Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 7, Pages 135-145

“Almost everyone becomes religious when they are dying.” Perhaps this is an overstatement–at least in a New England university town. But the fact remains: many people do become interested in larger existential questions as they confront death.

Page 136

The dying people I talk to as a priest are more likely to be religious (and Catholic) than the dying people Dr. Dugdale talks to as a physician. So I am less qualified than she to characterize the tendencies of dying people in general. From my limited and particular experience, I can say that dying people frequently become more religious. But that happens in different ways. I think most people, when they are dying, think about God more than they did before. But those thoughts are often negative as well as positive, and are usually a more or less confused mixture of both. People get angry with God and protest the injustice of their sad underserved conditions. I try to be compassionate and affirming of their natural feelings and understandable thoughts. But some part of me often wants do ask, “Did it just occur to you that bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them?”

Of course, dying people and their loved ones often pray with greater frequency and focus than ever. In general, that is a good thing. But people often pray only for bodily health and survival and, when what they want doesn’t happen, become angry and disappointed and suffer crises of faith. Alternatively, many people also pray with a faith, trust, and peace that are truly edifying.

“For the first time I realized that I am closer to death than not. And I have no idea what I believe. I mean, I was brought up Methodist, but I left the church years ago. Do I believe in life after death? I don’t know!”

Page 137 (quoting Edith Blatchley)

Some people, like Ms. Blatchley, who have been away from the practice of faith and may not have thought much about their inevitable deaths, do indeed ask this question. But many don’t. Dying people and their loved ones do tend to become more religious. But their thoughts about God and prayers to God frequently concern the present life only. I hear “why did God let this happen?” and “we are praying for a miracle” much more than I hear “do I believe in life after death?” That is the case with loved one’s especially. People who are dying might be thinking about what happens next. Their loved one’s, too often, are fixated on this life only. Those people certainly deserve compassion and their grief, loss, and fear make their thoughts and prayers understandable and sympathetic. Nevertheless, I think they are also symptoms of malnourished faith and lack of serious reflection.

Contrary to popular thinking, faith is not defined as blind obedience. Rather, it is a commitment or relationship to a divine person or set of principles. Religion is a practice that makes sense of our particular slice of the world.

Page 138

I like Dr. Dugdale’s pro faith-and-reason statement here. I don’t mean to quibble with her, but I would omit the “particular slice” qualifier. I think religions attempt to make sense of the world comprehensively. Religious beliefs aren’t just convictions about a set of doctrines. They add up to worldviews, lenses by which the whole world can be understood.

One of the problems I often wrestle with as a doctor who interacts with patients in secular health-care settings is whether a nonspecific spirituality suffices to address the existential qualms of patients like Mrs. Blatchley.”

Page 141

I commend Dr. Dugdale for wrestling with this problem. I wonder how many physicians think as seriously as she about their patients’ religious/spiritual/existential concerns.

You will not be surprised to find me firmly on the religious side of the religious vs. spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) divide. I suppose SBNR answers to Mrs. Blatchley’s question about life after death would be something more than agnosticism. I think they would affirm that there is something death. I don’t think they could affirm that there is someone. Nor can SBNR answers fit into an understanding of reality that makes rational sense of life after death as part of an intelligently ordered meaningful world. Furthermore, it seems to me that many SBNR responses to death aim to comfort surviving loved ones while giving no guidance or insight to people facing the inevitable prospect of their own deaths. Some people may have found comfort in the posthumous words attributes to Princess Diana, “I am still with you. I am in the sun and in the wind . . ..” I have a hard time imagining how a dying person would be comforted by anticipating this kind post-mortem future.

7 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 7, Pages 135-145”

  1. In my mind, SBNR is a bromide that makes people feel as though they have faith, when in fact, they have a false security blanket of the “sun and the wind.” Somehow, SBNR is seen as the “intelligent” person’s faith; religion is seen as the “fairy tale stories” the unintelligent tell themselves. I feel sad when I hear of this amorphous belief; the believers in the “sun and the wind” have consoled themselves with nature, but never give themselves the opportunity to dig deeper into their own soul. It has been my observation that the SBNR have a hunger and a sadness that cannot be filled; a despair that is whitewashed over with mountains or the sea or the forest, that may leave them in darkness at the hour of death. God is surely present in all of nature, but ultimately, we must find God in our own souls. We must truly come to understand what God means to us in our lives–in both our joys and our despair. Faith to me is a relationship with the Divine. As humans we may have “a need to anthropomorphize our God” as or to see God as a kind of opium as Karl Marx believed, but to reduce God to a narcotic effect is to miss His enlightenment, and to remain in darkness. Human lives are lived by the grace of God; there is great sadness in not knowing that.

  2. Thanks to all of you for your comments. Your thoughts about SBNR vs. religious answers to questions about death make me want to add a comment about Christian mystery. I think the best definition of “mystery” I have heard is “something we can never know all of and can always know more of.” Religious people might (rightly, I think) accuse SBNR answers of being comforting platitudes that don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. But SBNR people might also accuse religious answers of too-confidently claiming simple solutions to complicated realities. Death is mystery. We can and should be confident in the truths that are revealed to us: Christ has conquered death, those who believe in him will not die but have eternal life, we will see God as He is, etc. Still, these are realities we can always know more of and never know all of. What is the experience of death like? How will eternal life be continually fulfilling rather than monotonously boring? What does God look like? “O the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

  3. I certainly feel that people’s religious beliefs help them face death. And even though we cannot “prove” what the afterlife is like, just like a lot of our beliefs it for me is based on faith. I have little theological knowledge or training. And I feel, therefore, my comments are often very simplistic. But I feel as Catholics we walk by faith and not by sight.

