I grew up as I think of it as a typical Catholic of the 60s and 70s. We attended Mass every Sunday, I went to Catechism, and did my first Communion and Confirmation. Otherwise, our faith was not particularly relevant to the rest of our lives. But my mother did pray with me when I was a child, and I very well remember the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. In 2019 America this might be considered child abuse, so completely has our culture abandoned its Christian roots. Here is the first part of the prayer, and the part I remember praying:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray to God my soul to take.
If I should live for other days,
I pray the Lord to guide my ways.
Oh, the horror! How could my mother have allowed me to speak of death so young, and right before I go to sleep? I mean, we’re talking nightmare city! My fragile little psyche couldn’t handle that. No young and vulnerable child should be reminded of death’s reality. It’s best for them we just pretend it doesn’t exist. No doubt you get the sarcasm. In fact, one of the more healthy things you can do for your children is to teach them about the transitory nature of life, that mortality is real, and that one day the Grim Reaper will come for them too.
Given the advance of science and technology, death for most people is primarily a cinematic experience, something they see on TV or in movies, an abstraction they almost believe they’ll be able to escape. We’re inundated with advertisements trying to convince us we can cheat aging, and by implication maybe even death. Prior to the 20th century, however, death was ubiquitous, and not easily denied or ignored. Before modern medicine, childbirth was dangerous for the mother, and many died in childbirth. If a baby was born healthy, there was a good chance it wouldn’t survive childhood. If he or she made it to their teen years and into adulthood, getting past 50 was unusual. Given all the other difficulties of life before modern conveniences (like plumbing!) life was exactly what 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said it was: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Although most would probably disagree with me, death is one of the most powerful apolgetics for the Truth of Christianity. That seems like a crazy statement because death, including pain and suffering, for most people is part of what’s come to be called “the problem of evil.” A problem, that is, for the veracity of Christianity, especially since the so-called Enlightenment. For sixteen hundred years atheism was an absurdity to Western thinkers and citizens in general, but as the 17th century got under way it became an increasingly viable option for intellectuals grappling with the meaning of reality. It was then that this problem became a staple of atheist rejection of God, or at least a rejection of the God of the Bible. There is no way, these skeptics asserted, that a good and all powerful God would create a world that Hobbes described so well. But he did.
Actually God created a perfect world, that then fell into sin, decay, and destruction because his creatures rebelled against him. The problem the atheist and skeptic have is that they have no explanation, zip, zero, nada, for why suffering and death exist. They simply are, deal with it, and move on. We must always teach our kids that any alternative non-Christian explanation for anything, death included, is an alternative belief system. We, they, must ask, is this alternative explanation more credible than the Christian one. In death’s case, atheism fails miserably, while Christianity’s is far more plausible.
The problem for the atheist is compounded by this nagging need within every human being to wonder why in the hell life can seem so hellish. An example I often use is two funerals. If you go to a funeral of an old person, like my 105 year-old grandmother, there is a sense of celebration of a life well lived, and death doesn’t seem so problematic. But go to the funeral of a five year-old, and the atmosphere is radically different, quite the opposite of celebration. Everyone there to the depth of their being believes it is deeply wrong that a five year-old should die, that death itself is wrong! Things should not be this way. But where does this should come from? The Christian has an answer, the atheist tells us not to even ask the question.
“Now I lay be down to sleep . . . . ” allows us to teach our kids, as does death in all its horrible reminders, that this life is not all their is. The culture is selling us an illusion, that what really matters, all that matters is now, and seeking our our “best life now.” But we know, especially as we get older, that this life is over in the blink of an eye; then what? We must never let our kids be seduced into the secular lie, that death is a topic to be avoided at all cost, except in a movie where we know it’s not real. No, death is real all right, and it is the great question mark of existence, one with a resounding answer in God our Savior who conquered death that we too might one day conquer it ourselves. That is true comfort to our children.