Picture cutline: “Death and the Miser” by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516), oil on panel, painted about 1485-1490, housed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. In the painting, a demon appearing from behind the bed curtain tempts the miser with a bag of gold, while an angel kneeling at right encourages him to regard the crucifix in the window, with its divine light streaming downward. Death enters from the door at left, ready to lance the man with his arrow. The work is a momento mori, intended to remind its viewers of the inevitability of death and the futility of pursuing material wealth. Bosch was influenced by the “Ars Moriendi” of the Middle Ages, which instructs Christians to live rightly, so as to deliberately prepare to die. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN


Ars moriendi: the art of dying

By R. Jared Staudt

We are born to die. This inevitable fact could lead to fatalism, although, more often, we simply fall into denial. We avoid thinking about death and stigmatize it as the greatest evil.

If this world is all we have, then death would be the greatest evil, although life itself would become futile, a temporary illusion – grasping pleasure as it slips through our fingers. 

For a Christian, however, we are born to live. The inevitability of death remains even though it loses its terror. To be sure, it should stimulate some somber reflection on the purpose of life as a temporary sojourn, meant to lead us to our true and everlasting life in God. The Church encourages us to think about death and to prepare for it, even to the point of considering it an art. 

One of the most popular books of the late Middle Ages, in fact, was “Ars Moriendi,” a book written by an anonymous Dominican friar on the art of dying. The National Catholic Bioethics Center has just released a new edition of “The Art of Dying,” with a masterful introduction and annotations by a contemporary friar, Brother Columba Thomas, a medical doctor.

From his own experience, Brother Thomas points out that we are “frequently overwhelmed by the complexity of health care and miss the opportunity to prepare well for death” (p. 3). We might spend our entire lives avoiding the thought of death and then, when it actually arrives, find ourselves unable to think about it at all. 

For this reason, we need to return to the medieval wisdom which recognized that “the salvation of each person consists entirely in the preparation for death” (p. 86). Approaching death as an art entails deliberate preparation throughout life to approach it as a spiritual reality. This will serve, Brother Thomas says, as a “corrective to the prevailing over-medicalized, technologically driven death” (p. 3).

Death is the crucial moment to offer oneself to God, the culminating moment of life that will cement our whole trajectory toward or away from God. Therefore, Brother Thomas argues that we need to preserve lucidity long enough to enable the reception of the sacraments and spiritual care (p. 18). A life well lived prepares us to meet the final test, which should confirm our faith and trust in God. 

At this moment, when the devil tries to lay claim to us, our guardian angel also comforts and strengthens us. “The Art of Dying” consists mainly in meditations that relate temptations suggested by the devil, trying to cause distraction, fear and despair, and the answer given by an angel to comfort and strengthen the soul. The most important response of all consists in complete trust of God. Do not despair, the good angel encourages, for God’s mercy is greater than any sin (p. 55).

Confession offers this mercy to us, providing one of the most essential preparations – both now and at that crucial hour. We can assist others by praying for them and encouraging them to turn to God. “The Art of Dying” laments, “But alas, there are few who faithfully assist those close to them at death by questioning them, prompting them and praying for them, especially when the dying ones do not want to die yet, and their souls are often wretchedly endangered” (pp. 86-87).

Like these souls, we are too afraid of death and not afraid enough of what is much worse. Jesus himself told us, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). The soul has an absolute priority over the body. We cannot master the art of dying unless we fear the death of the soul much more than the death of the body. Hell is real, as St. Faustina observed when seeing it in a vision, noting that it is full of people who disbelieved it. To die well involves knowing what to fear – sin and the eternal death it brings – and what really matters: our eternal happiness.

Two radically different approaches to death are on display during Halloween and All Souls Day. One plays on our fears, while the other offers hope. Halloween morbidly trivializes death, sublimating a genuine fear while stoking terror in a twisted way. It tries to make us fear what we should not and to subvert the proper approach to the afterlife, forgetting that Jesus has conquered evil, sin and death itself. All Souls Day, however, is not daunted by mortality; it faces its reality soberly through memory and prayer. It recognizes that death is not the end and the dead remain alive in Christ.

The entire month of November, dedicated to prayer for the dead, offers us the perfect opportunity to focus on our own needed preparation in the ars moriendi.

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