where we wound others and in turn are wounded by sin. And in the end, in the midst of the battle, we die.
At the moment of our death, God will not spare any aids that He might send our way. He will send us sinners His light and His grace. He will send His angels to protect us and to claim for God what the Devil wants for himself. He will send us little gestures of repentance and thoughts of our Redeemer. He may grant us the grace to expire with Mary’s holy name on our lips. We need only accept our sinfulness, repent, and abandon ourselves to the God who seeks to embrace us in His mercy. Let us turn to Him: better late than never!
Image: Gustave Doré, Buonconte (illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto V)