Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 2, Pages 34-45

[According to the original Ars Moriendi,] we have to acknowledge the possibility of death while we are still healthy [and] ‘to die well is to die gladly and willfully.’

Although we need not insist that the only people who die well are those who accept death and ‘die gladly and willfully,’ the ars moriendi hit the mark with its assertion that in order to die well, you must take mortality into account, even when it seems a long way off.

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Dr. Dugdale cites two “highlights” from the “original ars moriendi content.” She adopts one of them and dismisses the other. The “highlight” Dr. Dugdale adopts – the need to acknowledge the possibility (I would say, “inevitability”) of death long in advance – is well worth considering. How do we do that in our culture? How should we do that? It seems to me that advance directives for medical care and funeral arrangements and the sale of life insurance might be the only ways that our secular Western culture encourages us to contemplate our future deaths. I think those things are mostly good and more of us should consider them. It may also be worth noting in this connection that Fr. Michael McGiveny, founder of the Knights of Columbus and life insurance pioneer, was beatified this past weekend. But advance directives and life insurance only invite us to consider death in an abstract way (like Ms. Capella and her hearing aids) and for a few short moments in our lives. We considered our need to remember our human mortality (memento mori) in the first part of this chapter. Is the need to acknowledge our death something more than that?

The ars moriendi “highlight” that Dr. Dugdale dismisses is the claim that “to die well is to die gladly and willingly.” She says, in seeming contradiction to this claim, that “plenty of people die well even though they do not want to die” I suspect Dr. Dugdale is misinterpreting the ars moriendi in this instance (though she might just be setting this claim aside to avoid wading too deep into matters Christian.) The ars moriendi was, at least in its origins, a Christian genre. So its claims must be interpreted in their Christian context. In Christian tradition, being glad and willing to die is not the same as what “wanting to die” (or having a “death wish”) means to modern English speakers. St. Paul says, “I long to depart this life and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23), and St. Ambrose, in a passage the contemporary Catholic Church has chosen for the Office of Reading for today’s Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Soul’s Day), writes, “We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death.” I will resist the temptation to expound upon what I think Christians like St. Paul and St. Ambrose and the ars moriendi authors mean by such expressions. But they certainly don’t mean suicide. I don’t think Dr. Dugdale interprets the ars moriendi as advocating suicide either. I do think she is either misinterpreting or disregarding what the ars moriendi says about dying “gladly and willingly” and how that’s different from what we might say about “wanting to die.”

Master E.S.’s illustrated Ars Moriendi focused on . . . the five temptations faced by the dying. Of his eleven woodcut prints, five depicted those temptations, and another five pictured their resolutions. This meant that the illustration of disbelief was paired with an image on encouragement in faith, despair was coupled with an illustration of comfort through hope, impatience with a print encouraging patience, pride with humility, and avarice with “letting go’ of the earthly.

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The illustrated ars moriendi depicted the five temptations of the dying: disbelief, despair, impatience, pride, and avarice. What do we think of this list? How have we perceived these temptations in the deaths of those we have loved and cared for? What other temptations do people face when they are dying? How else can we encourage the dying in the face of temptation?

I will share a couple thoughts from my experience as a chaplain to the dying. For one thing, I don’t think the dying people I have known are tempted to despair. At lease they are not tempted to despair in the way I imagine that the medieval and early-modern people addressed by the illustrated ars moriendi were tempted. I don’t remember talking to anyone who was worried about going to Hell. When people in today’s Western culture despair of their eternal salvation, they are much more likely to be worried about the existence of God that about the judgment of God. In a way, they are tempted to fear God’s wrath too little rather than too much.

I also think the temptation to avarice is experienced differently that it used to be. Certainly, people still cling to possessions as they always have. Think of Jesus’ parable about the “fool” who builds more barns to store his abundant grain, not thinking about his death and the impossibility of taking his possessions with him. But I think people cling less to material possessions and more to other people. Of course this is rooted in their love for other people, which, needless to say, is a very good thing. The challenge for me as a chaplain is often to encourage dying people to desire God and the blessings of God in the life to come, while also affirming their desire for the blessings of God in this life, especially the desire to remain with family and loved ones. Dying people shouldn’t abandon their present desires and future hopes for good things in this present life. But neither should they cling to those things in ways that prevent them from desiring the far better things in the life to come. There is no such thing as loving people too much. But it is possible to allow lesser loves for our fellow humans to prevent us from having greater love for God, and greater love for others in God.

I am going to be content this week with these two quotes from the latter part of Chapter 2 of The Lost Art of Dying. My commentary on those quotes is fairly extensive, but there is much more to be said about the passages I quoted as well as the rest of this week’s reading. I will leave it to you to fill in the gaps and look forward to reading your comments.

