The Art of Dying Well

Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1452-1621) was a theologian and scholar of the first rank. After joining the newly formed Order of the Society of Jesus, he dedicated himself to opposing the dissolution of Christendom’s unity by way of being a principal figure at the Council of Trent, which was assembled to address the problems erupting from the Reformation. At the end of his life, he turned his attention toward deep spiritual meditation. As he prepared himself for his own somber event about to unfold, he wrote The Art of Dying Well.

Bellarmine begins by marveling at how many perverse fools there are who think always about straining themselves to gain perishable things, but neglect to think at all about losing the most imperishable thing of all, their immortal soul. With so much neglect of the works Christ commanded at the end of Matthew 25, there may well be lost the peace of eternal life, as Bellarmine suggests citing Revelation 14:13.

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.

Bellarmine asks us to consider whether death is an evil or a good, a curse or a blessing. It is an evil because it is the result of the Fall. It is a good because it is a just consequence of the Fall. Death is a curse because it is a constant source of our uneasiness in this life. It is a blessing because it brings that uneasiness to an end. It is a curse because it brings us closer to the gates of hell. It is a blessing because it brings us closer to the gates of heaven. Whichever gate we pass through, it will be our own choice, not God’s. So it is, that whoever desires to die well must choose to live well. Bellarmine has discovered sixteen precepts that he believes should be followed if we choose to die well. Naturally, these precepts must not only be learned; we must remind ourselves of them often or they will be forgotten.

Precept One: He who desires to die well must strive to live well.

This striving ideally should begin in youth, for we never know when we shall die. But even at the end of life it is possible to live well. Consider the Good Thief, who spent his last hours trying to convert the other thief who was disparaging Jesus. He not only did this, he made amends for his sins to Jesus himself, begging him to remember him when he entered his kingdom. This, Jesus assured him, would be done, and it could be said that with this assurance Jesus had canonized the first saint in Christendom.

Precept Two: He who desires heaven must die to the world.

 Citing an abundance of scripture passages, Bellarmine reminds us that we cannot die well if we are the servant of the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is the arrogance and pride of the devil that is inflicted upon us when we love the world more than God. Christ himself assures us that many more are drawn to the earth than to the spirit, and that wide is the gate to accommodate them; whereas those who are of the spirit will be the few that are drawn to the narrow gate leading to eternal life. It is true that not all the goods of the earth are to be despised, but rather to be despised is the immoderate indulgence in them.

Precept Three: Salvation is found in the three theological virtues.

 According to St. Paul, these virtues are faith, hope, and charity, but the greatest of these is charity (I Corinthians 13:13) comprising the love of God and our neighbor. We love God by obeying His commandments. That is the proof of our love. We love our neighbor by the works we perform in service to them and by loving one another as God has loved us. A pure heart is informed by love, and we gain hope by cultivating a good conscience, for it is our lack of charity and faith that induce despair. Faith itself is required for our salvation; not merely a pretend faith, but a true faith that is informed by works of love, for as St. Paul says in his epistle to Titus, “They profess that they know God: but in their works they deny him.”

Precept Four: Salvation is furthered by three evangelical counsels.

The first evangelical counsel consists of of following the the advice given in Luke 12:36. “Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord, when he comes, shall find watching.” This is an imperative counsel, that we always be prepared for our encounter with Jesus, because we do not know exactly when he will appear, either at the time of our own personal death, or at the time of final judgment for us all.

The second counsel is to be not just prepared, but to be prepared with the lamp of the law. That is to say, by the light of that lamp we must be able to see the place we are in, whether the lamp is not lit, or whether it contains the light of the law that we must heed. David, for example, had not been guided by the lamp of the law against adultery when he lusted for Bathsheba.

The third counsel consists of using our eyes to be watchful for the Lord’s coming. Like the thief who often comes when least expected, death also may come when least anticipated. This is the foolishness of men who care not when the great event will occur, for they think they have better things to do. It is not a matter of cowering constantly before the imaginary Shadow, but rather of a daily awareness, of a taking stock of the evil deeds we have done, or of the good things we have left undone. A daily meditation along this line will give us a clean conscience and a blessed disposition.

The Fifth Precept: The path to hell is paved with gold.

 Here Bellarmine stresses that those who crave to possess the riches of the world are the worshipers not of God, but of Mammon, a false god. For all the riches of the world, all the gold and silver, having been created by God, belong to God who has given them for the use of all, not just a few. Thus it is that Dives, the rich man daily clothed in fabulous garments and dining at sumptuous banquets, with no care for the wretched beggar Lazarus at his gate, is seen to be condemned to hell, while Lazarus dines with heavenly hosts. Whatever wealth we do possess we do not own forever, we are only temporary stewards of that wealth, and we had best be our brother’s keeper when we can.

