Two weeks ago, before the new year, TAN Books sent me a copy of Meditations on Death: Preparing for Eternity. The representatives I talked to said that this translation by Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB of Thomas Kempis' work (its first time being in English) was going to be their book of the year for 2023. When I received this small, 61 page hard cover book, I was quite curious of how something seemingly so small could already be declared the book of the year for TAN. When I began to read, however, "book of the year" came to actually be an understatement by my perspective. The reflections, themes, and meditations explored in this work are hard hitting, crucial for escaping any spiritual stagnation, timeless in their application, and beyond helpful in preparing one's self for inevitable death and the inescapable eternity of the afterlife.
My friend, it is most useful for you to call to mind frequently and assiduously the reality of your own death. This, indeed, is the one universal reality of our human condition -- for in this life, some are rich while others are poor, some are masters while others are servants, some learned while others are simple, and some are blessed by happiness and good fortune while others are struck down by misfortune and calamity. Yet all face death with equal certainty. And though death itself is a certainty, its time and manner of arrival are profoundly uncertain. - (pg. 3 Consideration of One's Own Death)
You may have read another of Kempis' attributed works, Imitation of Christ, however if you haven't I would advise picking that up as well. One thing about Thomas Kempis is that he does not take a light hearted approach to the spiritual life. When reading one of his works, oftentimes readers note a feeling of being punched in the gut with reality checks. Many times we can get complacent in our spiritual lives and these reality checks can do wonders for our growth.
We may get comfortable with our access to the sacraments, in a sense that we may find ourselves receiving them half-heartedly due to how often we can receive them. This ease of access can possibly affect us mentally to where something so important can be treated so mundanely. This isn't to say we should receive them less, on the contrary receive them as often as possible within the capabilities of your state in life but with a mindfulness to work on not losing that sense of awe.
We may take the concept of death and eternity in a half-hearted way as well in this day and age with all of our comforts, insofar that death can be taken as a concern for tomorrow and not today seeing as we have so many ways to mitigate danger, health concerns, and risk. We can get a false sense of security within the capabilities of the parameters of this world and our own abilities. Which is why Meditations on Death is such an important work for the Faithful to consume and take into their hearts because "one of the devil's favorite words is tomorrow. But God's is today"
This publication of Kempis' work is split into two main parts, with a third part consisting of Canticles to Heaven. The first part leads the reader through reflections on the reality of death, and what we know of Hell, the Final Judgment, and Paradise.
None will know with certainty in advance to which side they will be sent - neither pope nor bishop, nor even convicted criminal. For God alone perceives into the depths of the heart and knows all secret thoughts and actions, and He shows mercy to whom He wills. - (pg. 21 The Final Judgment)
Thomas is able to describe for the reader aspects of the horrors of Hell, the joys which can await us in Heaven; as well as present the sheer intimidating magnitude of what our Final Judgment may look like and the ways in which the soul may feel while in the presence of the Heavenly court.
The entirety of the second part is a scene of a sinner who is about to die, but it is presented in the form of an internal dialogue of what this said person may be feeling and thinking at the time of their death.
Truly, I am so very sorrowful and so utterly miserable that words cannot suffice to express it! Is it any wonder if my eyes now overflow with tears and sighs of regret issue from the depths of my heart? For I look back upon the moments, days, and years I have let slip by foolishly and realize that these can never ever be called back or reclaimed. - (pg. 43 Regrets Concerning the Deferral of Repentance and Reformation)
These two initial parts work hand in hand so very well and it paints one of the most fundamental and necessary macabre pictures to meditate on: death comes for us all regardless of the amount of preparation.
This latter part of the book does a phenomenal job of capturing the scrupulous and desperate thoughts of someone on their deathbed who is filled with regrets and lamentations and seemingly waited too long to repent and change their ways; and due to this delay of repentance you can experience within the internal discourse this anxious feeling of uncertainty on the state of their soul and their eternal destination.
Whether you are feeling any sort of spiritual stagnation or not I believe this book presents and communicates crucial themes for our lives, and in this day and age of comforts and complacency it would do us good to uncomfortably remind ourselves of the inevitability of death and of the reality that eternity awaits us in one form or another and that we know neither the hour nor the day in which our earthly part of life will end.
As for yourselves, I urge you with the utmost fervor to learn both to live and to die well in the Lord, while you still have the time and opportunity. For in God alone is our hope, our salvation, and our eternal life. Let us earnestly pray for each other so that we may all fine peace, pardon, and everlasting happiness, with Him who lives and reigns forever and ever! Amen. - (pg. 61 A Final Exhortation)