  4. To actively practice one’s faith is to be at odds with or in contradiction to a great many things that go on in society. Many people believe that there will be time to find a church and embrace their faith. When I was in college my ex-husband told me that he did not see himself joining a church as a single man. He said that he saw that more so for a married man, especially if he has a family. People often seem to have an idea that there are other things that they need to do first and being an active Christian does not fit. SBNR seems like a place of complacency in life.

    As people get older or are otherwise forced to contemplate their own mortality, they often turn to the Lord. I think this is what Dugdale is encountering. she sees them when they are sick and afraid. They are turning to doctors for help and God for help. They can no longer be complacent.

    My instincts are to say that when people are turning to God for help, to help them open that door to faith and religion. People should turn to the Lord in good times and bad times. In bad times people turn to the Lord for help. They often move past SBNR.

  5. I was also excited about this chapter – I feel like it really moves away from the things we are really starting to cover better in the medical community (“we don’t do dying well in america”) to things we still don’t address well – the actual, concrete spirituality of patients and how it effects their outcomes. We are quick to pass it off to chaplaincy, if it is addressed at all. I am curious how unique the stories Dr Dugdale shares in this chapter are, both in her practice and in the larger medical world – and as a subset of that, how often someone is able to adequately address whatever issue the patient is struggling with.

    I haven’t had the opportunity (or perhaps have avoided the opportunity) to get to understand much about how the SBNR community deals with existential questions; my suspicion is that for many it is a type of benign self-deception. And why shouldn’t it be: In a world where mindfulness rules, the way we try to internalize our thoughts & feelings on a situation may eventually become what we believe about it, or at least glaze over it with a nice line of rhyme or pithy platitude. And it’s easy to kind of criticize those who seem to dodge difficult questions with such tools, but I think the other angle for myself personally is to make sure that I’m not using a sort of textbook-religious answer to similarly sidestep my own complex relationship with suffering and death. It’s easy to say something short, sweet, & concrete – even if as a person of faith, I believe there is truth in it – to avoid struggling with the deeper mysteries.

    In addition, the next question becomes how can we better care for the spirit of patients? There’s got to be a balance between sensitivity & addressing concerns directly, particularly in someone who is SBNR. Ideally, there would be time – as there never is – to ask open ended questions and see where on the spectrum they lie between Organized Religion and Materialism. Then the questions are 1) what is most helpful for them to hear? 2) what is true for them to hear?
    I suspect answers to that will only come with much experience, and perhaps as we continue through the book.

  6. Vera O – When I began the chapter and then when I began your comments…all I could hear was my dear dad, taken at 59 by a heart attack, telling us “there are no atheists in the fox hole”…as a young person in my late teens when he passed, it took a while to grasp what
    he meant with his old military comment…But, it’s similar to what you and Dr Dugdale talk about…..”more religious or spiritual
    as death looms closer” I liked and agreed with your commentary about people praying for miracles…my nephew prayed for one for my sister …he’s a young adult (not yet 40)….I was praying for a “miracle” but more so, for “strength to them to bear what else is coming”..not that I did not believe in miracles….but I had long believed that things were on a downward spiral…Whether we are making sense of a slice or of the world and the universe …many people even if offered a faithfilled childhood and home, may not have the intellect available to them to “comprehend” and assimilate the whole package….
    l…or it may take them a lifetime to see the A HA moment!! Catholicism is a difficult concept for many Catholics!!!! not the least of which is the idea that for “us” “Life is not ended, it is changed”….How can you impart that to others??? It takes a lifetime to “get it”…or
    be close to “getting it”…just my opinion. I also concur that most physicians miss that boat…in patient communication.

  7. I appreciate that people who identify as SBNR practice interior reflection and give some thought to the role they play in the universe. So, I hope not to offend anyone with my personal beliefs.

    As a practicing (and I do require lots of practice) Catholic, I can’t help but feel the SBNR concept is lacking an understanding of the ultimate order of things. On some level, I believe that if SBNR people were to complete their line of questioning and thought, they would ultimately find their happiness in the true God that can dwell within us, rather than some concept of a self-important “inner god.” When we stop trying to solve everything by ourselves and admit that we need God, we can finally open ourselves to His love and grace. Once we accept God, we naturally desire to please Him by following His examples and His rules. Every choice we make can either bring us closer to or farther away from God. In my opinion, developing our own spiritual guidelines–no matter how noble they may seem to be–is not the path to a closer friendship with God. I also feel that by internalizing spirituality (not to be confused with interior prayer), we lose the tremendous benefits of a formal religious community.

    Father Jonah states that in his interactions with faithful Catholic families of the dying, the concern is generally directed toward this life. That is certainly understandable when survival is the goal. But after their loved ones die, do they seek and/or does the ministry provide guidance on how to assist the deceased in the afterlife? There is great comfort and joy in the Catholic belief that we can continue to help our loved ones even after their deaths.

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