15 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 2, Pages 34-45”

  1. I downloaded the “we croak” App. I like it very much. It reminds me 4 times a day of the finiteness of my life. I shared with a few friends who tried it but discontinued as they found the concept morbid. I also think there is some magical thinking out there that suggests if you think about it, you will hasten its arrival. Again it’s all about giving up control. Death is the ultimate surrender of control. The app has embolden me to sit with the idea and accept that death is not a separate entity and in fact I have control over how to respond to it. Being reminded helps me think about it with intrigue and also resets my mind on the living that remains and how I spend it.

  2. I downloaded the “we croak” App. I like it very much. It reminds me 4 times a day of the finiteness of my life. I shared with a few friends who tried it but discontinued as they found the concept morbid. I also think there is some magical thinking out there that suggests if you think about it, you will hasten its arrival. Again it’s all about giving up control. Death is the ultimate surrender of control. The app has embolden me to sit with the idea and accept that death is not a separate entity and in fact I have control over how to respond to it. Being reminded helps me think about it with intrigue and also resets my mind on the living that remains and how I spend it.

  3. Thank you, Christopher. I experience the differences between Christian and modern understandings of “good death” ministering in hospitals. Sometimes hospital staff and/or other chaplains get worried when a patient says he or she wants to die. In the majority of cases, I find it to be a healthy Christian desire to go home to God and not morbid depression or suicidal ideation.

  4. That we will all die some day is certain. There are three fronts that we are called to prepare. They are wills/insurance/beneficiaries/funeral arrangements, DNR/Hospice care, and spiritual health. The wills, insurance, beneficiaries, funeral arrangements, etc. will help of family members who are left to pick up those pieces of what was once our lives. I think that if Ms. Capella wants to be resuscitated and have every measure taken to lengthen her, it is her choice. There is nothing wrong with it. That is individual choice. We need to make our DNR and hospice care wishes known. There should not be a wrong answer. It should give direction to our family members and medical staff.

    Most importantly, we need to prepare our souls for what is to come. We need to prepare spiritually and cultivate a healthy relationship with the Lord. If we can manage that then perhaps the other two will follow. Hopefully, it will temper our judgements with the previous fronts.

    1. Thank you, Jenita. I think your comment about tempering our judgments is right on. It’s easy to look at a situation “from the outside in” and say what should have been done or not done or done better. We need to remember that a person’s death is very often an extremely difficult, highly emotional experience for that person and that person’s loved ones. Compassion, not judgment, is the Christian response.

  5. Responding to the list of the 5 temptations and how we perceive these temptations in those who are dying:

    Not long ago, I visited a patient in the hospital who was on the Catholic list. When I introduced myself as coming from St. Catherine’s, the man immediately started to cry out over and over, “I am afraid to die”. He looked to be a middle-aged Hispanic man in a regular room on a medicine floor. He was not hooked up to any machines and had no IV. He looked no different than any other patient but just kept crying out repeatedly, “I am afraid to die”. The fear in his voice was so palpable and real.

    I didn’t expect this when I walked into the room and didn’t know what to say, so I just met him where he was at – in his fear – and repeated one thing to him over and over. He started to calm down and stopped crying out.

    Because what I was seeing with my eyes didn’t match what I was hearing, I asked the nurse if that patient was really dying, so I would ask the chaplain to visit him. She said that the patient was on “comfort care” and thought it a good idea to ask the chaplain to visit. I wasn’t sure what “comfort care” meant since the patient was without any obvious comfort. Was it code for “no care”, “no treatment”?

    This man was afraid to die, seemingly to me more so for fear of judgment rather than for fear that God didn’t exist.

    Judgment, purgatory (“the suffering souls”) and hell are realities Catholics (practicing or not) are aware of, and in some generations and cultures, they are deeply ingrained and cause a fear of death. Mrs. Capella in this chapter seems to have a fear of death although the doctor didn’t see it in her patient.

    Death can be discussed abstractly, philosophically, poetically, medically, financially, or piously but can leave us on the “outside looking in” and being critical of how someone is “responding” to death and the decisions they make.

    We can encourage the dying to trust in God’s mercy. We can also reflect on the mystery of death, this specific life and relationship (with God and others) in faith and humility, to help us enter more deeply into the heart of the dying person with greater understanding and empathy, and enter more deeply into the heart of God who is the only one who gives “comfort care”.

    1. Thanks, Susan. It’s probably true that dying people fear judgement in ways they can’t or don’t articulate. All the more reason to emphasize God’s mercy. Your reflection on “comfort care” is wonderful. There is much that medicine can do to keep patients comfortable even when curative treatment is no longer possible. Of course, God can do infinitely more (I think of Advent approaching and the reading from Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort oh my people”). In different ways in different circumstances, I think our job is to help people to know (in mind and heart) God’s comfort.