The Sixth Precept: Three Moral Virtues Explained

 Sobriety is the first of three moral virtues listed by St. Paul in his Epistle to Titus. Sobriety means not just avoiding drunkenness, but also moderation in all things. Again, as Paul says in Timothy 6:7, “For we brought nothing into this world, and certainly we cannot carry anything out; but having food and where with to be covered, with these we are content.”

Justice is the second moral virtue. If we are filled with worldly desires, there is little likelihood that we will be just toward our neighbor, for we will consume inordinately without considering what is due to others. This is most evident in the idea of a just wage, which is often denied by those who hire others, yet exploit them with low wages. But justice must be found in all our relations when we treat others with the respect they deserve. In the courts, above all, justice must be found and administered.

Piety is the third moral virtue. Piety is defined as the virtue of worshiping God as our Creator. We ought then in all ways to act in a godly way and avoid ungodliness at every turn. It is one thing to attend religious services on the Sabbath. We could easily persuade ourselves and others that we are pious. But piety is not spending the rest of the week behaving in such a way as to make a lie of our Sunday worship. This is most clearly evidenced in the Temple when Jesus overturned the tables and drove the money-changers out, saying: “My house is a house of prayers, but you have made it a den of thieves!”

The Seventh Precept: The Necessity of Prayer

 Frequent prayer is obligatory if we are to die well. It cannot be said that we know God at all if we do not talk to Him. Surely talking to Him all our lives is more to the point than waiting until the hour of our death. Firstly, “prayer enlightens the mind”; secondly, “prayer nourishes our hope and confidence”; thirdly, prayer “inflames our charity”; fourthly, prayer “increases our humility”; fifthly prayer increases our “contempt of all earthly goods”; sixthly, prayer “gives us incredible delight,” for it brings us closer to the presence of God, who is the source of all delight.

“Ask and it shall be given to you,” it says in the Epistle of James. Our prayers are answered only if we ask rightly, and the prayer that will be answered always is to live a good life that we might die a good death. Whatever prayers are not answered we must believe that God, who is all powerful and knows everything, has a reason for seeming not to grant anything we have pleaded for. Above all, our prayers must be earnest. If we pray with our lips but with an impure heart, what is the use of praying, unless we are praying for a pure heart? And finally, we must persevere in our prayers, for our perseverance surely signals that our faith is earnest.

The Eighth Precept: On Fasting

 Fasting is most useful in preparing the soul for prayer. Moses, Elias, and Daniel practiced fasting, and in the New Testament era St. Paul recommended it as a way to bring the body into subjection. That is, regular fasting tames the flesh and (in our time especially) would be one way, if practiced often enough, to counter the sin of gluttony. Likewise, before and after the time of Christ fasting was always perceived as a way of doing penance for sins and achieving God’s forgiveness because by fasting we show the sincerity of our desire to atone.

A caution about fasting is that it must be done humbly and not for show, as it says in Matthew 6:17. “But you, when you fast anoint your head and wash your face. That you appear not to men to fast, but to your Father who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.” Bellarmine notes that “when St. John was about to write his gospel, he underwent a solemn fast, that he might deserve the grace of writing well…. The chief end of fasting is to mortify the flesh that the spirit may be the more strengthened.”

The Ninth Precept: On Almsdeeds

 Almsdeed(s are acts of charity (see Matthew 25). They  prove that we follow the command of Jesus to love one another. Refusing almsdeeds, we must dread the consequence of doing so.  “Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me not to eat. I was a stranger and you took me not in; naked and you covered me not; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.” Almsdeeds likewise are a kind of baptism, for they wash away sins, strengthen our desire to do works of mercy, and contribute to the art of dying well. A caution: almsdeeds must be done to please God, not to please those who admire us for doing them.

Alms should be given promptly and joyfully and without an applauding audience. As St. Paul puts it, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving in abundance is far better than a stingy giver. And since we know not the hour of our death, we should give before the grim reaper arrives if we wish to die well. It is both justice to the poor and charity as well that we give from our abundance and superfluous wealth, for we must prove by alms that we do indeed love one another as the Lord commands.

