Despite the lower mortality rates and longer life spans of the postmodern condition, the reality of death still looms large. Globalization and the new networks of social media keep death before the mind of a global public on a daily basis. The Gothic in literature and the arts pours forth at a steady pace as the world of vampires, ghosts, and the paranormal supplies the cultural milieu for the “spiritual but not religious.” In many respects, the long Middle Ages endures.
As part of its handling of the moral and spiritual questions surrounding death, Christian writers developed a literature devoted to the “art of dying well.” Its heyday was the late medieval and early modern periods, suggesting a deep cultural continuity between them. Catholics and Protestants contributed to this literature in order to help Christians face death by living in the shadow of eternity. These authors understood, as John Bunyan put it in “Saved By Grace,” that “sick-bed temptations are oft-times the most violent, because then the devil plays his last game with us.” More recently, Richard John Neuhaus suggested in As I Lay Dying that Christians need to recover this literature as part of their proclamation of the whole gospel.
Ars moriendi literature is in some respects a species of apocalyptic. As with apocalyptic literature, it seeks to interpret life in light of the end and its imminence. Within these texts, one finds a movement between the suddenness of human death and the suddenness of the apocalypse. Not only must one be ready for both events, one should live under the weight of eternity that both place before the mind. Because life is always more than the pilgrim’s earthly sojourn, moral and spiritual questions must take into account the ultimate end of this sojourn. As Robert Bellarmine summarizes, “if anyone wants to master easily and quickly the art of dying well, he should. . .carefully consider the great difference between the momentary and the everlasting, between the slight and the immense, not once, but often.”
The first task in the art of dying well is to learn how to live an existence that leads to blessedness. Thus writers usually begin with an extended analysis of sanctification as death to a world that is passing. One must die to the world in order to die well. This death involves cutting off desires for the world that slowly cause the person to treat the temporal as though it is the end. It is immoderate love for the world that is the problem, not the goods of creation. To borrow another metaphor, humans should resist becoming intoxicated by honor, wealth, war, and other things. How can a just war be waged by persons who so lust for war that the stench of blood and brutality becomes the fragrance of life? We are witnessing now what the blood lust of conquest can do to humans.
In the face of this blood lust, the persecuted Christians of Iraq stand as witnesses to the reality of true life. John Paul II referred to martyrdom as charity in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel. Martyrs testify to intoxicating love and “the inviolability of the moral order,” which includes the personal dignity of the human person. They witness fully to what a good life is even in the face of such suffering and indignity. The martyrs, along with the saints, then provide models of what it means to live in the shadow of the world to come.
Meditations on the art of dying end with advice on how Christians should handle death when it is imminent. In the words of the Presbyterian Thomas Becon, Christians must apply The Sick Man’s Salve, which turns out to be faith and hope in final salvation. The glory of the saints that now surrounds the sick and the dying accompany the individual over the last enemy of this life. But this is not simply a meditative state. The sick person faces death in the company of the church militant and triumphant through viaticum and the anointing with oil.
Viaticum is about food for the journey. If the Eucharist is spiritual nourishment for life, how much more is it food for the final movement into the life to come? The Eucharist is the visible word of the promises of God that “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” Alongside of this meal with Christ is the anointing of oil to heal the person. As Robert Bellarmine indicates, prayers for healing are not simply that the body may be raised up, but also for the removal of the “remains of sin” by which he means “a sort of horror and torpor” that comes over the sick and the dying. As the people of God gather around the sick and minister the bread, the wine, and the oil, they remind the person that union with Christ is union with the whole body.
While recent events have placed the reality and tragedy of death before the mind, Christians should remember that they face death together, intoxicated by divine love and firmly grounded in the vision of faith and hope. To claim that there is an art to dying well is to argue that one should not wait until death is imminent to face it. Rather, all of life must be lived in light of the end since Christians are viators on a journey to their home.