In the age of COVID-19, death has become a daily subject around the dinner table, in the grocery store, and at a social distance even at the gas station. We are now constantly reminded in often intense, gruesome, and heart-breaking ways that there is little we can do when our time is up and the masks run out. This pandemic has caused our country to grind to a halt and has upended our daily lives in ways unprecedented in our recent memory. It is a time many of the faithful are unable to access their life-support in the Eucharist. It is a time we assess our sins in the shadow of penance and pandemic. It is a time to read about and contemplate monks who live to die.
“The monks who do well,” says Dom David d’Harmonville, “are those who know that we are all a little damaged.” After the pandemic is over, this fact about those who are damaged may prove to be the most important revelation for many people who read Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Ignatius Press, 2019), for in this statement, we have the whole book in miniature against the Christian story of suffering and redemption. These monks serve as models, and we would do well to turn off the news and listen attentively to their stories.
Through a profound sense of place, a sustained and beautiful meditation on the nature of death and dying, Diat’s book weaves together the poetic and personal stories of sorrow and joy, prayer and tragedy, framed by lines from Baudelaire, Verlaine, Hugo, and Péguy. Divided into chapters that narrate Diat’s encounters with monks, we glimpse life and death in the abbeys of Lagrasse, En-Calcat, Solesmes, Sept-Fons, Cîteaux, Fontgombault, Mondaye, and finally the Grande Chartreuse Monastery. Structured like short stories, each chapter resonates with particular themes and tones, while the message throughout the book is constant: death is a mystery, often painful, and it comes to us all.
Life in monasteries may be considered abnormal to most people, for they are strange places where it seems monks live away from the complications of modernity. Many of us know this is not true, but the myth persists, because in all ages, people have desired to flee from suffering. Our reliance on modern medicine, our desperation for a coronavirus vaccine, coupled with our technological distractions, demonstrate that our culture is no different. Yet, we learn each day in our frantic news cycle that we cannot escape death. Thus, we turn to monks who face the fact of death every day, and we observe that instead of seeking to do something about it, they contemplate being with God first.
There is no doubt that certain readers will find the tragedies of En-Calcat Abbey to be powerful and of the moment. Indeed, “The Shadow of the Black Mountain” recalls the conflicts of monastic life with modern medicine. We read about emergency medical services, firemen, oxygen, transfusions, and antibiotics. Dom David explains that “The role of the Father Abbot was always to encourage the old monks to face the end of the road. Today, there is no longer any question of that,” for “doctors have the power to delay the definitive meeting of a religious with his Creator.” Monks who are prepared to die are suddenly brought back to life, often in more pain than before. These stories demonstrate how modern medicine and its ideology thus renders the spiritual path toward death meaningless. The vow taken by the religious professes that one owes one’s life “to Another,” and yet, Dom David reveals the insidious system we live in, whereby “medicine alone gives meaning to life.”
In addition to this idolatry of medicine, there is a general ignorance about mental illness in monastery life. Autism, Alzheimer’s, Depression have their place as well, and the story of Brother Irénée’s suicide reveals that there is nowhere to retreat. On almost every page of Diat’s book, we are reminded that “entering a monastery is the first step toward death,” and death can be very tragic. Yet, through tragedy, saints are born, hero-monks who see their dying brethren through death with prayers and devotions and daily physical care. We also witness miracles, as in the case of Brother Theophane: “The final attack had deformed his face. Then, a few moments after death, in an instant, he recovered the beauty of his youth. Brother Theophane became again forever a young man with a fair, fierce, passionate complexion.”
This book made me cry, it made me laugh, and it moved me to contemplate my own life and faith more deeply. Perhaps one of the reasons this book is so powerful is because our culture belittles death. We live trapped in fear within a “culture of death,” an irony many faithful Christians have been praying about for decades in regard to abortion, contraception, and euthanasia and which is now culminating in the pandemonium over coronavirus; we see how the expediency of a narcissistic culture, seeking to enhance the self and prolong a so-called healthy life, has resulted in spiritual suicide. Health has replaced holiness: save the body but kill the soul and eliminate the unfit along the way.
The presence of death in our current pandemic should inspire us, like the monks, to a more radical form of holiness. I would suggest this book be required reading for every Catholic, especially those who catechize, instruct, teach, and introduce the young into the Church. I suggest it for every parent, for all priests and deacons. It is appropriate for everyone really; as we all reach for the hand sanitizer, we must consider how modern medicine may protect us from germs but may also inoculate us against the recognition of death and eternal life.
The closing chapter on La Grande Chartreuse, “The Death of the Recluses,” is, for me, the most poignant one in the book. Indeed, the brothers of St. Bruno exist far away from the world, outside of time, close to God. Diat writes, “In this land of slowness and humility, the stones of the Grande Chartreuse are the only ones to remember the monks.” Yet, it is their proximity to God that makes their anonymous death a model for us all. The Carthusian symbol reminds us, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, above the changing world, the cross remains immutable. This is the most appropriate ending to a book about death, and its eminence as the closing chapter is a reminder that though modern medicine and psychology can be both a salve and at times a prolongation of suffering to those who live to die, God never changes. It is the world that changes, and though we are in the world for a little time, eternity is waiting for us down the road and on through the dark.
Near the end of the book, Diat offers a medley of images for death, framed by an excerpt from Charles Péguy’s The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. Diat quotes Dom Innocent, who “imagines existence like a night on a train: ‘The important thing is not the journey but the place of arrival.’” What a powerful message we almost never hear. It is, rather, that the world tells us the immediate moment, the culmination of self-hood, is the most important thing. How many times do we hear that life is about the journey and not the destination? It is time we listen to the truth. Dom Innocent tells us,
I am not afraid of the Grim Reaper. It makes me curious. Eternity passes through death. We must love this door that will allow us to know the Father. We are born for heaven. Earthly life and eternal life are intimately connected. Why fear the junction between these realities? Christians no longer really believe in the resurrection of the bodies. Paradise is likened to a void of floating souls. But men are in the image of God. It will not be necessary to leave our humanity in order to be united with God. Eternity will be much more human than we can imagine.
Diat follows this beautiful passage with the quote from Péguy, my favorite passage in all of Péguy, which contains an echo of St. Paul to the Romans, about hope: “The faith that I love the best, says God, is hope.” And then: “Hope sees what has not yet been and what will be.”
Reading a book may not change the culture, but it can reveal to individuals the possibility of turning to God, of the prayer of conversion. We must pray for conversion every day as we approach the door that is death. All of a sudden our world sees that door more closely and more clearly than it has in decades. Indeed, we are all called to contemplate death and eternal life; and we need to talk about hope. Nicolas Diat has given us that opportunity.
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