By Ed Horvat, MA, BCC
Those of us who went on pilgrimage to the NACC annual conference in St. Louis had the option of attending a day of reflection, guided this year by Fr. Ronald A. Mercier, SJ. Mercier serves as an associate professor in the Theological Studies Department of St. Louis University. Prior to his move to St. Louis, Fr. Mercier was a faculty member at The Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Toronto, where he taught Christian ethics. That’s where he noticed the lack of an “art of dying” in our culture: “Unlike earlier ages, we live in a forgetfulness of death that creates a context of fear, not care.”
Fr. Mercier stated that we would be “going retro.” In our current culture obsessed with devices and what they can do, where we can get quick answers (which keep us from delving deeper), where we can consume many images (but not savor them), we were going to slow down by engaging in silence and reflection throughout the day. It was a great opportunity to unplug, and then to share our reflections in community with small groups of our peers.
One of the retro resources we pondered was a medieval Latin text, circa 1415, that was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe: “Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs.
Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular. Reaffirming one’s faith, repenting one’s sins, and letting go of one’s worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours.”
By contrast, in our present culture, even celebration rites of funerals are disappearing. Lydia Dugdale, in “The Art of Dying Well,” states: “Over the last century and a half, the deathbed ritual lost its appeal. Churches began to deemphasize the concept of dying well and to promote instead the notion of living well. Within a more secularized society, medical science offered new hope and salvation, and death became the enemy. It is here that we find the dying patient today: in the ICU with an array of tubes, devices, catheters, and monitors blurring the boundary between life and death – a boundary that patient and family alike are unprepared to face.”
Some of the questions presented during our day of reflection:
- The modern focus on technology and power makes vulnerability and limit so fearsome to us, a degradation of who we are. How do we help facilitate a culture of presence that allows for the art of living and dying?
- The art of autonomy, of being oneself, cries out for a parallel art, the art of presence to the other. How is the Church called to facilitate real encounter, as Pope Francis suggests? How can we model that?
- Behind the reality of dying well seems to be the ability to live sacramentally, not only to practice sacraments. What tools do we need or do we have to help people engage the wonder, the awe, and even the tragedy of human life?
- Where have we lost a sense of wonder in our culture? Where has life become more “flattened?” Where have you experienced a loss of wonder – or awe – in your ministry? Where have you been surprised by a sense of awe or wonder – in yourself or others?
- Sacraments are invitations to intimacy. Sacrament and art go together. How can we minister to others artistically?
The day was a good reminder that we are called to continually work on becoming comfortable being uncomfortable while ministering to those on the margins. There is an art to dying, and chaplains can be good at practicing that art by “taking the road of insecurity, putting trust in God” (Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, 86).
Ed Horvat, BCC, is a chaplain at Monongalia General Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va.