Tradition of Ars Moriendi (The art of Dying) Guelph Unitarians, Feb 27th 2011
(With thanks to Touchstone, Volume 28, #1, January 2010 and Susanne VanderLugt,
Humbercrest United, Mississauga)
A couple of weeks ago, Barbara and I were on the Bloor subway heading to a show
with our older daughter and her partner. Fiona pointed to an ad for a company
specializing in simple funerals. Within short order we were talking about our
funerals, where we wanted to be buried. For some it might be a threatening
conversation but being a minister?s household has its advantages.
It was years ago when she was a little girl that Fiona freaked out a group of girls
having a sleepover in our house. They were sleeping downstairs, right below our
bedroom and it was annoying with all the giggles, screeches and hijinks as I was
trying to get to sleep. The next day I discovered what Fiona had done. She had
told the girls and shown them a brown wrapped box and told them they were the
remains of a man who had committed suicide. Of course, she wasn?t fooling them. I
had conducted a very tragic funeral and the family just couldn?t figure out what to
do with the ashes so I kept them in our basement for a couple of years.
Truthfully, death is all around us. The leaves fall. The days get shorter.
Spring approaches, the days get longer; the crocuses are just around the corner if
they didn?t show their heads the week before last in the warm spell. Not to wear
you out but everything that has a beginning has an end.
In our culture we try to avoid the issue but just consider the following three
items: The back page of Macleans with its article each issue on someone who has
died and a similar thing most days in The Globe and Mail at the back of the sports
section, flowers and pictures along our roads where a fatal accident or crash has
There is a little poem from Japan that goes like this, author unknown:
I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road,
I did not know
it would be today.
This morning I want, in a very brief way, to introduce you to the 15th century
Christian tradition of ?ars moriendi,? the art of dying. The 15th century was a
time in Europe when death was rampant with the ?Black Death? and when people were
preoccupied with death. Preoccupation with death sometimes comes to all of us and
it came to a man by the name of Thomas Dorsey who was born in Villa Rica, Georgia,
on July 1, 1899, and died in Chicago on January 23, 1993. Son of a Baptist
preacher, he was an accomplished pianist, accompanist, and arranger. He wrote more
than 200 songs in his day, a mix of rhythm and blues, hymns and songs.
His most celebrated song was composed in Chicago in 1932 following the death of his
wife Nettie during childbirth. The child also died shortly thereafter. The song
came to him as he fingered at the piano the tune of an old Sunday School song.
Using the tune (Maitland) as his start, he re-shaped it and composed a new set of
words: "Precious Lord, take my hand..."? The song was first sung at Ebenezer Baptist
Church in Atlanta (where both ML King Sr. and ML King Jr. served as pastors), and
slowly found its way to other African American churches.
? The song was?a favourite of?Martin Luther King Jr. Standing on the balcony of the
Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, late in the afternoon of April 4th, 1968, he
was talking to Ben Branch,?the song leader?for the evening rally. Martin Luther
King said, "Be sure to sing 'Precious Lord'?for me tonight, Ben...sing it real
pretty." A moment later, the shot rang out that ended his life.?
? The song?became known?around the world when Mahalia Jackson sang it at an outdoor
gathering at Morehouse College following the funeral service of Martin Luther King.
That gathering was broadcast on radio and television, and the song was
suddenly?introduced to people?around the world. Let?s sing it now, remaining
seated. You will find it at 199 in our hymnal.
As I sing that song, the word that resonates within my soul is ?lead.? ?Precious
Lord, lead me home.? Not take me home but lead me home. In other words, I am
recognizing that I have some responsibilities, I have some work to do, but I am
praying, asking, maybe begging to be led, to be given light, aid, comfort,
strength, all the things needed to deal with those difficult endings. Not just the
ending of this service, not just the ending of leaves falling to the ground, but
endings of my own life, endings of those whom I love so dearly. And the 15th
century tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying has something to teach us and I
have summarized those teachings in the bulletin.
In that tradition, it was argued that in dying there are major temptations. There
is the temptation of fear, deep anxiety. As one wag said, maybe Woody Allan, ?I?m
not afraid of dying; I just don?t want to be there.? It?s what the process might
be, pain or being alone or other unpleasant circumstances. Mary Haig lived to just
about 100 years, a couple of months short. I remember her telling me at the
beginning of her last illness, ?I always knew that my thyroid would get me in the
end.? She was not afraid or never expressed any fear to me. As she was dying her
family said that they found it excruciating to be with her so a group of us stayed
with her day and night. I was with her when she took her last breaths and I was
very struck by how hard her body tried to stay alive, her breathing so laborious.
