Bellarmine is a name that pushed its way into my consciousness as I listened to a series of lectures on Church history. Cardinal Francis George named him as the man who set up the juridical framework of the Church-as-State back in the 16th century that Vatican II sought to reassess when it looked to encounter the world in the 1960s. And there he was again in the Galileo controversy. And finally, as scholar and thinker of the faith, I liked the thin volume he left behind, “The Art of Dying Well.” Some reading selections here. It also makes a nice segue from Michelangelo’s The Deluge now that Hurricane Sandy might be bearing down upon us all.
The Most Important Of All Sciences
Being now free from Public business and enabled to attend to myself, when in my usual retreat I consider, what is the reason why so very few endeavor to learn the “Art of dying well,” (which all men ought to know,) I can find no other cause than that mentioned by the Wise man: “The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) For what folly can be imagined greater than to neglect that Art, on which depend our highest and eternal interests; whilst on the other hand we learn with great labor, and practice with no less ardor, other almost innumerable arts, in order either to preserve or to increase perishable things?
Now every one will admit, that the “Art of dying Well” is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects, how after death we shall have to give an account to God of everything we did, spoke, or thought of, during our whole life, even of every idle word; and that the devil being our accuser, our conscience a witness, and God the Judge, a sentence of happiness or misery everlasting awaits us. We daily see, how when judgment is expected to be given, even on affairs of the slightest consequence, the interested party enjoy no rest, but consult at one time the lawyers, at another the solicitors, now the judges, and then their friends or relations.
But in death when a “Cause” is pending before the Supreme Judge, connected with life or death eternal, often is the sinner compelled, when unprepared, oppressed by disease, and scarcely possessed of reason, to give an account of those things on which when in health, he had perhaps never once reflected. This is the reason why miserable mortals rush in crowds to hell; and as St. Peter saith, “If the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1Peter 4:1)
I have therefore considered it would be useful to exhort myself, in the first place, and then my Brethren, highly to esteem the “Art of dying Well.” And if there be any who, as yet, have not acquired this Art from other learned teachers, I trust they will not despise, at least those Precepts which I have endeavored to collect, from Holy Writ and the Ancient Fathers.
But before I treat of these Precepts, I think it useful to inquire into the nature of death; whether it is to be ranked among good or among evil things. Now if death be considered absolutely in itself, without doubt it must be called an evil, because that which is opposed to life we must admit cannot be good.
By The Envy Of The Devil
Moreover, as the Wise man saith: “God made not death, but by the envy of the devil, death came into the world.” (Wisdom 11:13-24) With these words St. Paul also agrees, when he saith: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men in whom all have sinned.” Romans 5:12. If then God did not make death, certainly it cannot be good, because everything which God hath made is good, according to the words of Moses: “And God saw all things that he had made, and they were very good.”
But although death cannot be considered good in itself, yet the wisdom of God hath so seasoned it as it were, that from death many blessings arise. Hence David exclaims; “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints:” and the Church speaking of Christ saith: Who by His death hath destroyed our death, and by His resurrection hath regained life.” Now death that hath destroyed death and regained life, cannot but be very good: wherefore if every death cannot be called good, yet at least some may. Hence St. Ambrose did not hesitate to write a book entitled, “On the Advantages of Death;” in which treatise he clearly proves that death, although produced by sin, possesses its peculiar advantages.
An End To The Miseries Of This Life
There is also another reason which proves that death, although an evil in itself, can, by the grace of God, produce many blessings. For, first, there is this great blessing, that death puts an end to the numerous miseries of this life. Job thus eloquently complains of the evils of this our present state: “Man born of a woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries. Who cometh forth like a flower and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state.” Job: 14:1
And Ecclesiastes saith: “I praised the dead rather than the living: and I judged him happier than them both, that is not yet born, nor hath seen the evils that are under the sun” (Ecclesiasticus 4: 2-3) likewise adds: “Great labor is created for all men, and a heavy yoke is upon the children of Adam, from the day of their coming out of their mother’s womb, until the day of their burial into the mother of all.” (Ecclesiasticus 40) The Apostle too complains of the miseries of this life: “Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Epistle to Romans 7: 24.)
The Grace Of Christ
From these testimonies, therefore, of Holy Writ it is quite evident, that death possesses an advantage, in freeing us from the miseries of this life. But it also hath a still more excellent advantage, because it may become the gate from a prison to a Kingdom. This was revealed by our Lord to St. John the Evangelist, when for his faith he had been exiled into, the isle of Patmos: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying to me: Write, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth now, saith the spirit, that they may rest from their labors: for their works follow them.” (Apocalypse 14:13)
Truly “blessed” is the death of the saints, which by the command of the Heavenly King frees the soul from the prison of the flesh, and conducts her to a celestial Kingdom; where just souls sweetly rest after all their labors, and for the reward of their good works, receive a crown of glory. To the souls in purgatory also, death brings no slight benefit, for it delivers them from the fear of death, and makes them certain of possessing one day, eternal Happiness. Even to wicked men themselves, death seems to be of some advantage; for in freeing them from the body, it prevents the measure of their punishment from increasing.
On account of these excellent advantages, death to good men seems not horrible, but sweet; not terrible, but lovely. Hence St. Paul securely exclaims: “For to me, to live is Christ; and to die is gain having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ:” and his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, he saith: “We will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have not hope” (4:12.)
There lived some time ago a certain holy lady, named Catherine Adorna, of Genoa; she was so inflamed with the love of Christ, that with the most ardent desires she wished to be “dissolved,” and to depart to her Beloved: hence, seized as it were with a love for death, she often praised it as most beautiful and most lovely, blaming it only for this that it fled from those who desired it, and was found by those who fled from it.
From these considerations then we may conclude, that death, as produced by sin, is an evil; but that, by the grace of Christ who condescended to suffer death for us, it hath become in many ways salutary, lovely, and to be desired.