During the last years of his life Charles was constantly aware of the nearness of death. Living as we do in an age when it is considered almost rude to speak about death, his frequent references to death seem strange to us, accustomed as we are to avoid such a topic. In the letter to his brothers and sisters quoted above he says,
I am an old man now and am afraid of death. I pray daily that through the powerful intercession of his Mother, God in his mercy will grant me a happy death. Sixty members of the Passionist order have died in Ireland and England since I came over here from Belgium.
The death of his brother Fr Peter Joseph had a profound effect on Charles; in almost every letter written to his family after Peter Joseph’s death, Charles speaks about his own death and asks for prayers that he might have a happy death. In a letter to his sister Anne Mary he writes,
I’m afraid that I will die soon; in your kindness pray for me, that the good God may grant me a happy death and a favourable judgment. I pray for you all continually that he may grant you the same grace. It is helpful for us to say often the Act of Contrition and also the words of St Francis de Sales: ‘My Saviour Jesus Christ, by the merits of your Sacred Passion and your most holy Death, give me the grace of perfect contrition for my sins, so that I may never offend or displease you again.’
Our separation will not last much longer. Let us hope that we will meet again in heaven. Amen.
Fear of death is a fundamental human experience; it is something with which each of us must struggle. According to the Second Vatican Council, ‘It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction.’ (Gaudium et Spes, par. 18) Nevertheless, the Council document goes on to say, ‘to every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him’.
It can be said of Charles that the pattern of his life was shaped by his awareness of death. Death for him was not an abstraction -- ‘All men are mortal’ -- but an existential reality -- ‘I too must die’. This understanding of the transitory nature of our earthly life he tried to bring to others, as we see from a story he told in one of his sermons:
A certain nobleman went to the Pope to make his confession to him. When he had finished, the Pope gave him a penance, but he said that the penance was too hard. Then the Pope said to him, ‘Say once a day, “I shall die one day”.’ The nobleman accepted the penance. He performed that little penance, and afterwards he lived a most holy life.
Fr Eugene Nevin recalls that Charles was often heard to pray, ‘O Lord, let your Passion be so realised and verified in me that I may never die in sin.’ Fr Eugene tells us that Charles would also say, ‘So many communions; so many Masses; so many Confessions, yet how sinful I am. Will I ever be saved? Will I ever get to heaven?’. Coming from the lips of one who was living such a heroic Christian life these words seem shocking at first sight, but this was no false humility throwing scorn on itself. Charles was deeply aware that he was a sinner who must plead for mercy. According to Fr Eugene,
There was then not far from the monastery a brick field, whose furnaces looked fierce and threatening in the darkness of the night. Of a Winter’s evening he used to take a position at one of the windows commanding a view of them, and remain long in meditative mood. If accosted, as I know he was, now and again, he would point in the direction of the furnaces and say ‘See!’ And then after a pause ‘O! the sufferings of the lost, and I deserve all for my sins. O! God be merciful to me a sinner.’ After another pause, and borrowing the words of St Augustine for the expression of thoughts similar to his, he would exclaim ‘Hic seca, hic ure, sed parce in aeternum’ (Wound and burn me here, but spare me in eternity) beating his breast the while.
Charles’ deep awareness of the reality of sin was not the result of a morbid preoccupation with self; in the light of his deep spirit of prayer and his compassion for the suffering, he could not be thought of as self-centred. Nor did his sense of sin come from any distorted notion of God, as we can see from one of his letters:
All God’s blessings are infinite, but the effects of grace are more abundant than anything. For that reason St Paul calls God rich in mercy. He is called the Father of mercy and grace, but never the Father of justice and severity.