  6. To acknowledge death while we are still healthy…and to die well is to die gladly and willfully. The prior commentor (Chris) noted the
    difficulty non christians or non believers in after life would have with this sentence/concept. With faith, it makes sense. I thought
    right away of my active years practicing law and people’s hesitance man times to write their Last Will and Testament….I always said do it,
    while you are healthy and strong….this is the best time…Then, put it in the drawer and dust it off many years from n ow, if
    situations change. Some people could actually not bring themselves to prepare/think about/acknowledge the document, review their assets, etc. …..as in not acknowledging gladly their own mortality..finitude…Others would
    directly would say “i don’t care” I will not be here….I’d try to note that they were making it more difficult on their loved ones…sometimes
    that got through, and sometimes not. Even as Christians, Catholics, some people lack a depth of spirituality….it either was never developed or they never sought to develop it. Trying to respect my sister’s wishes…at her dying bed for a few weeks…she said “this is not going to end well”… I said “do you want to talk about it” she said NO..I said do you want to pray ..again No (although we had previously prayed and I did again aloud when she was no longer conscious later…) but despair was a great temptation…the attachment to spouse, children and grandchildren, even though the family was grown, educated and self sufficient. It never occurred to me to say “but you are going to meet your God, your creator, your parents, the communion of saints…I was “stuck” in silence….eyes to eyes, not wanting to over step my boundaries, even with my dear sister with whom I was very close …I remember her saying I’m not afraid to die, I’m afreid of the moment of death. I never was able to pursue that line of thought…Perhaps my other sister did. The blessings of God in the life to come …to seek gladly,…requires a certain acceptance, a certain loss of control, or letting go of control, like the elderly woman from the prior chapter. As we enter into another decade, those of us who are lucky enough, we can’t help but think …and realize…this
    is “temporary”…..we need to work on getting ready to go “gladly”…not to let “love” of our human partners and companions stand in the way of our union with the greater love and blessings of God.

    1. Thank you, Vera. Your experiences as a lawyer and with your sister are both illuminating. I find your sister’s fear of “the moment of death” as opposed to dying, and your idea of acceptance as “letting go of control” particularly thought provoking.

  7. Two months after my father’s death, my brother took my mom to the hospital by ambulance. After entering her hospital room, and observing her, I knew she was struggling with death. I was not ready to let her go. I could not bear the thought of losing another parent so soon. As she struggled to continue breathing, I clung to her arm and begged “Please do not leave.” I quietly reminded her of upcoming family events that she hated to miss. Her head nodded Yes but her deep brown eyes drifted upward as if someone else were calling her. She died in my arms.

    After ongoing reflection, several years later, I was able to view mom’s final moments through a deeper lens. If I could revisit this moment, I would graciously let her die. My conversation with her shifts in a different direction. I whisper comforting words about a Loving God and the many blessings which await her.

    Our Life on earth is a special gift. We are here on Loan.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Mary. I think this account of your experience with your mother is a poignant illustration of the tension between the loving desire to preserve and extend the lives of those we love and our relationships with them in this world, and our loving desire for their eternal happiness in God’s kingdom.

  8. Christians embrace the notion that every single thing–including our loved ones, talents, possessions and life itself–is a precious gift from God. What comes from God can be returned to God. Our earthly life and goods are fleeting, but our life with God is everlasting. Being glad and willing to die is simply the acceptance that this life is short, and at some point we will be called to give it up.

    But we Christians are consoled by the knowledge that our loving friendship with God can continue forever. Once we truly believe that, we naturally order our lives accordingly. Life is short; eternity is long.

    We are taught in Scripture about the self-emptying love of God. Jesus Christ literally poured himself out for the sins of humanity. His kenosis serves as inspiration as we attempt to abandon ourselves to God. When we let go of our selfish tendencies, we open ourselves up to the love and graces of God. In this way, only emptiness can lead to fullness.

  9. Just before the beginning of the first quote above, Dr Dugdale asserts that the ars moriendi ignores the question of whether dying is good or bad. I think that perhaps, rather than this assertion, it would be more effective consider the primarily Christian context that Fr Jonah also mentions.

    Christians (myself included) have a very messy relationship with death, and perhaps it is that relationship that inspires the ars moriendi, rather than an attempt to ignore the question of whether death is good or bad – Because that is the wrong question. In another discussion I was recently part of, one of the participants found the notion of a “good death” somewhat ridiculous – claiming that death is just an “unfortunate” reality. I always find that my own feelings are best illuminated by my gut reactions to statements like this.

    I was put off by this statement. I’ve grown up with the recent reading from St Paul, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” But I do not ~want~ to die, but I am willing. I think perhaps to someone approaching these ideas for the first time and with a secular worldview, this reality is altogether nonsensical. But it is a dichotomy I am more comfortable with, perhaps because of my faith, and I found that a comforting way to contextualize my reading of this book.

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