Welcoming Sister Death: The Saints Died as They Lived, Offering Lessons for All of Us

BOOK PICK: For the Christian, life’s temporal end is also life’s end goal, as ‘How Saints Die’ illustrates.

Close-up of the book cover.
Close-up of the book cover. (photo: Ignatius Press)

How Saints Die: 100 Stories of Hope

By Father Antonio Maria Sicari, OCD

Ignatius Press, 2021

234 pages, $17.95

To order: ignatius.com 

What makes for a happy death? For the world, death is an interruption of the real business of living. The term “happy death” is foreign to him who sees with the world. He can only make the best of a bad thing and arrange for death on his own terms, perhaps even by his own hand; thus our culture increasingly views death.

For the Christian, on the other hand, a happy death is one that comes at the end of a life spent seeking and serving the Lord. It’s not merely dying with the sacraments, although that’s an important part; thus the old ritual prayed that we be delivered from “a sudden and unprovided death.” But even more, a happy death is the fulfillment of one’s longing to see the Bridegroom when he comes. It is a welcome moment no matter when or how it arrives, whether when young or old, at the hands of a persecutor or in peaceful security.

Just as Christ’s death was not the interruption but the completion of his life, so also the Christian’s is to be the consummation of his. For the Christian, life’s temporal end is also life’s end goal. The conclusion of our earthly life brings us to the purpose of our life: perfect union with Christ. In this way, death sheds light backwards and determines how we live our lives from now until that moment. We shape our lives according to how we want them to end. The last article of the Creed — life everlasting — is the first principle of Christian living.

In How Saints Die, Carmelite Father Antonio Maria Sicari puts flesh on this truth. In one sense, the book is simply a collection of short saint biographies (and as such, it’s a good resource for celebrating saints’ feast days). But what makes this book different from other such collections is that Father Sicari brings out the unity in each saint’s life, that the living and the concluding of it were all of a piece. Each saint died as he or she lived.

Again, the world would see this book as grim and macabre. Why not focus on their lives and all the good they did? But Father Sicari’s 100 Stories of Hope bring out the glory of their lives precisely by emphasizing their death and that they lived not merely to do good in this world (although they did an amazing amount) but in light of the next.

Father Sicari illustrates how men and women throughout the Church’s history lived in the light of Our Lord’s coming and greeted him when he came. None of them experienced “a sudden and unprovided death” because they all strived to live with an awareness of his presence now and in anticipation of the fulfillment. The stories are arranged according to various states of life. The martyrs, of course, receive pride of place. They, more than all other saints, imitate Christ. But the mystics, the pastors, the children all likewise reveal this truth of lives charged with meaning because they are lived in the light of Christ’s coming.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15, emphasis added). So, perhaps, an alternative title to this book could have been How Saints Spent Their Lives. Many people merely live their lives or, worse, waste the lifetime given them. 

Father Sicari provides readers with 100 accounts of how holy men and women spent their lives and themselves in Christ’s service. 

The saints didn’t merely live their lives, but exhausted them, using up every last gift, talent and breath that God gave them. 

The French poet Charles Peguy famously wrote, “Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.” That line comes to mind in reading How Saints Die. How a saint dies is, in the end, the same way he spends his life. Their examples provide the inspiration and strength we need to avoid that one tragedy.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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