The true sense of sin which comes from God is rooted not in our own feelings of guilt but in the experience of the truth of God’s merciful love. It was because he knew the reality of God’s love for him, the love which is shown on the Cross, that Charles was able to say from the depths of his heart, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
right: Father Charles, c. 1890
In his sermons Charles frequently spoke of sin which he described as ‘a monster which cannot be seen’. He would encourage the people who came for his blessing to love and serve God most fervently, because ‘we must lead a holy life if we wish to die a holy death’. ‘How dreadful must it be,’ he would say, ‘to have concealed mortal sins in confession. How terrible must it be for those damned souls at the first appearance of the Judge.’ For Charles sin was a ‘black ingratitude’ by which God is ‘despised, mocked and derided’:
We should all be dead to sin and live only to serve and love God. God has placed us in this world not to live according to our own will, nor to follow our bad inclinations; our body and soul and all our faculties must be employed to please God. The early Christians could indeed flatter themselves that by keeping themselves in such a rigorous way of living, in praying, fasting, in performing other austerities, they avoided sin with so great a care. Alas, that happy time is no more. Now sin is committed everywhere; in all places, in all states of life, they commit sin like they swallow water. What hatred you should have against sin! You should consider that sin is rebelling against God and a black ingratitude to the diving Majesty. Now a creature most noble, created to the image of God, created to serve and to love, revolts against his Creator. But, my dear brethren, consider well that sin ought to be feared more than anything in this world because the sinner who commits a mortal sin becomes the enemy of God. He does all in his power to destroy his God and causes a black ingratitude, after having received so many benefits from God.... especially in this country in comparison with other countries. God who is you Father, your Master, your Benefactor is despise, mocked and derided; his is made to suffer, having favoured you so kindly. If you would ever see a person taking his crucifix in his hands and trampling it under his feet, you should say, ‘What a wicked person this is.’ Now, a person who commits a mortal sin does far worse.
After demonstrating how terrible sin is, Charles would urge his hearers to turn to Jesus, whose death on the Cross gives us the power to overcome our sinful inclinations:
The means to become perfect is to mortify our predominant passion. As a Captain in the time of battle, in order to gain the victory, endeavours to arrange the soldiers at that point where he sees the greatest dangers are to be overcome, so we should do the same. As long as we strive to overcome our little passions, we shall not be easily overcome by the strong ones.
What is the means to be used to overcome our passions? it is to meditate on the Passion of our Lord. A person who is proud, for instance: if he sees that Jesus Christ is derided, mocked, sent from one place to the other and keeping silence, he sees a great motive of humility in Our Lord. Another is impatient: he may look to the Crucifix and he will find a model of patience.
Among Charles’ writings is a paragraph entitled ‘The Comparison of a Soul in the State of Grace and a Soul who is in the State of Mortal Sin.’ In this text he begins by describing the happiness of the person who is in the state of grace. This person, he says, can address the Redeemer as ‘spouse, love, sister or brother’. In contrast, the person who is in a state of mortal sin has turned away from God:
At the hour of death that soul having committed so many mortal sins, to whom shall she turn her eyes? To the eternal Father, being so long despised? To the Son, being so many times crucified? Or to the angels, being always ready to lift up their sword to punish that soul? Or to the Saints who participate in the glory of the happiness of heaven? To whom then must she turn her eyes? Ah, to the Mother of God, Mary, the only Refuge of sinners. We have recourse to thee, O Mary!
For Charles, Mary was the ‘Refuge of Sinners’, the one to whom he could turn for help in time of need. He saw her as the model for the Christian, as example to be imitated by those who wish to live as disciples of Jesus: ‘We should love and serve the Blessed Virgin, and imitate her virtues. She ought to be our book, our model, our mother.’
