“The cemeteries of the abbeys will always be in bloom.”
This evening I read a beautiful book, A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, written by Nicolas Diat and with a forward by Robert Cardinal Sarah.
Diat travelled to several monasteries in France to visit monks and learn from them about the mystery of death and the art of dying well.
The author begins saying, “I would like for this book to offer some hope, because the monks show us that a humane death is possible. Twenty-first-century man is not condemned to lonely endings, without love, in anonymous hospital rooms. Twenty-first century man is not condemned to false humanity of a death disguised and distorted in disembodied funeral parlours.”
And so he invites us to join him behind monastery walls to bear witness to “a litany of ordinary and sublime deaths.”
He shares stories of monks accompanying each other at the end of life, of monks not trying to endlessly postpone death with extravagant medical interventions, and of monks hearing the obituaries of monks from their community throughout all of history read aloud daily to remind them of those who died and also of their own mortality:
“The infirmary monks need to be vigilant so as not to transform a brother into a thing to they take care of mechanically and as quickly as possible. The risk of commodification of the sick exists. I must pray to keep the strength of my desire to serve awake.”
“Our materialist societies have an irresponsibile obsession with pain. Why has our world forgotten that life does not exist without suffering? […] ‘The fight against pain can become a way of killing. Forty years ago, we were powerless in the face of pain; today, the problem is the opposite. For us, the most important thing will always be that the brothers are not alone when they depart. I know that our contemporaries often die in great solitude.'”
“Why reflect on the last things just at the moment of departure? It is rather unreasonable to think we are going to meditate on death when we are sick and tired. […] ‘I am never so much aware of the presence of God as at the moment of death of my brothers.'”
There are so many uplifting passages throughout this book that put our earthly existence into its eternal context:
“Our existence must be a noviciate for eternity.”
“Don Philippe has a belief. In the last hours of our life, God prepares us for his arrival: ‘He wants us to be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We sense him coming. We see a great light because God awaits our response. He asks us if we want him.'”
“Dom Olivier turned to me and said: ‘The hardest death is the little daily death, when we are perfectly healthy. […] Little deaths of the ego are big deaths, and they allow for a good death.'”
As we live this season of Lent during the pandemic, we have a pronounced opportunity to confront suffering and death. The monks are reminding us “that Christ himself did not die in tranquility. On the contrary, the Lord died in agony” and “Peaceful deaths are not necessarily the most holy.”
And, as my parish priest put it a few weeks ago, “Consider the Lenten project of imagining your own funeral. You will be tempted to flee from the suffering that is redemptive for your soul but if you are preparing well, then there’s nothing to fear.”
Lastly, I especially appreciated this passage from A Time to Die:
“Before we parted, I asked [Brother Philippe] if he wanted to add anything. I can still hear the sound of his deep and meditative voice: ‘Thinking about death is not morbid. On the contrary, it enables us to understand the meaning of life. It is necessary to learn to recognize the end of our road. Why be afraid? The Resurrection is the foundation of our faith. Real life is not on earth. Every day, we must prepare to die.”
May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death. – Amen
One thought on “A Time to Die”
Beautiful, even scary to a point. But, alas, “we are dust and to dust we shall return”. Is that not what was said as we received the ashes on Ash Wednesday? Death is not so bad; it is the preamble that is so hard esp when it lasts such a long time.