Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Art of Dying Well

Van Dyke's "Saint Rosalie"
I just finished St. Robert Bellarmine's The Art of Dying Well. In the middle ages, books and art on death reflected the preoccupation of the times and the saint weighs in with a fully Christian perspective.Written in 1619, it is certainly a relevant work for today. It is a challenging topic because the author's squirm-in-your-seat premise is that dying well requires living well.

In his dedication, the saint himself says that "this book does not contain a philosophical or oratorical or poetic art which might . . . delight the ears . . but to meditation on death and thinking about things which are not generally pleasing to men, such as poverty, humility, patience and other true Christian virtues."  I almost laugh at this sentence because where I grew up, we'd put it this way: "You've quit preaching and gone to meddling."

It is a challenging book because Bellarmine constantly shores up his arguments for living as well as possible with proofs from the gospels and a good many saintly authors. It is difficult to live well and the author does not lead us to believe otherwise, but he also points out that the teachings of the patriarchs and apostles can guide us. As well the Holy Spirit is at hand and able to deliver us from our trials and difficulties in this regard.

He tackles the stuff that is the fodder of our daily life: dying to the world, moral virtues, the "unmasked error of the rich," prayer and fasting, and finally the sacraments, ending with the sacrament of extreme unction. The saint says, "From it we derive a highly useful lesson, not only for the end of life but for it's whole course."  (Not) coincidentally, my reading this last chapter coincided with my receiving the Anointing of the Sick in mass on Saturday.

Bellarmine really gets to meddling in that last chapter when he points out how many of our sins start with our senses and also how easy they are to avoid if we choose to avoid them. He talks about lust, gluttony, drunkenness, flattery, malice, envy, laziness -- yes, full on to meddling.

This book was both convicting and inspiring. It is a good argument for living the Christian life, even if dying well is not your personal major concern. While it is a book written from a Catholic perspective, there is little that is specifically Catholic. Any serious Christian would find it worthy of consideration. Give it a read; I'd love to hear your thoughts.

No comments:

Post a Comment