Fr Eugene Nevin tells us that ‘his devotion to Mary combined the simplicity of a child with all the strength and constancy of which his firm character was capable.’ Among the few books he kept in his room were the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Secret of Mary by St Louis Marie de Montfort; he used to recommend these to others. According to his confessor, Fr Norbert McGettigan, ‘He would speak of the great Mother of God as his “own dear Mother”, and the sweet name of Mary was always on his lips. When he spoke of her Immaculate Conception of her sufferings at the foot of the Cross of her diving Son, his face would light up with unusual brilliancy.’ Above all, Mary was for him the one in whom we trust ‘now and at the hour of our death’, as we see from one of his prayers:
O my great Angel Guardian and my Patron Saint, and all you holy angels and saints, unite your prayers to mine, and together let us beseech our glorious and heavenly Queen to obtain for me all the most efficacious graces that I may never commit any wilful sin; and that she may receive me as her child, guide my steps through this sinful world, assist me at the hour of my death, obtain for me a very happy one with a favourable judgment, and conduct my soul to the Throne of God, there to enjoy the glory of the most adorable Trinity. Amen.
Fr Eugene witnessed an unusual incident towards the end of Charles’ life which gave him an appreciation of the depth of Charles’ love for the Mother of God. It took place in the refectory at Mount Argus. Usually during meals there was a reading from the life of a saint or some other spiritual book, except on fast days when the evening collation was taken in silence:
Everything was going on as usual, the customary silence being observed, but through the silence came the softly whispered ejaculations of Fr Charles.
Suddenly he started up from his seat with wonderful agility calling aloud the name ‘Mary, Mary’. Throwing down his serviette, placing his left hand over his heart, with right extended on high, he became transfixed and motionless as a statue, his upturned gazed fixed on a point in the lofty ceiling. I looked, all looked, at the same point expecting to see something. We, of course, saw nothing, but a thrill of awe went through everyone for we felt that something extraordinary had happened. For some moments, moments seem hours in some of the events of life, he remained in that ecstatic attitude, fit subject for the artist’s brush, until the Superior brought him back to himself by calling out loudly ‘Fr Charles, Fr Charles! You are disturbing the Community!’ Then he resumed his former position as if nothing out of the common had occurred.
above: refectory at Mount Argus, photographed on 3 September 2006
Charles had first arrived in Ireland on the feast of Mary, Mother of Holy Hope, a feast which is proper to the Passionist Congregation. The picture of the Mother of Holy Hope shows Mary and, in her arms, the child Jesus who holds a cross in his left hand; it reminds us of the saying of Saint Paul of the Cross, ‘The whole life of Jesus was a cross. The whole life of one who serves God, then should be to remain on the cross with Jesus.’ The mission of Blessed Charles of Mount Argus, which began on this feast of Mary, was to bring healing and hope to the crucified ones of this world: the poor, the lonely, the sick, the dying. To them he would frequently say, ‘Have faith; pray to Mary.’ His aim was to bring the people to whom he ministered closer to Jesus, and to do so through Mary. right: Father Charles’ rosary beads
Faced with the awareness of his own sinfulness and, in his last years, the nearness of death, all his trust was placed in Jesus our Hope and in Mary his Mother. Like St Paul of the Cross he could say, ‘All my hope is in the Passion of Jesus and the Sorrows of Mary’. Among his papers, after his death, was found a prayer he had written which expresses his trust in the mercy of Jesus and the protection of Mary; this prayer, which he said every day, he calls a ‘Prayer to the Blessed Virgin to obtain a Good Death’:
Mary, sweet refuge of miserable sinners, when my soul is on the point of leaving this world, of my most sweet Mother, by that sorrow which thou didst endure when assisting at the death of thy Son on the Cross, assist me with thy mercy. Drive the infernal enemy far from me, and do thou come and take my soul to thyself and present it to the eternal Judge. My Queen, abandon me not. Thou, after Jesus, hast to be my comfort in that terrible moment. Entreat thy beloved Son in his Goodness, to grant me the grace to die clinging to thy feet, and to breath forth my soul in his wounds, saying, ‘Jesus and Mary I give you my heart and my soul.’ Amen.
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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - all rights reserved
This biography, paper-published in 1988 at the time of Father Charles’ beatification, was how I became acquainted with the life of Father Charles. Although you will find the entire text at this site, I encourage you to look for the new paper edition of the book, which will be available in bookshops in mid-2007.