Sunday, June 9, 2013
Living Well and Dying Well: Fr. Andersen Homily
June 9th, 2013
Dominica X Per Annum, Anno C
The readings today speak of God’s power over life and death. We fear death and it is right that we should. We are not ultimately made for death, but bodily death must come to us all. And so, through the Christian ages, we the faithful have been exhorted to remember death. Memento mori, remember you must die. Many of the great fathers and doctors of the Church have written on this exhortation. St. Robert Bellarmine wrote a treatise called “The Art of Dying Well”. In the dedication at the beginning of the work he writes this:
A few months ago I wrote a little work on the art of dying well both in order to prepare myself for my own coming death and in order to share willingly with my brethren and lords, as is my custom, what I found useful for this greatest of all tasks (Robert Bellarmine, Spiritual Writings: The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist, p. 233).
Do we think of our death in that way, as “the greatest of all tasks?” St. Robert Bellarmine says that “so few are eager to learn the art of dying well, which ought to be well known to everyone” (235). He writes: “We see every day that, while awaiting judgment about even the least matters, the litigants are without rest; one moment they visit the lawyers, the next the prosecutors, and then the judges and the judges’ friends and relatives.” (235). Then he compares this to the case of the dying man; “while the case is pending before the supreme judge about everlasting life and death, the defendant, often unprepared or overcome by illness, hardly mentally competent, is forced to render an account of those things about which he had never thought when he was in good health” (235). It was as though the man had not feared death and so did not pay it any heed. Yet the contrary was true. The man feared death and so he avoided thinking about it and preparing for it.
I was that man. I remember that when I was in the seminary, I was talking to my spiritual director one afternoon and we spoke about the fear of death. He advised me this: “stare death in the face daily.” Hmmm. That didn’t sound like much fun! He reminded me that this was a classic counsel of the Church from so many of the greatest of saints who lived that way. Instead of living with fear of death, they looked death in the face and it transformed their way of thinking so that they were no longer afraid of death but looked at it as Christians so that they could see the beautiful side of death as God has transformed it by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Well, okay,” I thought, “that doesn’t sound so bad.”
So I decided to start doing my spiritual reading on the topic of death, as written about by the saints. Let me clarify. This was not a morbid fascination. I was not reading about death in a dark way at all. I was reading the writings of the saints on Heaven, on Purgatory, on the Judgment, and the Resurrection of the Body. In my holy hours, I would read little bits, then pray about it, journal about it, and I came to see the beauty of death for a Christian. Along the way, I discovered “The Art of Dying Well” by St. Robert Bellarmine.
In this book, the saint writes about the rules of the art of dying well. He divides these into two parts. First he gives “the rules that we should use while we are in good health” (239). Secondly, he gives “those that we will need when we suffer such a dangerous illness that death is probably immanent” (239).
But the general rule that is set before both of these is that “one should live well if one desires to die well. For since,” he writes, “death is merely the end of life, surely everyone who lives well up to the end cannot die badly, since he has never lived badly, just as he who has always lived badly dies badly, and one cannot fail to die badly if he has never lived well” (239).
Now, what about the person who has not always lived well. St. Robert uses the example of the Good Thief, St. Dismas. He says that it was not the case that the Good Thief… “lived badly, yet ended his life well and happily. …rather the good thief lived piously and holily and for that reason met a good and holy death. Though he spent the greater part of his life in crime, nonetheless he spent another part of his life in such a holy manner that he easily rid himself of past sins and acquired extraordinary merit. For burning with love for God, he openly defended Christ from the calumnies of the wicked; and burning equally with love for neighbor, he admonished and corrected his own blaspheming companion and tried to recall him to a better life” (240).
It is comforting to know that it is never too late for conversion while we are still living and breathing. “Yet,” St. Robert says, “no one can deny that it is dangerous to put off conversion from sins to justice until the end of life, that they are far happier who have borne the yoke of God’s law ‘from their youth’ [Lam 3:27]” (240). In today’s readings, there are two young men who are raised from the dead. First the Lord brings a young man back to life through the prayers of Elijah, the man of God, and then the Lord brings a young man back to life by His own power. God speaks the command and it happens. But that boy was not raised to life forever. Sooner or later, he had to die because he was mortal. But God raised Him because there was unfinished business to take care of. The boy had to make good on his new life. God heals first and foremost for the good of our souls. He has rescued us from death to save our souls. And in the end, at the Resurrection, our bodies will also enjoy freedom from death when they are rejoined to our souls in the new heaven and the new earth at the Second Coming.
Let us prepare for that day, giving thanks to God for each new day, and let us cultivate the art of living well for the sake of the art of dying well. That will be a beautiful death about which we need have no fear.