Francis and Death

I’m going to take a brief time-out from the series on having a rule of life, because today is the Transitus, the day we mark the passing of Francis of Assisi from this life to the fullness of joy. For Franciscans of all kinds around the world, this is the day to mark a holy man’s holy death, and it’s as good a day as any to ask, What makes a good death?

I remember the death of my mother-in-law, over ten years ago now. She was a holy person too, a devout Baptist who’d lived faithfully in the face of hardship, racism, violence and loss. From the time she learned she had cancer until the end, her faith and peace were unshakeable. Not everyone has that gift, and wrestling with fear and pain can be holy, too. But Nancy’s trust in the God she’d loved, and her longing to see Christ face-to-face, enabled her to embrace the one Francis affectionately called “Sister Death.” The way she died forced everyone who knew her to take her faith seriously. But then, that was the way she’d lived: every day of her life she built herself a holy death.

Contemplating one’s own death, imagining what it might be like, how it will feel and what in it will give praise to God, is a spiritual discipline as valuable as prayer, fasting or Sabbath-keeping. When I take students to Rome, we always visit the Capuchin Crypt which is decorated with the bones of about four thousand dead friars. At one end is a sign reminding the visitor that “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”

It’s a sobering message, and no matter how much I warn them, my twenty-something students are inevitably creeped out by it. Our culture does not encourage us to think along these lines, which is a pity since apart from God, death is the one thing we can count on. One of the greatest gifts of the church, at least those parts that observe the liturgical calendar, is that it forces us to contemplate our mortality at least once a year: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I had the hard blessing in my twenties of knowing two men about my age who died suddenly, both of ruptured cerebral aneurysms. One lingered a few days, while the other, devoted husband and father of five, was dead before he hit the ground. The gift those two gave me was that I’ve never assumed I’d live to be old (though I must admit it’s getting rather late in the day to die young).

To anyone entertaining the illusion of immortality, Thomas a Kempis offered a stiff shot of reality:

Happy is the man who hath the hour of his death always before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die….When it is morning reflect that it may be thou shalt not see the evening, and at eventide dare not to boast thyself of the morrow…Trust not thy friends and kinsfolk, nor put off the work of thy salvation to the future, for men will forget thee sooner than thou thinkest. 

Saint Benedict put it with characteristic simplicity:

Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.

This isn’t morbid. It’s every bit as sensible as saving for retirement. If I have the luxury of a deathbed one day (obviously not everyone does), what sort of life will it give me satisfaction to look back on? The time to build that life is now. How will the decisions I’m making now look from that deathbed? Maybe some of them need to be reconsidered. And how will I face the process of dying itself, if I don’t die suddenly? What will make that process holy? Will it be the unshakeable confidence Nancy had, or maintaining my sense of humor in the midst of an almighty freakout?

I can’t answer that now, but today is a day to meditate on it. And it’s a day to think about all the little deaths, the small sacrifices along the way, that lead up to the Big One. Because I don’t know that much about dying, but I do know that practice makes perfect.