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Photo: Marian archives
Her Lesson in Dying
By Felix Carroll (Oct 3, 2015)
This is what tuberculosis can do to you: It can attack the lungs and spread to other parts of the body. Coughing is a given — sometimes mucus, sometimes blood. Breathing can become difficult. You may wheeze and feel chest pains and sweat excessively. You may become fatigued and feverish. You may lose weight such that you become a mere fragment of your former physical self.
Seventy-seven years ago, on Oct. 5, 1938, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, the great apostle of Divine Mercy, died at the age of 33 from complications from tuberculosis and other ailments, which included internal hemorrhaging.
Firsthand accounts collected by the Polish author Maria Tarnawska and included in her now-out-of-print book, Sister Faustina Kowalska — Her Life and Mission, attest to the fact Faustina suffered a physically agonizing death. Yet, just as Faustina shows us how to live — united to God's will — in her death, Faustina shows us how to die. She was prepared and unafraid.
Here is how Sr. Crescentia, a nun who lived in the same convent as Faustina just outside of Krakow, described the once-attractive Faustina just days before her death: "She was very ugly, very worn out, a real skeleton. She was breathing heavily."
Other sisters later said it was painful to even look at her. Yet, they reported that all the while Faustina was stoic, even cheerful and smiling.
"Sister dear, you are not afraid of death?" Sr. Crescentia asked her.
"Why should I be?" Faustina responded from her deathbed. "All my sins and imperfections will be consumed like straw in the fire of the Divine Mercy."
On the day of her death, Faustina whispered to Sr. Felicia, "Today the Lord is taking me." She said so not only with confidence, but with longing. The sisters gathered around her for one last time and prayed for her as her mind began to dim. The future saint took her last breath at 10:45 p.m. Her last moments were quiet and peaceful.
The sisters who visited her in her last days reported feeling God's presence in the room. Even those few sisters who showed ambivalence with regard to Faustina in her healthier days reported feeling they were in the presence of a saint.
A Fuller Picture of Her Death
Saint Faustina's now-famous Diary gives us a fuller picture of her state of mind as she approached death. As her physical pain and exhaustion grew in intensity, so, too, did her mystical union with Christ.
She details a three-day retreat she took less than four months before her death (see Diary entries 1753-1779).
During the retreat, led by Christ Himself, He assured her of the sanctification and salvation available through the sacraments of the Church, particular the Holy Eucharist and confession. He taught her to totally abandon herself to His will; to put her "self-love in the last place"; to shun gossip "like the plague"; to act kindly to those who sought to cause her harm; to hide in His Heart whenever confronted by temptation and discouragement; to trust He is always with her; to pray for the sick and dying; and to always be adorned by the virtues of humility, purity of intention, and love.
But He also minces no words with regards to the sufferings ahead. He says He will "not delude" her "with prospects of peace," and tells her that her "body and soul will often be in the midst of fire."
"Although you will not feel My presence on some occasions," Christ says, "I will always be with you. Do not fear; My grace will be with You" (1767).
Jesus' words to Faustina are as much directed to her as they are to us. Her recording of the retreat reads like a crash course for anyone seeking holiness.
An Eternal Ellipsis
Prepared thusly, Faustina's happiness, spiritual strength, and glorification of Jesus became all the more pronounced.
By then, she could no longer live a normal life in her community. Still, strengthened through the Holy Eucharist, she taught herself to put her sufferings to divine use, to transform them into a daily oblation for the salvation of souls.
Though undated, Faustina's final Diary entry is believed to have been in mid-June 1938. She no longer had the strength to continue. But by then, what else was there to say? Save for a final confession and Last Rites, she was fully prepared to die. In her final Diary entry she writes:
Today, the Majesty of God is surrounding me. There is no way that I can help myself to prepare better. I am thoroughly enwrapped in God. My soul is being inflamed by His love. I only know that I love and am loved. That is enough for me. I am trying my best to be faithful throughout the day to the Holy Spirit and to fulfill His demands. I am trying my best for interior silence to be able to hear His voice ... (1828)
That's how the Diary ends — with an ellipsis. That's how St. Faustina died, too, with an ellipsis, so to speak, a dot, dot, dot that indicates the story is not over. Yes, life everlasting has only just begun.
As it was for a saint it is for ourselves: When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus' Merciful Heart, we should rest assure that someday, like Faustina, we may rest in peace.