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Ars Moriendi: The Art of Dying

We cannot master the art of dying unless we fear the death of the soul much more than the death of the body.

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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” (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” (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” (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 (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 (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” (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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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 21 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor for the Augustine Institute. He is author of Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press) and the editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

4 Comments

  1. I’ve been blessed by a sometimes (maybe too often) debilitating disease for more than 50 of my almost 73 years on this planet. The disease is a blessing because it has helped me realize my mortality from a young age. Unlike most people, I know that this is a temporary place where I am supposed to live FOR God, so that I can live WITH God in eternity. My former pastor told me one day that when he gets up in the morning, he asks God, “What do You want me to do today?” I responded that when I get up in the morning, I simply say, “What a nice surprise!” And the day I don’t wake up will be an even nicer surprise!

  2. Ars Superstes. Surviving became death’s companion. Realized emotively when a physician on his knee held the hand of a Navajo mother whose son was shot in the head from another pursuing vehicle following a bar brawl. Physicians often criticized in their attempt to be gods actually know more about the ethics of survival with a life long impairment in this instance her son diagnosed as brain dead. Whatever that means, here surviving is realized intellectually since there’s more to the possible recovery of coherence than we know. Vital at the moment was what the touching scene conveyed to the surviving mother and onlookers. Dying and surviving are intertwined. “Two radically different approaches to death are on display during Halloween and All Souls Day” (Jared Staudt). Faith and hope in contrast to fear. Staudt’s admonition to pray for the beloved. The Dead are also Joyce’s poetically charming snowflakes for the skeptic, and in the age of Zombieism the living dead. Zombies find Halloween a moment of entertainment. Delight in the shocking possibility [a reverse wokeness] Christ was right after all, that there is judgment and retribution. Paradise [again my agnostic brother inlaw’s response] is pretty nice in the here and now. The diet for Zombieism. Death recently touched and suffered left the wisdom of the love we have opportune to give before death’s sentence and very important in response to Staudt’s Ars Moriendi. Yes, Staudt rightly commends our place in spiritually readying the moriendi. For the dying the opportunity to love those with the love they know they should have given and didn’t. That selfless giving while dying the best pain medicine for the dying. As well for the recipient survivor.

  3. On August 1, 2001 my treasured wife, Kristi, was released from twelve years of cancer, at the age of 52. Mostly good days, but also many horrendous episodes.

    In growing vulnerability, near the end, this simplicity: “Dying, this is a whole new experience, and I’m not sure how good I’ll be at it.” And then later during home hospice, looking back: “I would not want to do that [!] again. But I would not want to have missed it either. The graces I would not have known.” (Kristi’s favorite saints and friends were Therese, Maria Goretti, Bernadette [Lourdes] and Catherine Laboure'[the Miraculous Medal]).

    And in between, a few months before her passing and in a setting of enormous and blossoming cherry trees, she mused: “Spending my heaven doing good on earth, like St. Therese. I’d like that. Maybe I’ll ask the Lord if I can do that too…at least for my family.” (That has worked out well!) And about a year earlier: “From life to greater Life. I know this with a certainty. I’ve just had a long talk with Jesus–my best Friend.”

    For those who might be interested in Kristi’s story, broadly expanded with reflections on the Communion of Saints, there’s my book: “KRISTI: So Thin is the Veil,” (Crossroads, 2006). This is not a sales pitch; any meager proceeds are donated.

    Death is not a separation; it’s more of a parting, and the parting is only temporary.

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