Depth perception can be defined as the ability to perceive things and their spatial relationship in three dimensions. Death perception, on the other hand, can be defined as the ability to perceive things and their spiritual relationship in three dimensions. What are those three dimensions? Heaven, hell, and purgatory. Someone who has death perception sees all the events of this life in terms of the next.
Such a person is not concerned about the material advantages of a given situation, but about the eternal consequences of his potential actions in that situation. One who has just begun using his death perception skills fears going to hell, as he has recently abandoned a life of sin. He might weigh the material benefits of a potential course of action along with the eternal consequences. But as someone advances in the spiritual life, fear of punishment is gradually replaced by love of God. Thoughts of hell change to thoughts of purgatory, and eventually thoughts of purgatory change to thoughts of heaven.
After a while, it’s no longer a question of getting away with doing one’s own will as much as possible, but trying to do what is most pleasing to God. The possibility of punishment in the next life is dwarfed by the prospect of a higher place in heaven.
Thoughts filled with heavenly realities are thoughts that have been surrendered to God. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s words apply: “The further you advance, the fewer combats you will have, or rather, the easier will your conquests be, because you will look at the good side of things. Your soul will then rise above creatures.” All created goods are then seen in light of the Uncreated Good: God.
If this mindset seems foreign to you, stop to think about your own death. No matter how healthy or wealthy you may be, there will come a day when you are not only not as healthy or wealthy, but completely lacking both of these goods. St. Augustine tells us that “Death alone is certain. All other goods or evils are uncertain.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori continues this line of thought in Preparation for Death:
In every age, houses, streets, and cities are filled with new people, and the former ones are carried out to be enclosed in the tomb . . . so will the time come when neither I, nor you, nor anyone now living, will exist any longer on this earth. . . . We shall then all be in eternity, which will be for us either an eternal day of delights or an eternal night of torments. There is no middle way; it is certain and of faith that one or the other lot will be ours.
We come to fully realize our lot through death, which is the threshold of eternity. The fact that death is the highway all must travel is obvious, yet we are so adept at ignoring it.
In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse explained the importance of meditating on death. She was thankful her family moved away from their house at Alençon because of the worldliness found among the people there:
I consider it a great grace to not to have remained at Alençon. The friends we had there were too worldly; they knew too well how to ally the joys of this earth to the service of God. They didn’t think about death enough, and yet death had paid its visit to a good number of those whom I knew—the young, the rich. . . .
Even those who encounter the death of a loved one pretend they themselves are somehow exempt from the reality that they will not live here forever. Nonetheless, as a child St. Thérèse already knew better, taking her own mother’s death as very instructive on what to expect from this life. She looked beyond this world into eternity, and spent her life here preparing for that life which will never end.
This is how the saints lived, and this is how we should live as well, acknowledging death not as theoretical or only for other people, but for ourselves. We are then seeing things here in light of eternity, which is all that matters, absolutely speaking. St. Alphonsus tells us:
It is not necessary to be rich in this world, to gain the esteem of others, to lead a life of ease…it is only necessary to love God and to do His will. For this single end He created us, for this He preserves our life; and thus only can we gain admittance into Heaven.
The choice is ours. If we so desire, we can hone our death perception skills by retreating for a time from the demands of this world and focusing on the demands of the next. We should do so on a yearly retreat, but also daily in a less lengthy and dramatic way. This is done by setting aside printed or electronic media and replacing them with meditation and prayer. By doing this on a daily basis, we receive the grace to see things for what they really are, which means seeing them in light of eternity.
In Genesis 3, the serpent tempts Eve by claiming she won’t die if she disobeys God. We are continually tempted in a more subtle way to believe that we will not die, that life here is all there is. Those who fall prey to this temptation end up committing the most sin. By contrast, those who best use their death perception skills commit the least sin, and instead grow in virtue. In Ecclesiasticus 7:40 [Douay-Rheims translation; Sirach 7:36 in newer translations] we are told, “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.” This is nothing other than death perception, which is readily available to us all.
Art: Table of the Mortal Sins [detail: Death], Jheronimus Bosch, 1500-1525, PD-US; Alphonsus Liguori [1896-1787], Italian School, 18th century, PD copyright expired; Gravure de “Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus, Histoire d’une âme écrite par elle-même, Lisieux, Office central de Lisieux (Calvados), & Bar-le-Duc, Imprimerie Saint-Paul, 1937, édition 1940,” PD-US copyright expired; all Wikimedia Commons.
Originally published in “Lay Witness” magazine, a publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Used with permission.Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.