By David Ney
There is … a time to be born and a time to die.
— Ecclesiastes 3:1
The last chapter of George Marsden’s award-winning biography on Jonathan Edwards begins with the following sentence: “Jonathan Edwards spent his entire life preparing to die.” When I first read this sentence, during seminary, it got up in my face. It had never occurred to me that the purpose of my life was, in fact, death. Certainly, the church context I inhabited had never asked me to think in this way, or at least it hadn’t done so in a way that led me to believe that my ultimate object was to die well. And yet I have come to learn that I am the odd one, or rather that contemporary Western Christianity is novel in this respect. The point of course is not that we don’t prepare for death; but rather that we do so as a necessary evil, and having done so, we quickly return to our habitual denial of death.
Acknowledging that the Grim Reaper may knock at the door as an actuarial computation, and living in anticipation that he will inevitably do so, are two very different things. I wonder if this difference can account for the allergic reaction so many Americans had to the request that they habitually wear a mask during the pandemic. And while I continue to be unconvinced by the argument that those that complied to institutional, municipal, state, and federal mask mandates inevitably did so out of fear, the pandemic did seem to wake certain individuals from a deep slumber of indifference to the horror that death might suddenly appear as an unexpected guest.
There are few countries in the world, if any, in which the mask became the cultural-dividing issue that it was in America; few countries seem to have a propensity to make such things into cultural and ideological shibboleths. But it is easier to see why it became what it became given that it violated entrenched cultural assumptions about death. The mask is an extremely intriguing object along these lines given its hybridity, something which both shields from death and brings the reality of death as close as the air you breathe. It is able to do this, it seems, because it is both an extension of the human person into the world and an imposition of the world upon the human person. As an appendage to the human person, it shields the person from the world; yet as an exterior object it is, quite literally the world up in your face.
As it both shields the person from the world and confronts him with it, the mask is an all-too-palpable reminder that the world exists. That the world exists is perhaps obvious enough, though we might ask ourselves how it exists, or rather where it exists. And as Charles Taylor has so eloquently argued, it exists for moderns in a way that it did not for pre-moderns. Unlike pre-moderns, moderns take for granted what Taylor calls the buffered self. In other words, they see and experience themselves as distinct from the world in a way that manages to make sure that the world doesn’t “get up in your face.” On one hand the mask buffers the self from the world, but as the world up in your face, it is, curiously, equally a threat to the buffered self.
“Buffering” the self is, evidently, a coping mechanism, or is, rather, a stand-in for coping mechanisms: it is a key component of the modern denial of death. The self must be buffered from the world since the world quite literally kills you. While the buffered self is adept at deploying strategies that hide the uncomfortable reality of death from view, these all fail to account for the world the way it actually is: in bringing death and decay, the world is just being what it is, the world. Nothing is more evident; and yet few evident truths are so eagerly avoided. Only one thing can be said with certainty of the earthly life given to a newborn, and that is that it will end in death.
The church that acknowledges the most obvious truth, that physical life must end in physical death, conceives of Christian formation as a preparation for death. The Western church of the cataclysmic 14th century was not unique in the interest it had in such preparation; but its hellish circumstances made it urgently and idiosyncratically explicit in this regard.
There were frequent crop failures between 1290 and 1347 which climatologists have associated with the cooling of the atmosphere and soil fatigue. In 1304 and 1305 famine struck in France and the Netherlands, and by 1310 Italy had lost 10 percent of the urban population. The famines of 1315-1317 were so severe an English chronicler stressed that horsemeat, normally scorned by peasants, was too expensive for all but aristocrats. As for the poor, they were reduced to the state of eating cats, dogs, rodents, and creepy crawly things. The animal population was further reduced in the livestock epidemics of 1316-1322 called murrains. These famines and murrains constituted an agrarian crisis that killed 10 to 25 percent of Western Europe’s total population.
Dominican Priest Henry Suso (1295-1366) grew up during the agrarian crisis and it must be understood as the backdrop of his bestselling devotional manual, The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, published early in 1328. Some regard it as the most beautiful fruit of German mysticism. But it is also an eminently practical manual, addressed to “simple men who still have imperfections to be put off.” With the coming of the “Big Death,” the Bubonic Plague of the mid-14th century, the agrarian crisis took on the new title of the “Little Death,” for while it had swallowed up a quarter of Western Europeans, up to half succumbed to the plague. It is easy to see why Suso’s manual was so popular; it became a crucial text during the Big Death and in the new order that followed. The Big Death solidified an enduring culture of death since the plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean until the 17th century: it was present somewhere in Europe every year between 1346 and 1671.
Suso’s little manual takes the form of a dialogue between a true servant of the Lord, who is presumably a layman, and the Lord himself, who goes by the name “the voice of true and Eternal Wisdom.” This voice urges the servant to prepare for death by embracing religio, the ascetical life. While this advice took for granted the superiority of the monastic way of life, it was spurned by many cloistered communities as a casting of pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6). It was, however, part of a growing tide of democratization: with death everywhere around them, Europe’s populace eagerly sought the Holy Life. The Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life are the clearest testaments to this trend, as women and men across Europe developed creative new arrangements which allowed them to pursue devotion to Christ within indigenous communal contexts.
