A few nights ago, I made the mistake of watching a short Washington Post news video documenting the tragic conditions of those dying from COVID-19 in one of New York’s overwhelmed hospitals. I had a restless night and woke early, troubled. As a pastor I’ve encountered death, I’ve visited hospital rooms where I had to put on a complicated hazmat suit to enter, I’ve sat with a family as they disconnected life support, I’ve been to funerals with coffins just slightly larger than a shoebox, and I’ve even had a couple of my own near-misses. But seeing those ICU rooms with precious human beings straining to breathe their last breaths haunted me more than I thought it would. The few medical personnel who had time to enter patient rooms did so as rarely as possible, separated by layers of protective gear. Even more tragic, the severely sick could have no family or friends with them and no pastor or chaplain holding a hand. They were alone in this world, as they passed from it. Maybe a few were spiritually well-prepared for that moment. Whatever kind of life they had lived, they certainly seemed to be undergoing a very BAD DEATH.
A GOOD DEATH? – As we face COVID-19, even if we only experience the lowest estimated death tolls, we are all thinking more about health and sickness, life and death than we were 2 months ago. Of course it is fitting to mourn this loss, to be concerned for our wellbeing and that of loved ones, and to be stressed by the new framework of daily life into which we have been thrown. None of these seems particularly “good.” If we do see any good in the global pandemic it is in the sense of commonality we experience, or the blessing of added family time. Perhaps, we also have taken time to reflect on what is happening from a Christian posture, no doubt considering afresh the general truth that we are not in control as much as we thought. And this Easter season our pastor will probably help us to realize how the resurrection can have special meaning at this time. These are reasonable Christian thoughts. Yet they may lead us away too quickly from the powerful message God could want us to hear – about the hard-cold reality of death and the error of our normal practice of pushing it out of our sight. What if we are being beckoned to look head-on at what we could learn about the longstanding powerful perspective on death – the ARS MORIENDI – the “art of dying” – or as everyday Christians used to commonly understand – the GOOD DEATH.
THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING – Most academic histories probably do not end up the subject of light-hearted dinner parties or casual water-cooler discussions at work. But merely the title of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, would be unwelcome at any carefree social engagement. These are not “carefree” days though, and maybe our current “distancing” will allow us the context to give Faust due attention. In any event, Faust, was the first woman president of Harvard, the first from the South, and the first since 1672 who did not have a degree from Harvard. So maybe she does not have to care if her writings would be a big hit at our social gatherings or not. She wrote, “The concept of the Good Death was central to mid-nineteenth-century America, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had provided rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century: how to give up one’s soul “gladlye and wilfully”; how to meet the devil’s temptations of unbelief, despair, and impatience, and worldly attachment; how to pattern one’s dying on that of Christ; how to pray.” (Page 6 of the abovementioned) What can we learn from Faust’s account of how American’s, from both North and South, generally viewed their “man-made” wave of death, one that took over 600,000 American lives, or what today would be 6 million deaths? And how can this help us with COVID-19?
OUR MORTALITY REALITY – Prior to the Civil War, most Americans faced their mortality much more regularly than we do. Today we have vaccines for many of the illnesses that threatened them daily, we have a massive medical infrastructure and they had almost no medical care. Infant mortality rates were so high that in any given family the number of children that died commonly outweighed the number who survived. But just as we have gotten used to the fact that most of us won’t make it past age 95, and we might get in a car wreck, and terrorist threats could take us out, the believers of the 1800s had grown used to “typical” mortality. The Civil War carnage changed all that, and forced them to reconsider not only human frailty, but how they processed death. Maybe this pandemic could do that for us.
ELEMENTS OF “THE ART” – Since most Americans before 1860 rarely traveled more than a day’s horseback ride from home, when a loved one took gravely ill, the family was customarily nearby. For Christian’s who sensed they were nearing death, they would have initiated the normative steps to ready themselves to give up their soul. In a time when “secular” would have been a perplexing concept to most, Christians recognized the devil was real and were particularly sensitive to how he might work through the threat of death. They guarded against discouragement, doubt and worldliness, to protect their final witness. Many of them, in a far less busy time than our own, had learned to pray, in greater depth and dependence. As the Civil War threatened to disrupt their patterns for encountering their day of reckoning, they, and their loved ones fought hard to keep hold of those practices. In short, they embraced a GOOD DEATH as a central concept for all Christians and prepared for it just as we spend hours with the school guidance counselor to help our child take the steps for college or we gather at least annually with our financial planner to organize our affairs for retirement.
THROUGH DEATH TO RESURRECTION – In our time, the threat of death from COVID-19 is not just redefining how we live, but maybe it could have the potential to recalibrate how our culture, including many Christians, comprehend death. We have all heard the saying, “He’s too heavenly minded, to be of any earthly good.” As Christians, we know the reverse is actually true. The more we “set our minds on things above,” the better we are equipped to live now. But how can we as 21st Century First-World Christians begin to have the heavenly mindset if we don’t first embrace our mortality? What if we don’t just take a quick glance at it, but a hard stare and even a sobering preparation for “giving up our soul?” What if we if we put on God’s armor through much deeper prayer lives so we can face COVID-19, or whatever will one day be our demise? What if we learned the art of walking in step with our Savior the path he took when He died, on that “good” Friday, that we might better appreciate the glorious resurrection He grants to us?!