A Time to Die
By Nicolas Diat Ignatius Press, 180pp, £13.36/$12.99
Subtitled Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, this absorbing book – with a foreword by Cardinal Robert Sarah who has collaborated with the author in several book-length interviews – offers a profound perspective on death. Perhaps it is redundant to observe that as the corona-virus assumes the features of a pandemic, the secular world too is more alert to the possibility of dying than is normally the case. What this book offers the world is an alternative way of regarding death – not as a disaster or a tragedy or something to be postponed at all costs, but in the way Christians have always regarded it: as the gateway to eternal life.
I read it with more than normal attention, partly because I think that men who spend their lives in prayer and preparation for this ultimate moment might have something to tell us lay people, and partly because it is easy to be so caught up in daily life that one forgets that circumstances can change in an instant. I was not disappointed by what I read. Indeed, there is so much to digest that the book would repay a second reading.
Diat has visited many abbeys throughout France from the different religious orders, such as the Augustinians, Benedictines, Trappists and Cistercians, and had long conversations with their abbots. The abbeys – Lagrasse, En-Calcat, Solesmes, Sept-Fons, Cîteaux, Fontgombault, Mondaye and La Grande Chartreuse – have different rituals at the approach of death for one of their community. But what they all share is a religious and spiritual emphasis, in contrast to hospitals and the medical profession.
The small black-and-white drawings of each monastery at the head of every chapter made me want to make a pilgrimage to visit them all. I did try to suggest this to an agnostic friend who lives in France but he remains unpersuaded.
It is only possible to provide some vignettes in this review among the stories told to the author, such as the death of Brother Vincent-Marie, aged 36, who had suffered from increasingly crippling multiple sclerosis for many years. Cardinal Sarah, who became close to this young monk and who is certain that Brother Vincent-Marie gave him significant prayer support during his own struggles at the Vatican, attended his funeral, commenting that “It is difficult for me to think of those moments without crying” – mourning the loss of his spiritual companion at the same time as rejoicing that the monk was now fully in the hands of God and beyond all human suffering.
Many of the abbots raised the question of medical intervention when a monk is sick and dying. While recognising that very ill monks might need to go to hospital rather than remain in the abbey infirmary, they all pondered both the appropriateness of deep sedation before death and the artificial prolongation of life beyond its natural end. The abbot of En-Calcat Abbey commented that “The doctors have the power to delay the definitive meeting of a religious with his Creator,” while the abbot of Solesmes observed that “We should be happy for our brothers who are arriving at the gate of paradise.”
Several of those interviewed showed their concern that a beloved member of their community might not die among his brothers. At Sept-Fons Abbey, the abbot, speaking of a brother with terminal leukaemia, said: “We told his doctor that we did not want him to die in the hospital. How could we conceive of a brother leaving alone, surrounded by tubes, in an intensive care unit?” At Cîteaux, the Cistercians “will always prefer that a religious be able to die in the abbey”. Its abbot provides an alternative view of living when he comments: “Little deaths of the ego are the big deaths, and they allow for a good death” – that is, one where a continual self-surrender leads to the ultimate surrender of the self in death and resurrection.
Fontgombault Abbey has a statue of Mary, titled Our Lady of a Happy Death. Its abbot considers heavy and continuous sedation “unacceptable and immoral”. At Cîteaux the abbot reminds us that “peaceful deaths are not always the most holy”, and asks “How did our brother Cistercians in Tibhirine die?” – a reference to the monks killed in the Algerian civil war, their bodies found with their heads missing.
One thing that all the monasteries have in common is that the members of their communities who have died are not forgotten. As one abbot put it: “The greatest care [is taken] in the writing of the biographical notes of the deceased brothers.” These are regularly read out in the refectory, while the graveyards within the monastic grounds are cared for and visited.
The abbot of Solesmes sums up the general attitude: “If we live for Christ, we already have one foot in eternity.” And readers do not have to live a cloistered life to know, as Christians, that death has a life-changing significance. It is not simply for monks that “In the last hours of our life, God … awaits our response. He asks us if we want him.”