Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Even in the age of COVID-19, the reality of death seems to be far from the thoughts of too many people.
Older generations had a much better appreciation of death. Lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates, lack of healthcare, lack of sanitation, poor hygiene, contaminated water and other basic issues, not to mention frequent epidemics — all of these contributed to a closer reality of death. Life was sometimes gruesome, too. We may lose family and friends to accidents and disease occasionally, but in the days of Odoacer, Attila, Otto or Frederick II, it was not altogether uncommon to deal with entire families being killed or cities of Christians being razed and slaughtered within a matter of days.
Because of the reasons I’ve given here — and surely there are more — modern man is at a disadvantage. We just don’t give death enough of our consideration. But we should. Even if, in modern times, we have little to fear with invading armies or plague, the fact remains we never know the hour we will be called to meet our Creator and give a testament to our life for judgment. Despite our disadvantage, saints have written volumes on the importance of being mindful of our death, and one that sticks out to me as particularly timeless and effective still, is St. Robert Bellarmine.
Regarded by his contemporaries and peers as the greatest theologian and apologist of his time and one of the main champions of the Counter-Reformation, he was also known for the brilliance of his skills as a spiritual director. Just ask St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who was his pupil. One of his greatest works came at the end of his life. After he had written on every conceivable controversy of his time — in a work collectively and appropriately titled The Controversies — he wrote something even more important: The Art of Dying Well.
He opens by explaining the blessings of death. Referring to death as advantageous, he acknowledges that death is an evil: God did not create death — it was sin that brought death into this world. Still, the most apparent advantage of death is the most blessed death there ever was — the crucifixion of our Lord. With this comes the most famous paradox in the world: Death of all was defeated by death of one. So is God participating in evil? No. Bellarmine points out that a death that provides life is positively good. In his ever-speculative mind, Bellarmine demonstrates that death can be beneficial to both believers and non-believers. Believers end their earthly suffering and enter into eternal glory. Non-believers, though damned, at least have the benefit of ending further self-inflicted suffering. Even for those in Purgatory, death is a benefit because they have no fear of the final death of Hell and eternal condemnation, but have wonderful hope for eternal happiness.
Overlooking these realities is not suggested! What to do with them, then? Bellarmine provides a few timeless tips.
It’s all about the death. He says, “If you want to live well, you must die well.” But doesn’t that seems backward? Should it be that the condition we die in depends on the manner in which we lived? Yes, but Bellarmine is making a poetic point. Bellarmine acknowledges deathbed conversion as meritorious, as are conversions early in life. Robert informs us that death is really the most meaningful moment in our life, since our condition at that point determines so much. Thus, St. Roberts tells us “If you want to live well, you must die well.”
To live well, he says we must engage in a few choice actions. First, die to and reject the world. We can never have heaven if we want this world more. Second, we must have love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Drop this next to Paul’s words: “So faith, hope, and love abide” (1 Corinthians 13:13). To aid these, the third thing we must have are the three evangelical counsels: loins girt, lamps burning, and remaining watchful, drawn from Luke’s Gospel (12:35-37). To make this quick, we must be expecting and ready to go when God calls us. That that might happen in the blink of an eye, so we really need to be vigilant of how we live.
Bellarmine explains the benefits of prayer and fasting, and the errors of the greedy and the rich (who become convinced that their material wealth is equal to spiritual wealth) and ends with something many overlook: the sacraments. How many times have we heard the objection: “The Church is too legalistic.” This is followed up with a broad range of questions and statements: “Why do I have to go to Mass every Sunday?” “I don’t have to confess my sins to a priest.” “I don’t believe in traditional marriage.” Or, the rare, “I’ll get baptized before I die.” (Good luck with that.)
These objections and questions deserve answers, but many folks today view the sacraments as a burden rather than as a gift. Bellarmine reminds us of the simple fact that the sacraments are the blood, oxygen, and sustenance of our spiritual life. Who would choose suffocation and starvation in preparation for everlasting life? We eat, drink and exercise to stay alive and happy, and it’s not any different from the spiritual life — we don’t prepare for eternal life by practicing what leads to death and emptiness. So it is only in the sacraments that we find the sustaining graces that draw us closer to holiness, nearer to heaven, to a happy death.
But don’t take it from me: take it from the Doctor of the Church. St. Robert Bellarmine’s The Art of Dying Well is together an encouragement and a wake-up call. And I think that today, more than ever, we ought to think better and more frequently of our deaths.