As hard as it was, she was not afraid for Mary had deep faith. And the opposite of
faith, by the way, is certainty. I don?t have any certainty about what happens
after death but I do have a deep seated faith that all shall be well and all manner
of things shall be well.
The second hazard that the art of dying tradition speaks of is pride. It is easy
to think, at the best of times, that our value is based in what we have
accomplished and what we own. What?s the point if we can no longer do what we have
already done? Some of us face that when we lose a job or retire. What?s the
point? Depression, feeling shame, thinking we are of no value can be a result.
The medicine offered in this tradition is to raise up the virtue of humility, the
capacity to accept what is thrown us and transform it into something productive.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, is the secular way of saying this. The
Christian biblical way is that God makes for good what is awful, that out of the
ashes of death and defeat comes resurrection.
The third temptation is the battle with losing control, losing control over our
bodies and losing control over our possessions. Any one of you who has downsized
knows about the temptation to control. I have already had enough medical tests with
skimpy gowns to know of that sense of losing control over my own body. There is
devastation to years of declining health and the inability to care for one?s self.
It all seems so meaningless. One of my responses to losing control is impatience
and even at the best of times we can be impatient and the medicine for impatience is
its opposite, patience. One person in my life who witnessed to that humility was
Fa. John Veltri, a Jesuit priest. For the decades I knew him, he was always in a
wheel chair and he was dependent on so many others but he faced his loss of control
with an outrageous sense of humour and deep humility.
There is such a great gift in the ability to enjoy life without possessing it.
John Veltri had the ability to notice in the moment what was lovely and precious.
Instead of focusing on what he had lost he focused on what he had. To enjoy life
day by day is a gift, a huge gift but it is a choice to enjoy life. As a sign of
that deep sense of humour, enjoyment of life, one day as I was leaving an 8 day
silent retreat and Barbara was driving the car, John played chicken with Barbara in
his wheel chair wheeling out in the middle of the road and facing down Barbara in
the driver?s seat, an impish grin on his face.
Finally, there is hope. Hope is not optimism. Optimism can be bubbly and super
sure. Hope is a deep confidence that one is held, that one is valued, even when
the finality of things is totally unclear or even when you know that the battle is
going to be lost.
In the 16th century, Erasmus made a significant contribution to the ars moriendi
tradition. He proposed that the best way to die is to live well and to practice
virtue. He claimed, ?Life is too short to begin preparing for death on one?s
deathbed. The best preparation for death is a life well-lived, a life in
accordance with the philosophy of Christ.? You as Unitarians might not include
Christ in your way to express that sentiment but surely it is true that the best
way to die is to live well.
And not just for us as individuals. Let me leave you with a quote from this book I
have been living with for years. It is written by a minister of the Reformed
Church in America but based on the Tao Te Ching written by the semi-legendary 6th
century Chinese sage, Lao Tzu. As background, before I entered theological school
in 1967 the United Church was already in numerical decline. It has been part and
parcel of my whole career although I do not take responsibility for the decline.
The United Church is closing about one church a week at this point but such events
are happening all across the developed world. Here is ?Thought 74 ? Future? from
William C. Martin?s The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Reflections (pg. 74).
Thought 74 ? Future
Anxiousness about the future
destroys the life of a congregation.
Our of this anxiousness the pastor and people
try to control events.
This is a tremendous waste of energy,
and drains the people of spiritual power.
Events are always changing
and nothing can be grasped.
If a pastor can free himself and his people
from the fear of death,
there is nothing they cannot achieve.
Do congregations die? Of course they do. They have birthdays and go through stages
of growth. They search for meaning and struggle against fear. They eventually die.
Realizing this can be a wonderfully freeing insight for a fearful congregation.
?We will die. Therefore how shall we live in the meantime??
Indeed, how shall we live? In your imagination, let?s raise our glasses, maybe
fresh mango, white grape juice or a fine red or white wine and let?s raise a toast,
?To a life well lived!? Let us all aspire to that!