Well Versed in the Art of Dying

Georges de La Tour: Penitent Magdalene

I’ve been reading a book about St Elizabeth Ann Seton. Last night this passage caught my eye:

Death in desire has many advantages…

1st, it is very agreeable to God, because by it we submit ourselves to Him as His creatures and offer ourselves a voluntary victim to His power and majesty.

2nd, it is very useful to ourselves, because it teaches us to die by degrees, it habituates us to the acts of virtue we would wish to make at Death, and to do beforehand what we would then desire to do….

3rd, those who are not in this practice are in danger of dying like animals, because the pain of the body so weighs down the mind that it can scarcely think of anything– but when we are versed in the art of dying, whatever the pains of the body may be, the soul will still be able to produce those acts which it has been long accustomed to form, or should it be so oppressed and stupefied as to be incapable of any exertion, what comfort then to have done repeatedly and in full consciousness, what its present condition makes so difficult, or perhaps impossible.

— from The Soul of Elizabeth Seton: A Spiritual Portrait by Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M.

The phrase “versed in the art of dying” spoke to me when I read this passage. She doesn’t go into specifics here, but I’m fascinated by the idea of the Christian life as a practice of becoming versed in the art of dying.

Some time ago I began writing a piece I never finished about how praying Compline (or Night Prayer) is a sort of practice for the moment of death. I’d been struck by an opinion piece about a terrible incident with a gunman who asked all the Christians to stand up and then shot those who did. The piece was a sort of meditation on whether and how we are prepared for those moments of extreme choice. Would you stand up? And well I’d like to think I would have the courage, of course.

At the time I found myself talking about the piece and about martyrdom with Dom. Martyrdom is a grace, Dom and I agreed. A gift of the Holy Spirit. A calling. Not everyone receives that grace. Maybe God has other plans for the people who weren’t able to force themselves to stand up?

Then Dom said something about readiness. Being ready to do God’s will. Asking, Lord, help to know your will and to do your will. It occurred to me then that Compline is a daily practice in praying the prayer of the one facing possible martyrdom. A practice in giving your life, and your will, over to God. Asking him for his will to be done in you in the moment. The prayers of Compline echo Christ’s last words on the cross: Into your hands I commend my spirit. . . And Simeon’s words upon seeing the savior: Lord, now you let your servant go in peace. . . And in the daily prayers of Compline we always face the possibility of death. Grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.

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When Dom suggested that readiness was the thing, I immediately found the words of Compline on my lips. Not that I thought oh, hey, that’s like Compline, but the words were there before thought, a reaction to Dom’s words, almost a reflex: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” Every night that’s the responsory in the last office before going to sleep. And the office ends, always, with “May the all powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”

I’d never thought of it as a rehearsal before. The night office is all about preparation for death. Not, Will I be ready when the time comes? But, Am I ready now? What if I don’t wake up? What if this is the end?

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As I’ve come to know St Elizabeth Seton what has struck me most about her spirituality is her readiness for death. No, it’s more than just a readiness, it’s a positive longing for heaven. She yearned for union with Christ. She taught her children and her sisters that heaven was a blessed realm for which we should constantly thirst.

No saint ever had a more constant eye on eternity that Elizabeth Seton. It was the star she steered by. It motivated everything– love of God and neighbor, every action spiritual and temporal. It was the refrain of her teaching, the silent watchdog of her conscience. It was the spur to every good action, the barrier to every omission.

Eternity, oh how near it often seems to me. Think of it when you are hard pushed… How long will be that day without a night or that night without a day. May we praise and bless and adore forever.

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I’ve been reading St Patrick’s Summer with the children and in that novel are two characters who likewise express a longing for heaven and a readiness for death. One is the Elizabethan priest, Michael, who is martyred for the faith. He speaks to the children about his martyrdom as if it were a little thing like an illness that was bad for a time but he got over it. He explains how at his seminary in Belgium there were pictures of all the tortures the priests could expect when caught in England on the walls of the dining hall.

St Cecilia aslo expresses a similar joy at the memory of her own martyrdom. And she shows the children a glimpse of a part of it (not the actual torture and death, but of the moment when she is freed from the bath of boiling water and is unscathed and then she invites the centurion to cut off her head with his sword. She encourages him when he is afraid. She is less afraid of dying than the centurion is of killing her. He hands his sword to a subordinate and then flees. And then Cecilia has to encourage the other soldier as well.

Both of these episodes came to mind as I read St Elizabeth Seton’s exhortation to her sisters about preparing themselves for death by acts of desire.

St Cecilia notes how short the pain of her suffering is compared to an eternity of bliss with God.

These stories sound rather grim for children, but Marigold Hunt writes them in such a way that they really don’t feel that way. And I think she understands something of what St Elizabeth Seton does about the necessity of being versed in the art of dying. How do we learn? When do we begin? Perhaps its this simple, begin with stories of the martyrs that emphasize their joy and humor and hope for heaven?

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St Elizabeth Seton continues:

Consider then that it is a great grace not to be afraid of death… and it is a great perfection to desire it with a well-regulated desire according to God, for what virtue can the soul possess that is not contained in the desire of death? It possesses humility, wince it is ready to receive all the humiliations of death, to return to dust and corruption. It possesses poverty since it is ready to quit all that the world contains, and chastity, since it turns from all the world’s joys and pleasures. Go over every virtue separately, you will find that the desire of death includes them all.

That phrase, “a well-regulated desire according to God” is very important here. St Elizabeth Seton is careful to quickly distinguish this lack of fear of death with a desire for death that is wrong:

We often wish for death that we may be delivered from an unhappy life, and this desire is not good. We should never wish to get rid of our life because it is an unhappy one, or full of pains and trials; on the contrary, if there was no other evil in it, we should cherish and preserve it all in our power, since the more pains and trials we have in it, the greater sacrifices we may make to God, and the more we may prove our love to Him.

So she’s not talking about a suicidal urge, a death-wish in the sense of despair or disgust with this world. Rather, Elizabeth Seton’s desire is to be united at last with the God she loves, to experience finally the beatific vision. Her urgency is for heaven, not for escape.

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The night office is a preparation for death. Every night I practice. I say the words. I face death squarely, look it in the eye. How do I know I’ll be ready to say the right thing? By saying it again and again till the words come to my lips unbidden, unthought.

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.

A script for times of trial.

Protect us Lord, as we stay awake, and watch over us as we sleep. That awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace.

The words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he sweated blood: ‘Lord, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I will, but your will be done.’ Resignation and acceptance. Death to self. Accepting the cross, accepting the mission. Well versed in the art of dying.

2 Responses to Well Versed in the Art of Dying

  1. Stephanie April 12, 2017 at 4:56 am #

    Your words brought to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle One Art. I have gotten out of the habit of praying Night Prayer and this is a reminder of how powerful and lovely the Nunc Dimittis is.

    • Melanie Bettinelli
      Melanie Bettinelli April 13, 2017 at 1:23 am #

      Oh yes. One Art would fit very nicely into this meditation. Even when I get out of the habit of saying the full Night Prayer, I often mumble the Nunc Dimittis to myself as I’m falling into bed. It’s such a lovely way to end the day.

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