SPEAKING OF DYING: RECOVERING THE CHURCH’S VOICE IN THE FACE OF DEATH, Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith, and Joy V. Goldsmith
FACING DYING FAITHFULLY
EXAMPLES OF CHRISTIANS DYING
- Paul (65) To Live is Christ; To Die is Gain. He suffered numerous life-threatening situations. His focus on his work – to get it done before Christ returns – seems to have ironed out every possible hindrance, threat and obstacle. His own sufferings were considered a sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Dying was merely a transition in passing from one state to another. Nothing could separate him from God. His powerful calling transformed the probability of dying into an insignificant difference between living in this world or living in the next.
- Ignatius (117): Near the Sword is Near to God. Bishop of Antioch in Syria. He was arrested, condemned to death and transported to Rome to face execution by exposure to wild animals. Ignatius embraced this fate as a martyr – a witness. To him, dying meant ‘achieving’ God. He would be with God, in God’s presence. Dying would make him a true disciple. He had already died through the passion of Jesus so that his death would be a birth. He took ownership of his dying and asked his fellow Christians to support him in his martyrdom and not attempt to release him from it.
- Julian of Norwich (1416): Christ’s Courteous Love. She had visions of Jesus on the cross, in pain, bleeding, shriveling in death. This vision appeared to her in what she thought she would be, and desired to be, her own dying. Her visions constituted the substance of her understanding that Christ was present to those who are dying and that therefore dying was a transition through which Christ courteously and lovingly bore the faithful Christian.
- Thomas a Kempis (1471): Blessed is the Man Who Contemplates Death. A Meditation Upon Death in his Imitation of Christ (book1, chapter 23). He addresses procrastination: putting off considering dying and what our preparation for it should be. It is best to contemplate our dying now, rather than put it off. Utilize what resources we have now in order to ensure our readiness when it does come. He reminds us of life’s uncertainties and the need to be prepared for the unexpected. Living a life of Christian integrity is the best preparation for whatever might come, including dying.
- Miguel de Unamuno (1936): I Believe; Help my Unbelief. The Christ of Velasquez is a poem he wrote as a kind of commentary or devotional on the dying Christ. His hope was that Jesus’s dying might be a dying that promised life in the midst of death. The whole Christian narrative is found in the dying Christ. He reflects on the dying Jesus: the cross, the nails, Jesus’s forehead, eyes, cheeks, bones, arms, wounds, belly virility, feet – every detail of the crucifixion. The dying of the human Jesus, the nude God, the humanity of God, is our dying, which given meaning to The Tragic Sense of Life. If living is to have meaning, dying must be faced and conquered. If dying is to be conquered, our only alternative is to pin our hope on Jesus. For him everything hangs on the cross.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1945): Death – the Greatest of Feasts on the Journey to Freedom Eternal. “Where death is the last thing, earthly life is allor nothing. Boastful reliance on earthly eternities goes side by side with a frivolous playing with life.” When we see that Christ has broken the power of death, we can take of life what it offers and demand no eternities from it. When imprisoned for participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler he wrote that we feel that we really belong to death already. His last act was to kneel and pray under the hangman’s noose. However life was to be lived in the present. “What would I do if I knew that in four to six weeks it would be all over? I believe that I would try to teach theology again as before and to preach often.” His life was expressed in expressions of love and concern for others, unhindered by the imminence of dying. He accepted his dying, owned it, and served others in the love of Christ and with the certain hope of the resurrection. His last words were: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life……..”
- Flannery O’Connor (1964): What Suits the Lord Suits Me. Diagnosed with lupus at 25 (she died when she was 39) that sapped her physical energies for fourteen years. She described her condition as ‘passive diminishment’ which referred to ‘those afflictions that you can’t get rid of and have to bear.’ She claimed that ‘sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think that those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.’ She led a life severely limited to a few hours of vitality each day, all of which she filled with productive work. Her relationships were other-centered; her energies, directed at her work. All of this was done within the discipline of a conventional piety (daily Mass), which was not contorted by nor wasted on concern for her terminal condition.
- Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1996): A Priest First, a Patient Second. Suffered from pancreatic cancer. He added to his work a personal ministry to other cancer patients. By the time of his death the list of cancer victims for whom he was praying exceeded 700. In addition to the short book (Gift of Peace) chronicling the intimate and personal side of his illness, he took the unusual step of revealing publicly much of the details of his illness through press conferences. “My family are the people of Chicago and they have a right to know how I am doing.” He was able to look on death as a friend, not an enemy and he faced dying with peace and the conviction that he would be at home with God. His illness helped him to empty himself of himself, of his future, of everything that would keep him from serving Christ in the moment and from everything that would prevent him from accepting death.
- Which of the characters in this chapter can you most identify with? Why?
- Which of the Christian resources you know of seems to offer the best support for facing dying?
- Do you have a story of the dying of someone that you found inspiring you can share?
- What valuable insight have you learned from this class that you can take away?