The Tenth Precept: The Sacrament of Baptism

 Christ instituted baptism as a sacrament when he allowed John the Baptist to baptize him, even though he was sinless. Called the “gate” to the sacraments because one must be baptized before receiving the other sacraments, baptism not only washes away the stain of original sin inherited from Adam and Eve, it also assures the grace of faith, the acknowledgment of Christ as Savior, and the renunciation of the devil and all his works. The holding of the candle at baptism reminds us of what Christ said: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The white garment worn during the baptismal rite signifies the hoped for “innocence of life” the newly baptized are expected to have until death. It is required that baptism be accompanied by reciting the Apostle’s Creed, which indeed specifies in detail what Christians believe. Finally, when death comes, and we are dying well, in spite of the snares of the devil, we should be able to say with the apostle Paul, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

The Eleventh Precept: On Confirmation

The scriptural origin of this sacrament is found in the Acts of the Apostles where it reads that after the Samaritan converts were baptized by Philip the Deacon, the Apostles “sent unto them Peter and John, who,when they had come, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for he had not yet come upon any of them, but they were only baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus; then they laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts of the Apostles 8:14-17)

This sacrament confers grace and character beyond that conferred by baptism. It is ordinarily administered by a bishop, and its purpose is to advance the case made at baptism to oppose the malicious influence of Satan. Whereas water is essential at baptism for the purpose of cleansing the stain of original sin, the chief acts at Confirmation consists of the bishop to anointing with oil the candidate and administering a slight blow, a sign that we must expect and receive the blows of persecution in defense of our Christian faith, just as Christ received the blows to him before he was crucified. More than anything, the great gift conferred by the Holy Spirit at Confirmation is the gift of wisdom (why it is listed first among the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit). By wisdom we are able to reflect upon who we are, what we must do, and why we must do it. Those who receive this sacrament but who obstinately continue to live in sin as before, have received the sacrament but with their free will have refused the grace.

Twelfth Precept: On the Holy Eucharist

 Instituted at his last supper with the apostles, the Holy Eucharist is the greatest of the sacraments, without which we must be deprived of the most wonderful abundance of graces. As Jesus himself proclaims, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) That this is true body and true blood is shown in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, 11:29: “He that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment against himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” If this were mere bread and wine, why would there be sin in taking it?

Bellarmine cautions that the Holy Eucharist is to be taken seriously, never frivolously, and this is possible when we think nothing of receiving the sacrament in a state of mortal sin, or when we begin to think (as some doubtless do) that the Eucharist is not the real body and the real blood of Jesus, but only a metaphor (this was, and still is, the trend in Protestantism). Sadly, many there are who receive the sacrament and by their free will  immediately return to their lust for the sins of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The Thirteenth Precept: The Sacrament of Penance

This sacrament requires that three conditions be met: “contrition, confession, and satisfaction.” All three must be met and all three must be sincere in order that we be cleansed of our sins. With respect to contrition, we must feel a deep sorrow for having disobeyed God’s commands, the same God who in the person of Jesus died on a cross to atone for our sins. Approaching this sacrament we should have such sentiments as the following: “Alas! What have I done, miserable man that I am, in committing such a crime! I have offended my most bountiful Father, the giver of all good things, who has surrounded me on all sides with benefits, and so many proofs of his love.”

Confession also is required, for to confess is to examine first one’s conscience to know the gravity and extent of the sins confessed. Confession was advocated by Jesus when he gave to the apostles an awesome duty: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (John 20:23) How could the apostles forgive sins unless they were first confessed? Without close examination, or with only a perfunctory look at one’s own sins, how can it be said we are sincere about confessing them? Moreover, many penitents forget to look at all their sins and consider only the acts they have committed. They forget that the sins of the mind are equally sinful, as Jesus points out for us: “Whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27) Our sins of omission are also to be remembered and confessed. Did we fail to do things we should have done? For example, did we fail to help a friend in need? What some Catholics really need to do is read books about the way to make a good confession, or talk to a spiritual director when in doubt.

As for penance satisfaction required for our sins, it is the priest’s prerogative to decide. Bellarmine documents different types of penance required in the early Church and notes that more recently the Church has lifted the severity of penance, perhaps leaving it to God’s mercy and the suffering we must spend in purgatory to settle the matter. (Bellarmine would probably be very surprised at how lenient a penance is required in modern times.)

The Fourteenth Precept: The Sacrament of Holy Orders

 The conferring of Holy Orders upon a deacon, priest, or bishop carries with it the clerical duty and commitment to live not only a holy life, but also to live in the service of making others holy by the example of the shepherds. Rather than seeking worldly riches, they are to “receive their inheritance” as it were, not from the world, but from the Lord to whom they offer daily sacrifice. The white surplice traditionally worn by the priest is a sign of their moral purity. Bellarmine considers especially deplorable those priests who celebrate Mass as if they were in a hurry to get it over with and seem not even to fully know the awesome act they celebrate.