Suso’s servant, who is eager for theological instruction, tells Eternal Wisdom that he longs for the wisdom of the Doctors of the Church. Eternal Wisdom urges him, though, that there is something far more valuable which must become the object of his affections. He needs the treasured possession, which monks possess, the gift of being prepared for death.
I will give to thee what will profit thee even more. I will teach thee to die and will teach thee to live. I will teach thee to receive Me lovingly, and will teach thee to praise Me lovingly. Behold, this is what properly belongs to thee. (Suso, 2.21).
Suso’s advice was received by so many of Suso’s readers as sound because they took for granted that death was endemic to their status as fallen creatures; it was obvious to them both that it would soon come to fetch them, and that the intervening time was to be construed as a time of purgation and preparation. Such a fixation upon death was not, for them, dark or dreary or sadistic. It was, to the contrary, an energetic embrace of the form of creaturely life as a life which invariably must be lived within a world in which physical life ends in death. And as such it was a courageous and open-eyed embrace of a way of living which was, simultaneously, the art of dying well and the art of living well.
The official response to the new culture of the Big Death was, predictably, far slower in coming. An anonymous Dominican Friar produced the long version of a text known as the Ars Moriendi, in 1415, probably at the request of the council of Constance. A shorter version appeared in 1450. The Ars Moriendi was translated into most European languages, and boasted 50,000 copies before 1501. Both redactions offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, how to die well. And both assume, following Suso, that the good death has an unmistakably ascetical component, and that it is nevertheless within reach of all. The Ars Moriendi became part of the Church’s program for educating priests. But it was also for lay people, intended to be used by them in the absence of a priest, since so many had recently died. This amounted to giving the secret possession of priests to the laity; something that would have been unthinkable in the High Middle Ages.
An English translation of the longer treatise appeared around 1450 under the title The Book of the Craft of Dying. The first chapter praises the deaths of good Christians and repentant sinners who die “gladly and wilfully” in God. Because the best preparation for a good death is a good life, Christians should, the translation continues, “live in such wise … that they may die safely, every hour, when God will.” Merchant and writer William Caxton (1422-1491), who was probably the first person to bring a printing press to England, made the link between the Ars moriendi and advice literature explicit. He translated a text from the French as The Arte and Crafte to Knowe well to Die around 1490. His manual included texts on how to converse, use correct table manners, and play chess.
The 15th-century culture that refashioned living well as the art of dying produced many literary monuments that express this point of view. Among them are personal directives. These directives tend to be disarming in the dispassionate way they gaze at oncoming death. They are matter-of-fact in the way they dispose of temporal goods and they are always chiefly concerned with spiritual matters, for they recognize, with Suso and the Ars Moriendi, that the best way to prepare for the first death is to prepare for the second death: for the second death holds no power over those who, through endurance, share in the resurrection of Christ (Rev. 20:6).
When Edwards knew he was dying, he wrote his directive to his beloved daughter Lucy, who was attending him.
Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father, who will never fail you. And as to my funeral, I would have it be like Mr. Burr’s; and any additional sum of money that might be expected to be laid out that way, I would have it disposed of to charitable uses. (Marsden, 494)
Edwards had lived his Christian life with death in mind; and the little directive he wrote therefore has little sense of urgency. There is a sadness about leaving loved ones behind, no doubt; but there is no need for a last-minute turn of face or an urgent phone call. His directive was not, as we tend to suppose, what made him ready for death; it was, rather a testimony to his long-standing readiness as one who knew well the “arte and crafte” of dying well.
Plagues and protocols come and go; as conceived along a chronological access, time simply moves on, consigning the past to oblivion. As it is conceived liturgically, though, time mercifully returns to us, in a form which is ordered by the Church and ordered for our life in God. Lent too comes and it goes; but it also returns. And as it returns it invites Christians to inhabit their mortality. It begins with the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and ends with the words “it is finished.” As it carries us along it asks us to fix our eyes upon the man on the cross. But it doesn’t merely end in his death; there were two others who died on Golgotha, though only one was found to be prepared for what would follow. Since ancient times Christians have seen the two thieves as figures which encompass the entirety of the human race, and they have traced Jesus’ steps through Lent in preparation for the death that they knew was coming to him and to them, only weeks, then days, then moments away.
Since ancient times Christians have also assumed, with Suso and the Ars Moriendi that there is invariably something intractably ascetical about this participation in the death of Christ. The self-denial inherent in the traditional practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is about more than living well.Around a thousand people in America continue to die every day from COVID-19; the plague, however, shows little sign of having altered our entrenched denial of death. Perhaps the time for masks has passed; we are tired of them, understandably so. Yet there can be no doubt that we need the presence of tangible reminders of our mortality up in the face. Lent was designed to be just this.This Lent the invitation to live into the scriptural truth that there is a time to be born and a time to die returns again to each one of us, and with it comes the opportunity to learn the “arte and crafte” of dying well.