the art of a good death

Thomas Long, in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, takes on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic On Death and Dying.

One objection: “the implication in Kubler-Ross’s work that knowledge of impending death somehow drives people rapidly up the stairway of emotional and ethical development is a fiction of the therapeutic culture.”

“The fact is that people die pretty much as they have lived. If someone has been enraged throughout life, we can expect rage at the end. A person who tries to bargain with life, family, physicians, and God on death’s door has probably tried to cut a few deals before. A person who blesses the world at death has not learned this in the last few hours of life but has been shaped to live a life of blessing. As one rabbi said, ‘A Jew is expected to die, as he has lived, with the name of God on his lips.’

The best preparation for dying a Christian death, then, is living a Christian life.”

Long notes that in the past, Christians have developed resources to prepare for death, and specifically for confronting death well and as a Christian. The prime example he gives is the 15th century Ars Moriendi tradition. Ars Moriendi is latin for “The Art of Dying”, and was the name of a pair of latin texts developed in response to the “Black Death” which was currently ravaging Europe.

The texts help the Christian to prepare for death by running through a dress rehearsal of their final moments, and of the kinds of temptations to despair that may assail them at that time. Long notes one dialogue from the Ars Moriendi in which Satan approaches a Christian dying alone:

Satan: You’re frightened, aren’t you?

Dying person: Yes, I am frightened, but I am trusting my Savior who calms my fears.

Satan: Oh really? You think you are going to be rewarded by this Jesus, don’t you? You who have no righteousness.

Dying person: Christ is my righteousness.

Satan: Oh ho, Christ is your righteousness? You think Christ will welcome you to the company of Peter and Paul and the apostles? You who have sinned over and over again?

Dying person: No, I am not going into the company of Peter and Paul. I am going into the company of the thief on the cross, who heard the promise, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.'”

It is striking that this comes from the 15th century (pre-reformation), and was a popular and much used devotional tool. It was also, of course, extremely practical.

Long writes, that having been versed in the Ars Moriendi, “When Christians got to their deathbeds and felt the fear and anxiety and unworthiness that almost every dying person feels, they had been there before. They possessed the language to describe the experience and to speak faithfully in the midst of it.”

the last enemy and the reigning Lord

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim:

“There are many shades in the danger of adventures and gales, and it is only now and then that there appears on the face of facts a sinister violence of intention – that indefinable something which forces it upon the mind and the heart of a man, that this complication of accidents or these elemental furies are coming at him with a purpose of malice, with a strength beyond control, with an unbridled cruelty that means to tear out of him his hope and fear, the pain of his fatigue and the longing for rest: which means to smash, to destroy, to annihilate all he has seen, known, loved, enjoyed, or hated; all that is priceless and necessary – the sunshine, the memories, the future; which means to sweep the whole precious world utterly away from his sight by the simple and appalling act of taking his life.

I Corinthians 15:20, 25 – 26, 57 – 58:
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
“For he (Christ) must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
“thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.”

That old familiar fear, that nothin’ ain’t no good

After the last two posts touching on Christian eschatological hope, I came across this contrary point of view, by the haunting David Gray.

Some of the lyrics:

Maybe that it would do me good
If I believed there were a god
Out in the starry firmament
But as it is that’s just a lie
And I’m here eating up the boredom
On an island of cement
Give me your ecstasy I’ll feel it
Open window and I’ll steal it
Baby like it’s heaven sent

This ain’t no love that’s guiding me

…And waiting there in every pause
That old familiar fear that claws you
Tells you nothing ain’t no good
Then pulling back you see it all
Down here so laughable and small
Hardly a quiver in the dirt

This ain’t no love that’s guiding me

 

Afraid of the Clown

From the question and answer section of “Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy“, a book for parents published in 1976:

The Letter:

Dear Doctors:

I have a problem of fear in a usually fearless boy who is just Three. When he was about a year old we gave him a clown that rolls back and forth, with a very realistic face and eyes that roll. At first he seemed a little afraid of it, but soon he seemed happy enough. In fact, for a time he liked it so much that he carried it around.

A few evenings ago we saw a TV program about a circus. There was some violence in the picture. A knife thrower was trying to kill some other man, and although he wasn’t dressed as a clown, there were clowns in the play.

I don’t know if that caused it, but the next evening our son said, ‘The clown is going to hurt me.’ His daddy told him no, that the clown was just like any other dolly. This morning the first thing he said was something about the clown.

I thought about burning the clown before his eyes, but perhaps that would be too dramatic. We are going to leave soon for a vacation with his grandma. Would it be best to take the clown along or to leave it at home?

From the doctors’ answer:

You seem to have made several mistakes. In the first place, the clown seems a somewhat dubious choice as a play

object for a little boy. Second, a child of his age should not be watching knife throwing and other violence – people trying to kill other people – on television. We would definitely screen his TV viewing from now on. He is a sensitive child and appears to be extremely vulnerable to this kind of stimulation.

Burning the clown would indeed be too dramatic. It might lead to a fear of fires as well as a fear of clowns…