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Ars Moriendi: The Art of Dying


We cannot master the art of dying unless we fear the death of the soul much more than the death of the body.

artofdyingWe are born to die.  This inevitable fact could lead to fatalism, although, more often, we simply fall into denial.  We avoid thinking about death and stigmatize it as the greatest evil.  If this world is all we have, then death would be the greatest evil, although life itself would become futile, a temporary illusion — grasping pleasure as it slips through our fingers.

For a Christian, however, we are born to live.  The inevitability of death remains even though it loses its terror.  To be sure, it should stimulate some somber reflection on the purpose of life as a temporary sojourn, meant to lead us to our true and everlasting life in God.  The Church encourages us to think about death and to prepare for it, even to the point of considering it an art.

One of the most popular books of the late Middle Ages, in fact, was Ars Moriendi, a book written by an anonymous Dominican friar on the art of dying.  The National Catholic Bioethics Center has just released a new edition of The Art of Dying, with a masterful introduction and annotations by a contemporary friar, Brother Columba Thomas, a medical doctor.  From his own experience, Brother Thomas points out that we are "frequently overwhelmed by the complexity of health care and miss the opportunity to prepare well for death" (3).  We might spend our entire lives avoiding the thought of death and then, when it actually arrives, find ourselves unable to think about it at all.

For this reason, we need to return to the medieval wisdom which recognized that "the salvation of each person consists entirely in the preparation for death" (86).  Approaching death as an art entails deliberate preparation throughout life to approach it as a spiritual reality.  This will serve, Brother Thomas says, as a "corrective to the prevailing over-medicalized, technologically driven death" (3).  Death is the crucial moment to offer oneself to God, the culminating moment of life that will cement our whole trajectory toward or away from God.

Approaching death as an art entails deliberate preparation throughout life to approach it as a spiritual reality. 

Therefore, Brother Thomas argues that we need to preserve lucidity long enough to enable the reception of the sacraments and spiritual care (18).  A life well lived prepares us to meet the final test, which should confirm our faith and trust in God.

At this moment, when the devil tries to lay claim to us, our guardian angel also comforts and strengthens us. The Art of Dying consists mainly in meditations that relate temptations suggested by the devil, trying to cause distraction, fear, and despair, and the answer given by an angel to comfort and strengthen the soul.  The most important response of all consists in complete trust of God.  Do not despair, the good angel encourages, for God's mercy is greater than any sin (55).  Confession offers this mercy to us, providing one of the most essential preparations — both now and at that crucial hour.  We can assist others by praying for them and encouraging them to turn to God.

The Art of Dying laments, "But alas, there are few who faithfully assist those close to them at death by questioning them, prompting them, and praying for them, especially when the dying ones do not want to die yet, and their souls are often wretchedly endangered" (86-87).

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Jared Staudt. "Ars Moriendi: The Art of Dying." Denver Catholic (October 28, 2021).

Dr. Staudt writes a column, The Catholic Reader, for the Denver Catholic.

Reprinted with permission from the Denver Catholic.

The Author

R. Jared Staudt, PhD, is a husband and father of six, the Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver, a Benedictine oblate, prolific writer, and insatiable reader.

Copyright © 2021 Denver Catholic

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