What happened to Christian dying? Back in the day it was very important. Partly because there was a lot of death. Plague, war that wasn’t in far-away places but right here at home. The chance of living through your first year or a mother’s chances of living through a birth were pretty slim. Our society hides death. As Christians we base a good part of our faith and formation on the Resurrection of a first century man who was also God, and who died for our forgiveness of sins and our eternal life after death. So I asked myself the question, “Are we moderns like the unwise virgins, crying ‘Lord, Lord,’ but really don’t know him, and therefore does he really know us?” That opens the question of does God so love us that none of us will fall into the fearsome pit of Revelation? Fire and brimstone preaching has given way to a Gospel of Love. But Scripture is full of warnings about damnation. Death is inevitable, and terrifying. And it was not only the subject of a lot of Christian teaching, but it is also a keystone of Christian formation. Formation, because there is nothing like a threat to make us pay attention. And being aware that we are accountable, even in the deep faith that God loves each and us, can help us as we make our way through the complexities, troubles, and even tragedies of life. Because in living a Good Life, we are open to the Love which the Holy One pours out to us, and we can partake in the love by building the Kingdom of God, now and at the hour of our death.
Recently a loved member of our parish went to rest and Glory. And it gave me great comfort to know that he wasn’t alone. His family and also his priest had been with him, giving both the comfort of friends, and the sacramental comfort of the last rites to the dying. He was given the chance to compose his mind, focused toward the risen Christ, his Savior, and die in however much peace anyone can muster when the reality hits that it is all over in this world. This may be the most important moment in our lives, and how many of us get last words of comfort, assurance of the sacramental gift of the Church? The dark side is that when it was deemed required, if you lacked it you believed you were probably going straight to Hell, or that other place invented in the Early Middle Ages, Purgatory, as some kind of promise that there was always a second chance. At a cost, of course, but that is a reflection on the Reformation for another time.
Even those surrounded by friends, somehow a favorite high school tune and a bad poem is not going to take the place of “I absolve you,” a last communion even it is only touching the lips with an intincted crumb, and the sealing anointment of Oleum Infirmorum, Oil of the Sick. Sacraments have power as well as comfort. If we believe, they weave together fabric of the universe. In simpler times, people practiced for their death, their Good Death, and by and large, the practice was for a Good Life, a Godly life, the momento mori. Some of us are called to a more rigorous interpretation, such as a monastic rule, but for all Christians the least required is what we swore in the Baptismal Covenant, incorporating daily prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture. These promises should be taken seriously. Many of the teachings about a Good Death are equally true for a Good Life, because we don’t know when we are going to die. I think of those who died in the current round of California fires, unprepared, terrified, in pain and panic. We never know when it will come, and then it might well be too late to start Christian formation. We pray for their souls and God’s mercy, knowing that was a terrible, frightening death, in our faith that God will scoop them up, comfort and heal them.
Between the 15th an 17th centuries preparing for death was an important theme, explored by Chancellor Jean Gerson’s De Arte moriendi (1414) from which grew the two Ars Moriendi documents, and Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651), The Art of Dying Well (1619) by St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., and a host of others. Each in their own way describes how to bring comfort, and also spiritual growth and peace. The pitfalls facing the dying were summarized as 1) loss of faith in the face of pain and the loneliness of dying; 2) loss of hope, as our human plans and expectations fall away; 3) loss of patience, in its ultimate form suicide and assisted suicide, in an effort to grab control of life and death from God; 4) loss of humility as we congratulate ourselves with spiritual pride on our spiritual achievements; 5) loss of serenity and gratitude as we grasp with avarice for more life.
Each of these sins – loss of faith, loss of hope, loss of patience, loss of humility (pride), and loss of serenity (avarice) – are pitfalls in our living, as well as our dying. They may be especially strong at the time of death. But we can find courage in the realization that for us the end-time has come, for us Jesus has come as he does in every life, and will again for all in the fullness of time? This is a time for repentance, prayer, and gratitude, but this is not the time to learn about repentance and prayer, and submission to the will of God. These should be lessons of a lifetime. When the Master comes unexpectedly, do we have the presence of mind to welcome him, to look upward and not earthward? But for those in hospital and hospice who are long warned about their end, mindfulness, self-examination, prayer are gifts, an opportunity to know God better, to interiorize the depth of the gift of the Cross. A Good Death and a Good Life are not just archaic fantasies or pietistic obsessions. They are the heart of a formed Christian life.
Those deathbed instructions are spiritual reminders to ourselves and a useful guide in pastoral work with the dying, but we must live each day loving one another, now. We must live and die in trust as our Abba’s children, cherished, loved, protected, now. We must grow in Christ every day. Forgive the petty slights, the misunderstandings, every day. Christian formation is a life of prayer, of confession, of love, of looking at our lives in Truth, square in the face, as Jesus lived and taught us to do likewise. We are called to a life which prepares us to rest in peace and rise in Glory, but it is not for then but now, each day of our lives until the day of our Good Death,
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.