Catholic News Service
Hundreds of years ago, our Christian forebears sought to learn to die well. They even wrote guidebooks about the art of dying (“ars moriendi”), hoping to inspire others to achieve a sense of spiritual completion and fulfillment at life’s end.
But in our modern age, such signposts are few indeed. Our loved ones often die not at home, but in hospitals at some remove from us. And so we approach death largely untutored, bewildered and unprepared, writes Kerry Walters, a former hospital chaplain. In “The Art of Dying and Living: Lessons from Saints of Our Time,” he has produced a first-rate “ars moriendi” for our time.
His thesis is simple and powerful: to die well, we must first live well. Long before our end, we need to cultivate love, gratitude, patience and trust, the virtues that will “make our living richly meaningful and discipline us to ways of thinking and behaving that will stand us in good stead at life’s end.”
To this end, he presents instructive and moving stories of how seven holy men and women lived and died. We are invited to emulate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s courage, Blessed John Paul II’s patience, Sister Thea Bowman’s love and Etty Hillesum’s gratitude, among others.
The story of Hillesum, a 29-year-old Dutch Jewish mystic who lived for several months at Westerbork, the infamous transit camp in northeastern Holland, before being shipped to Auschwitz and executed, is particularly inspiring. In the midst of the horrific Nazi death culture, she sought and found God — and a deep and abiding well of gratitude. Walters tells how she watched as “infants dying of pneumonia were piled on the Auschwitz-bound freight cars and people already in the cars stuck their hands through gaps in the planks.” They “waved as if they were drowning,” Hillesum wrote in her journal. Yet at the same time, she recounted, “The sky is full of birds, the purple lupines stand up so regally and peacefully, two little old women have sat down on the box for a chat, the sun is shining on my face.”
Later, Hillesum wrote. “It all comes down to the same thing: Life is beautiful. And I believe in God. … Despite everything, I rejoice and exult time and again, Oh God: I am grateful to you for having given me this life.”
Her gratitude lived large, stretching, as Walters writes, “to embrace the bad as well as the good, the tragedies that unfold in life and settle like ash on one’s spirit as well as the moments of sheer luminous grace that reveal deep meaning.”
Walters presents Sister Thea (1937-1990), a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, as a model of opening ourselves lovingly to others. Rather than withdraw into anxiety when she was stricken with breast cancer, she embraced others, often praying, “I want to love until I die.”
Walters writes conversationally, conveying substantial information so gracefully that we may not immediately recognize the depth of his contribution.
Part of our own preparation for death is learning to grieve when we lose our loved ones. This is harder still when the beloved one is a child. When Glenda and Preston Parrish lost their 25-year-old son, Nathan, in an accident, they were devastated. Her heart was “just plain broken,” Glenda recounts, and even several years later, she still has “hard days” that come unbidden.”
In “Finding Hope in Times of Grief,” each parent writes candidly about the reality of their loss.
This well-told story of the couple’s grief journey will be balm to others who have experienced such loss. Their greatest comfort, the Parrishes say, came from trusting God and reading again and again the scriptural message of hope. The Psalms, especially, reminded them of God’s great love: “He heals the brokenhearted/And binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147).
Roberts directs the journalism program at SUNY Albany.