[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.Page 35
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.Page 39
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.