On the Last Day
By Hans Christian Andersen (1852)
The most solemn day amongst all the days of our life is the day on which we die ; it is the last day, the holy, great day of transformation. Have you really, seriously thought over this mighty, certain, last hour here on earth ? There was a man, a strict believer, as he was called, a warrior of the Word, which was for him a law, a zealous servant of a zealous God. Death stood now by his bed, Death with the austere, heavenly countenance.
‘ The hour has come, you must follow me,’ said Death, and with his ice-cold finger he touched his feet, and they turned cold as ice. Death touched his forehead, then his heart, and with that it burst, and the soul followed the Angel of Death. But in the few seconds before, between the consecration from foot to forehead and heart, all that life had brought and created went like great, heavy waves of the sea over the dying man.
In that way one sees with a single glance down into the giddy depths, and comprehends in a flash of thought the immeasurable way ; thus one sees with a single glance, as a single whole, the countless myriads of stars, and discerns spheres and worlds in the vastness of space. In such a moment the terrified sinner trembles and has nothing to lean upon ; it is as if he sank down into an emptiness without end. But the pious one leans his head on God and gives himself up, like a child, to ‘ Thy will be done ‘.
But this dying man had not the child-like mind, he felt he was a man ; he did not tremble like the sinner, he knew he was a true believer. He had kept to the forms of religion in all their strictness ; millions he knew must go the broad way to destruction ; with sword and with fire he could have destroyed their bodies here, as their souls were already destroyed and always would be ; his way was now towards Heaven, where Mercy opened the gate for him, the promised mercy.
And the soul went with the Angel of Death, but yet once he looked back to the couch where the earthly form lay in its white shroud, a strange image of its ‘ I ‘ and they flew, and they went it seemed as in a vast hall and yet as in a wood : Nature was pruned, drawn out, tied up and set in rows, made artificial like the old French gardens ; and here there was a masquerade.
‘ That is human life,’ said the Angel of Death. All the figures were seen more or less masked ; it was not altogether the noblest or mightiest who went dressed in velvet and gold ; it was not quite the lowest and most insignificant who went in the cloak of poverty. It was a wonderful masquerade, and it was in particular quite strange to see how all of them concealed something carefully from each other under their clothing ; but the one tugged at the other in order that this might be revealed, and then one saw the head of some animal sticking out : with one it was a grinning ape, with another an ugly goat, a clammy snake, or a flabby fish.
It was the animal which we all carry about, the animal which has grown fast in one, and it hopped and sprang and tried to come to light, and every one held his clothes tight about it, but the others tore them aside and shouted, ‘ Look ! look ! there he is ! There she is ! ‘ and the one laid bare the other’s shame.
‘ And what was the animal in me ? ‘ asked the wandering soul, and the Angel of Death pointed to a haughty figure in front of them, around whose head appeared a many coloured glory, but beside the man’s heart the feet of the animal were concealed, the peacock’s feet ; the glory was only the many-coloured tail of the bird.
And as they wandered on, great birds screamed horridly from the branches of the trees ; with distinct human voices they shrieked, ‘ Thou wanderer with Death, rememberest thou me ? ‘ These were all the evil thoughts and desires of his lifetime which shouted to him, ‘ Rememberest thou me?’
And the soul trembled for a moment, for it knew the voices of the wicked thoughts and desires, which came forward as witnesses.
‘ In our flesh, in our wicked nature lives nothing good ! ‘ said the soul, ‘ but with me the thoughts did not become deeds, the world has not seen the evil fruit ! ‘ and he hastened the more, to get quickly away from the horrid shrieks, but the great black birds hovered round him in circles, and shrieked and shrieked as if they meant to be heard over all the world ; and he sprang like the hunted deer, and at every step he struck his feet on sharp flint stones, and they cut his feet and hurt him sorely. ‘ How come these sharp stones here ? They lie like withered leaves over all the earth ! ‘
‘ That is every incautious word you let fall, which wounded your neighbour’s heart far deeper than the stones now wound your feet ! ‘
‘ I did not think of that,’ said the soul. ‘ Judge not, that ye be not judged ! ‘ sounded through the air.
‘ We have all sinned,’ said the soul, and raised itself again. ‘ I have kept the law and the gospel ; I have done what I could, I am not like the others ! ‘
And they stood by the gate of Heaven, and the Angel that was the keeper of the gate asked, ‘ Who art thou ? Tell me thy faith, and show it to me in thy works.’
‘ I have strictly fulfilled all the commandments. I have humbled myself before the eyes of the world. I have hated and persecuted wicked things and wicked men, those who go the broad way to everlasting destruction, and I would do it yet, with fire and with sword, if I had the power.’
‘ You are then one of Mohammed’s followers ? ‘ said the Angel.
‘ I never ! ‘
‘ Who takes the sword shall perish with the sword, says the Son ; His faith you have not ! You are perhaps one of the sons of Israel, who say with Moses, ” An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth ! ” a son of Israel, whose zealous God is only the God of your people ! ‘
‘ I am a Christian ! ‘
‘ I discern it not in your faith and your works. The teaching of Christ is reconciliation, love, and mercy! ‘
‘ Mercy ! ‘ sounded again through endless space, and the gate of Heaven opened, and the soul floated towards the glory thus revealed. But the light which streamed out was so dazzling, so penetrating, that the soul drew back as before a drawn sword ; and the music sounded so soft and touching, that no mortal tongue can declare it, and the soul trembled and bowed down lower and ever lower, but the heavenly clearness forced its way into it, and then it felt and understood what it had never thus felt before, the burden of its pride, its hardness, and its sin. All became so clear within it.
‘ Whatever good I have done in the world, I did because I could not do otherwise, but the evil that was of myself ! ‘
And the soul, feeling itself blinded with the clear heavenly light, sank powerless, as it seemed to it, deep down and rolled up in itself, weighed down, unripe for the Kingdom of Heaven ; and at the thought of the austere, righteous God, it dared not stammer ‘ Mercy ! ‘
And then Mercy appeared, the unexpected Mercy. God’s Heaven was in all the infinite space, God’s love streamed through it in inexhaustible fullness.
‘ Holy, happy, loving, and eternal be thou, O human soul,’ was heard ringing and singing.
And all, all of us, on the last day of our lives, shall, like the soul here, shrink back before the brightness and glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, bow ourselves deeply, humbly sinking down, and yet, brne by His love and His mercy, be held up, hovering in new paths, purified, nobler, and better, coming nearer and nearer to the glory of the light, and, strengthened by Him, be enabled to enter into the everlasting brightness.