My newest book is out: “I Am Going . . . : Reflections on the Last Words of the Saints” (89 of them!) published by ACTA Publications. It has lovely full-page portraits of 14 of these saints. I thought you might enjoy reading the introduction . . . and be interested enough to purchase the book, which is $12.95! By the way, the intriguing title “I Am Going” is taken from the last words of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity: “I am going to Light, Love, and Life.”
Dying words, especially those of heroes and other famous people, fascinate us. Some last words are common knowledge; we recall them as easily as our home address. Everyone knows (at least from Shakespeare) that as Julius Caesar passed from life in 44 B.C., he asked, “Et tu, Brute?” History students learn that, before his execution, American Revolution hero Nathan Hale valiantly proclaimed, “I wish I had more than one life to give for my country.” More recently, as Steve Jobs, cofounder and CEO of Apple, Inc., left this world, he looked past those gathered around his deathbed, and mysteriously uttered, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!”
To us mortals, last words possess a kind of mystical significance. We deem them so important that we even allow condemned prisoners an opportunity to make a final statement. They may express remorse, anger, or gratitude to their families or wardens. They may apologize or steadfastly maintain innocence.
If you type “dying words” on an Internet search engine you will get pages of hits, including these gems:
- Just moments before receiving a fatal gunshot would, during the American Civil War, General John Sedgwick is reported to have remarked, “Why, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
- President Grover Cleveland wistfully said, “I have tried so hard to do the right.”
- Some say that comedian Lou Costello’s capped his fun-filled life by commenting, “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.”
- According to his wife, Beatle George Harrison said, “Love one another.”
- Leonardo da Vinci suppossedly ended life regretfully, saying, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
More meaningful for us than the last words of VIPs are those of our loved ones as they depart for the next world. They might assure us of their love, make a request, or impart some final advice. We tuck their dying words tenderly into our hearts.
Saints are our Church’s heroes and our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Because canonized men and women completed their earthly journey successfully, they serve as models. It follows then that their final words are a legacy and a challenge. The greatest saint is Mary, the Mother of God, but unfortunately we do not know her final words. However, the last thing she says in John’s Gospel is good advice: “Do what ever he [Jesus] tells you.” Neither do we have a record of the dying words of Mary’s husband and second greatest saint, Joseph, who doesn’t speak at all in the Gospels.
We are deprived of the last thoughts of other popular saints. St. Madeline Sophie Barat, R.S.C.J., founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart who died in France in 1865, is one of these. Years before her death, she declared, “If God hears my prayers, there will be no last words of mine to repeat, for I shall say nothing at all.” Her words were prophetic because for the last days of her life, paralysis prevented her from speaking. Another French saint, the beloved St. John Vianney (1786–1859), otherwise known as the Curé of Ars, also died peacefully and silently. Perhaps humility kept his tongue in check. Ironically, although the great St. Thomas Aquinas generated an avalanche of written words, apparently no one was able to record his final words. You won’t find St. Benedict’s last words in this book either, although we know he died of a sudden fever. His final gesture though is a powerful statement. Standing in an oratory with arms uplifted after receiving Communion.
On the other hand, the dying words of a number of saints have been preserved, offering us a treasure trove for reflection. As would be expected, the majority of them died with a prayer on their lips. Some humble saints, as holy as they were, still begged God for mercy. Many martyrs, in imitation of Jesus, forgave their enemies with their dying breath. Some saints delivered a final instruction to those at their deathbed. And a few saints gifted with an irrepressible sense of humor couldn’t resist expiring with a joke, notably the Roman deacon St. Lawrence and the English chancellor St. Thomas More.
I was tempted to include in this book the Jesuit Blessed Miguel Pro’s triumphant “Long live Christ the king!” as he faced the Mexican firing squad with his arms outstretched as on a cross. In the end I decided to focus solely on officially declared saints.
Each entry opens with a brief biography intended to entice readers to become better acquainted with the saint by researching other sources. Then the saint’s last words are quoted, followed by a reflection that zeroes in on some aspect of them. Finally there is a suggestion for taking the words to heart.
For those who would like to follow the liturgical calendar for the saints in this book, an index is provided.
We are unlikely to remember an event the same way as others. This is especially true in the case of a traumatic and emotional death. Our memories are colored by our relationship to the dying person and other factors. The same holds true for the memories of some saints. While most of the dying words quoted in this book have been authenticated, some might be the result of altered or embellished memories. And a few might be the product of what someone thought the saint ought to have said! In any case, I hope you find these pages enlightening and inspiring.
It’s doubtful that the saints planned their dying words. Rather, their final utterances were most likely spontaneous epitomes of their entire lives. We usually don’t think about our own death, much less determine our last words. What would you want your words to be as you exit this world and enter the next?
Do you know other people’s pertinent words on their deathbed?