“How can I know the presence of God in my final season of life?” (or at any time?)
An excerpt from Walking Home Together: Spiritual Guidance and Practical Advice For The End Of Life
When people ask about knowing the presence of God in the midst of their terminal illness or death, I sometimes think that extraordinary spiritual experiences or “miracles” are what they imagine. Honestly, I have heard about plenty of them. From seeing Jesus himself to seeing angels, saints, deceased loved ones, little children or other “heavenly representatives,” patients and families have reported to our hospice team a variety of visions, experiences, and impressions. Sometimes the impressions were audible: voices, music, bells, a certain moving of the wind. On other occasions patients and families have witnessed curious events that they have interpreted as “signs.” One patient loved birds, for example, and right before she died a bird perched outside her window and then flew away at the exact moment she passed.
These curious occurrences get our attention, seem to add a level of meaning to sad situations, and bring a measure of comfort. I have little doubt that God can grant such blessings, and I never discount that possibility when presented with someone’s experience. However, it must be said that I’ve never known anyone to have control over such things happening. If these experiences are from God, then it appears to be God’s choice and God’s alone as to when and where and for whom they take place.
Therefore, if someone asks me, “How can I know the presence of God in my final season of life?” I wouldn’t counsel that person to expect the extraordinary vision, impression, or sign. Instead, I would encourage him to seek God’s help through the more ordinary means of grace — prayer, scripture, spiritual reading, the sacraments of the church, other spiritual practices, and so on.
I do have one unequivocal piece of counsel. If a person wants to know the presence of God in the midst of his sufferings, I would urge that person person to look for God primarily in the love of those around him.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us and his love is brought to perfection in us. (1 John 4:11-12)
…Before his death, Jesus summarized what he had taught his disciples: “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). How did Jesus overcome this evil world with all its troubles? By loving the people of the world and laying down his life for them. He overcame suffering and death by acts of sacrificial love.
Even so, we overcome through love.
If love is God’s answer to human suffering, then knowing God in our sufferings will involve immersing ourselves ever more deeply into loving relationships.
Walking Home Together, pp. 35-40