The Art of Dying.
Making a good death.
A cheery thought for a sunny March day at the beginning of Lent.
I was introduced to the ars moriendi during my thesis reading. David Yearsley, in Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint, suggests that Bach’s final composition, the chorale prelude “Vor deinen Thron” (Before thy throne) was “a prelude to the unimaginable joys of the transfigured body. It is a chorale prelude not to congregational singing, but to eternal life.” (p. 36; you can read this chapter here)
The Art of Dying was a well-established discipline to consider how to make a good death. That is, how to die without anxiety, in such a way as to experience spiritual comfort personally and to give loved ones comforting assurance of one’s spiritual preparedness. By the 17th century, the general tone of this discipline was that “dying well” was the natural end of “living well.” Even the Puritans saw ars moriendi as an important discipline and pastoral care matter: Thomas Becon’s The Sick Man’s Salve predates by a century Jeremy Taylor’s better-known Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying.
Draw your own conclusions about why in the world I am thinking about ars moriendi these days. There are more than a couple, but I’m not about to embark on a public psychoanalysis! Let’s just say that I don’t seem to be able to avoid it. Two weeks ago, at the Bach Cantata Vespers in River Forest, one of the hymns was “Who Knows When Death May Overtake Me” – with each line concluding “My God, for Jesus’ sake I pray Thy peace may bless my dying day” – a prayer for the living who know they will one day die.
In my reading through The New Oxford Book of English Verse (which I occasionally write about here) I have encountered this theme often enough that I have decided to track it through the year. I rather suspect that as the chronology of English poems marches into and beyond the 18th century, this theme will – er, ahem – die out.
Eighteen-year-olds don’t get this, and thirty-year-olds don’t want to. We protect children from the very notion of death and especially of their own death. (Though our forebears had no such scruples: see the children’s hymns of Isaac Watts and Cecil Frances Alexander, which now to many seem downright sadistic, or at best macabre.) But our forebears may have been on to something: if we live with our end in view, we may just perhaps live better.
And that is at least one part of what Lent is about. I won’t be writing a Lenten series, but there’s a Lenten thought for me. And to that end, here is an appropriately themed poem which seems apt for this season. It was part of my Oxford poetry reading this morning:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
John Donne, 1572—1631, Holy Sonnet 10