From the time that Jesus found his apostles until the time he was crucified is usually reckoned at three years. It might be said that during this period he was building the minimal formation period (seminary requirement) for all future leaders of the Church. The great commission, or ordination of his apostles, occurred when he sent them out into the world to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)

The Fifteenth Precept: The Sacrament of Matrimony

 The first institution of marriage was by God and between Adam and Eve. That it was intended to be permanent is confirmed by Jesus when he said, “What therefore God has joined together. Let no man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:6) Ideally, three blessings arise from marriage: “Children, fidelity, and the grace of the sacrament.” A marriage in which the partners refuse children and live for only carnal pleasure and self indulgence is not a blessing. The blessing of children is advanced by the proper education of the young Parents are the first and proper educators. Bellarmine cautions: “What will become of those, who not only do not educate their children properly, but by their bad example encourage them to sin?”They may not  have a happy death, for they must mourn their children on their deathbed.

Fidelity is also a grace of marriage. The bond uniting husband and wife requires not only love and friendship, but loyalty to the beloved. Christ is called the Bridegroom and the Church is called the bride; just as Christ is faithful to us, husband and wife must be faithful to each other. Jezabel in the Old Testament was not faithful to her husband and reaped her punishment, the loss of her husband and her children. Bellarmine is very specific: “A wife ought to love her husband, and be loved in return by him; but she should love him with fear and reverence, so that her love should not prevent her fear, otherwise she might become a tyrant,” perhaps the worst kind of infidelity.

The noblest of blessings is the grace of the Sacrament poured out upon the husband and wife. This is in the form of the love they are inclined by grace to share with one another, just as Christ and the Church are said to love one another. This love is not rooted in erotic attraction, but in the attraction of one soul to another, true friendship. This attraction is so powerful that a husband would if necessary lay down his life for his wife(and his children) just as Christ willingly laid down his life for the Church. This willingness to sacrifice, when looked upon at the end of life, will help us come to our desired end, to die well.

The Sixteenth Precept: Extreme Unction (The Last Rights)

 Extreme Unction was recognized early in the Church as a therapeutic for the ill and dying, and has the authority of Christ behind it as indicated in Mark 6:13. “They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” Also in James 5:14-15 we find: “Is any among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”

When the Last rites are administered, we have our last chance to be confident that we will die well. A priest will administer this sacrament by anointing each of our senses that have, taken together, been a gateway to the sins of the flesh. So many sins begin in the eyes when we succumb to lust. Sins begin too with our hands and feet when go to take our neighbor’s property. Likewise many sins begin with the mouth when we lie or curse or blaspheme or use a wicked tongue to harm others. The sense of hearing can also lead to sin, for we listen willingly and carefully to the lies of others, and believe them because they appeal to us or give us pleasure, such as gossip. Finally, the sense of taste can lead to gluttony or drunkenness, both of which produce many evils both in the body and in the soul, such as obesity of the flesh and sundry diseases, and loose or wild conduct unbecoming a Christian. Sobriety above all else is required if we are to avoid the pagan fault of giving oneself over to “eat, drink, and be merry,” and the devil’s own urging of men to believe that their god is in their belly.

Post Script

Some years ago, while conversing with a Protestant evangelist, I used the word “sacrament.” He stopped me short and demanded to know where that word is in the Bible. I readily agreed that it is not there, but first he should let me define it as it appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” (774, 775) I then proceeded to ask him if Baptism could be called a sign and instrument “of communion with God.” He agreed. I asked him further if a marriage ceremony could also be described as a sign and instrument celebrating the communion of the married partners with God. He agreed again. I then asked if he agreed that the laying on of hands for an ordained minister could also be described as a sign and instrument of the ministerial candidate being led to communion with God. Agreed to again. So the word “sacrament” is really a word that signifies our being led to the Sacred One. The Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments and has traditionally taught them as rooted in Scripture.

Learning to die well hinges upon accepting that death is the most important moment of life. Yet our sense of immortality is undermined by the notion that death can be delayed forever. As long as we are able to persuade ourselves that death is an event so far off that we need not bother ourselves about it, we are not preparing ourselves to die well. As Pascal put it, we should live every day as if we had but eight hours left to live, for it is a certainty that every day some of us, young and old, will not have even eight hours left.

(Bellarmine’s The Art of Dying Well could as much be viewed as The Art of Living Well, and deserves to have selected excerpts offered as a brief catechism for RCIA candidates because it is a comprehensive study of what people need to know about living well before learning about how to die well.)