I recently watched a friend die. In hospital, receiving palliative care, his life had been mainly one of poor choices and emotional chaos. A Catholic, he had drifted away from the Church many years ago and was what one would describe as “lapsed”. In his case, it didn’t mean he rejected belief; he simply stopped practising, such was his inability to fit together his style of life with the Church’s teachings. Yet at the end he asked for the Last Rites and recited the Our Father with the hospital chaplain. His last words to me before he fell into unconsciousness were “Lead Kindly Light.”
His was in no way a conventional holy death – but it reminded me that sometimes God calls people at the eleventh hour; he recalls his black sheep. My friend had a set of Newman’s sermons, given to him by me, which he had not read. But he knew the famous poem, the opening line of which he had quoted to me, prompted by – who knows? Perhaps St John Henry Newman himself.
It reminded me what an extraordinary mystery death is, and how tragic it is that we have largely averted our gaze from it, unwilling or unable to learn the profound lesson it has to teach us. It will soon be Ash Wednesday when we hear “Remember man thou are dust and unto dust thou shall return” – the Church’s way of recalling us to our senses and to the reality of life’s trajectory.
It happens that I have been reading a book about death, full of hope, wisdom and encouragement. Titled A Time to Die, published by Ignatius, it is written by the French writer Nicolas Diat, who has collaborated with Cardinal Robert Sarah in three book-length interviews. This book, subtitled “Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life” is his own exploration of how French monks at the abbeys of Lagrasse, En-Calcat, Solesmes, Sept-Fons, Citeaux, Fontgombault, Mondaye and la Grande Chartreuse, face death both as individuals and as members of a religious community.
The book reminds us that “21st century man is not condemned to lonely endings, without love, in anonymous hospital rooms” – as might have been the case for my friend if three of us had not kept vigil at his bedside. What struck me most forcibly in reading the accounts of those witnessing a monastic death – the abbot, the infirmary brothers, the community – was how important it was that medical interventions did not push God out of the picture. Sometimes this meant that elderly or very sick monks were possibly kept alive longer than they wished: “In forcing the body to stay alive, we are not helping the soul”, as one abbot commented.
More often it meant that doctors veered towards deep sedation so as to avoid the patient suffering. “The fight against pain can become a way of killing” as a Trappist abbot observed, “whereas the most important thing will always be that the brothers are not alone when they depart.” The presence of God is always acknowledged at a monastic death bed, in the prayers, the vigils, the chanting, the fraternal support and the coming together of the whole community at the Requiem and in the procession to the monastic graveyard where the grave has already been prepared.
The Trappist abbot also reminded his interviewer, “God comes and goes away with our brother. Without God, man is an utter absurdity. If the end stops in a hole in the ground, life is not worth the trouble.” My friend, who had struggled with disappointment and despair for most of his life, knew at the end that God had not abandoned him and that his life had not been an exercise in absurdity.
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