Art Of Dying In The English Spiritual Tradition


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The Rt Revd Gordon Mursell Bishop Gordon is a well-known preacher, author and tutor in spirituality. The art of dying in the English Spiritual Tradition was presented at Hospiscare's Holy Living, Holy Dying held in Exeter 2 November 2009.

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Art Of Dying In The English Spiritual Tradition

  1. 1. THE ART OF DYING IN THE ENGLISH SPIRITUAL TRADITION +notes for keynote address “Holy Living - Holy Dying” Conference Mercure Southgate Hotel, Exeter (sponsored by ) Monday 02: xi: 09 INTRODUCTION All Souls’ Day. The Skeleton at the Feast; the Mexican Dia de Muertos which is today, when people hold a family celebration at which the dead are believed to appear just for this one day. Food and drink are sometimes laid on the tomb (as happened in late antiquity). This is the month of the dead: dead children are remembered on 8 Nov, and those who died in accidents on 28 Nov. Cf Remembrance Sunday. He is risen. He is not here. He has gone on ahead of you to Galilee. The real absence. TEXT 1 EARLY MEDIEVAL ATTITUDES TO DEATH The C12 Lay Folks’ Mass Book included And specially [pray] for all those souls that have most need to be prayed for and have the fewest friends. (The Lay Folks’ Mass Book, Bidding Prayer IV). Death both more common and more public than now. And a much more vivid and alive sense of the interpenetration of this world with the next. So death was talked about, departed friends felt close, and praying for their souls offered a way of articulating your love for them, as well as a practical way of expressing it. What about those who weren’t literate? The medieval world view. Seeing as participants. This makes all of life far more corporate. Donald Nicholl (Holiness p28): Tibetan Buddhists are astonished that westerners spend so little time reflecting on death, when it’s the one certainty in all of our lives. Early medieval period: shrines of the saints; touching relics gives you direct contact with those who have gone before you into paradise (today with St Thérèse of Lisieux). TEXT 2 LIVING WITH DEATH Contemplating your own death. “As you are, so once we were. As we are, so shall you be.” Hodie nobis; cras vobis. Memorial at Wigtown Parish Church to Alexander Cowdie (1808-62): Removed in the Midst of his Usefulness. Reader “be ye also Ready.” 1
  2. 2. Death the great leveller. The danse macabre, a late medieval allegory on the universality of death, which makes one of kings and peasants. Saint-Saëns’ setting of it (1874), and Liszt’s Totentanz. It became very popular during the Black Death. The Ars moriendi, a late medieval handbook about how to prepare for death. Cf John Gower’s Vox clamantis (7:9): What will you have to say for yourself when the breeze no longer stirs your hair, when your throat is dry and can utter no words and your bloodless face is colourless, when your eyes are set in their gloomy sockets, when your mouth cannot be moistened and inside it your tongue stiffens against the roof of your mouth, when blood no longer throbs in your veins, when your neck cannot bend or your arms embrace, when your foot cannot take a step? In other words: better to amend your life now while you have time! Implications of this belief: masses for the dead; chantry chapels; wills bequeathing generous legacies to the poor in return for prayers to be said for the dead person; strong sense of the interpenetration of purgatory/heaven and earth - those for whom we now pray shall one day pray for us. We are their kin, and they are ours. The Golden Legend text underlines this (a kind of inversion of the popular myth of the danse macabre). Medieval cemeteries seem often to have been meeting-places, set around parish churches. The early Christian certainty that their ancestors were in heaven was gradually replaced by anxiety (perhaps in part fostered by the Church?) - so hell was regularly preached about and depicted in terrifying fierceness in medieval wall paintings &c. Endowing chantries, or masses for your (or your relative’s) soul. John Bossy: this could enlarge your circle of kinship, since by endowing prayers for someone else you might do your own soul some spiritual good. In 1495 Geoffrey Downes, a gentleman from Pott Shrigley in Cheshire: established a trust of 100 cows, to be individually rented to the local poor, the rent being the commitment of those who hired the cows to pray for his soul and for those of all in purgatory; when one cow died or became ill, it was replaced by another, and similarly with the hirers. TEXT 3. COMMUNION WITH THE DEAD There was a man who, as he walked through the cemetery, always recited the De profundis for the dead. Once, when he was running away through the cemetery with his enemies after him, the buried, each one armed with the tool proper to his craft, quickly rose and defended the fleeing man with might and main. His pursuers, terrified, retreated in haste. [Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, c.1260, trans. W.G.Ryan, Princeton UP 1993, vol.II p285] Chantries reflect the continuity between this life and the next. They also reflect a growing sense of the importance of individual identity. I (and those I love) matter; and we have a future. And there may be a shrewd lay sense of the importance of hedging your bets. Cf the late Bob Hope: “I do benefit events for all religions. I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.” 2
  3. 3. Masses for the dead: as the list of the departed became too long for inclusion in the canon, libri vitae were produced for use in monasteries. Other common images involved in the spirituality of purgatory: ladders (feudal) (St Bernard's vision at the church of the Tre Fontane in Rome, of the ladder of purgatory); keys (living souls might assist in locking the prison-house of purgatory); poor people standing round a deathbed while the dying man altered his will to benefit them in return for prayers); &c. Death never private. TEXT 4. DEATH AND LAMENT The Dirige (Office for the Dead, so called from the first word of the first antiphon - hence “dirge” - always said before the Requiem Mass), includes some ferocious laments from Job: “why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave. Are not the days of my life few? Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort before I go, never to return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness” (Job 10:18-21). This bold challenge to an unfair God is removed entirely in the Reformed liturgy, and replaced by hope in the resurrection. The reading in the BCP (from 1 Cor 15) is entirely hopeful, and any reference to prayer for the dead is removed. The power of lament. Bringing our questions into our prayer. The medieval clamor. Even the requiem may have supplanted earlier Irish keening. The psychological and political significance of lament. Lament is how we pray when faith and experience collide painfully; when we are not in control. Lament in Scripture arises out of the covenant - the sense that we are unconditionally loved, which gives us permission (so to speak) to protest and complain and ask questions when things go wrong. Cf Mary’s “why have you treated us like this?” to her 12-year-old son in Luke 2. Lament arises out of exile - any experience where we are (a) not at home and (b) not in control. The Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches two key lessons about exile: (a) you can never go back home - only forward; and (b) exile is a place of terrible suffering, yet paradoxically also a place of astonishing creativity - the greatest and most cosmic visions in Scripture arise out of exile, not out of security (Isaiah 65:17ff and Revelation 21-22). NB the TEXT 5. LEARNING FROM DEATH Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth, [Fool'd by] these rebel powers that thee array; Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth, Painting thy outward walls so costly gay? Why so large cost, having so short a lease, Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend? Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, 3
  4. 4. Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end? Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss, And let that pine to aggravate thy store. Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross; Within be fed, without be rich no more. So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men, And death once dead, there's no more dying then. (Sonnet 146) As always in Shakespeare, every word counts. The reference to the soul as "poor" does not = "poor old thing." Rather Shakespeare is at once beginning to make the central point of the sonnet: why do we devote so much attention to our bodies, and to outward prosperity, and so little to our souls, which are "the centre of [our] sinful earth." "Why so large cost, having so short a lease, Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?" Instead, he says we should "live upon thy servant's loss" - we should learn to profit from our physical weakness and inevitable bodily decline - and, when we learn to do that, as Shakespeare famously concludes, we shall "feed on death, that feeds on men. And death once dead, there's no more dying then. I.e. we must find ways of growing spiritually, and we must do so precisely by making something fruitful out of adversity and even death - for, when we manage to do that, we begin to experience now the one kind of life that death cannot overcome, because it is itself a kind of dying, a letting-go of one kind of life in order to embrace another, deeper one; and "death once dead, there's no more dying then." Abbot Christopher Jamieson at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ annual conference - what human beings lack today is interiority. And interiority is not the same as selfish introspection: in Psalm 112 the person with the “sustained heart” (lit. “steady heart”, Latin cor paratum) is precisely the person oriented to living for others, generously. It was Job’s altruistic and blameless lifestyle which at least strengthened him for the terrible and unexpected experience of devastating suffering. But what does that mean in practice? Nothing is more illuminating in Shakespeare's work than the way he shows people coping with situations they don't want to be in, places they would rather not be, dying to one kind of life in order to live to another. The speech of Duke Senior at the start of Act 2 of As You Like It is justly famous. Driven from wealth and office into exile in a forest, the Duke seeks to emphasize the good things in his unpleasant situation in language which may at first appear a bit too piously positive: Sweet are the uses of adversity Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head. (As You Like It 2.1.10-14). Not "sweet is adversity", notice, but sweet are the uses to which it may be put. The Duke is not saying that suffering is good: it's "ugly and venomous." What he is saying is that exile confronts you with the unvarnished truth about yourself and the world; and that facing it with an unblinking directness can help you find resources to cope with it. 4
  5. 5. Alternatively, Cleopatra positively defies the power of death, and of those who are precipitating it for her. And when all that is taken from her, and she finds herself, in the last act, bereft of lover, power and freedom all at once, she takes a very different approach from the old Duke to the adversity that confronts her. She neither welcomes it nor learns from it: she defies it. "Give me my robe," she says. "Put on my crown. I have / Immortal longings in me" (Antony and Cleopatra 5.2.274-5). I didn't get where I am today by grovelling to some boring little emperor. She prepares for suicide not with sad resignation but with barnstorming vigour, ready to go down with all guns blazing - though even that analogy is inaccurate, for she is really preparing to go up: "I am fire and air", she says (5.2.283), her only regret being that she won't live to see Octavius Caesar made to look an ass (see 5.2.301). Only love can conquer death, and only because it is itself a kind of dying; and when we make that love our own, we "feed on death, that feeds on men. And death once dead, there's no more dying then." TEXT 6. WISDOM IN THE FACE OF DEATH: JEREMY TAYLOR "It is a great art to die well" (Dedication to Holy dying, Works 3:258). T stresses the ubiquity of death: Death meets us every where [sic], and is procured by every instrument and in all chances, and enters in at many doors; by violence and secret influence, by the aspect of a star and the stink of a mist, by the emissions of a cloud and the meeting of a vapour, by the fall of a chariot and the stumbling at a stone, by a full meal or an empty stomach, by watching at the wine or by watching at prayers, by the sun or the moon, by a heat or a cold, by sleepless nights or sleeping days, by waters frozen into the hardness and sharpness of a dagger, or waters thawed into the floods of a river, by a hair or a raisin, by violent motion or sitting still, by severity or dissolution, by God's mercy or God's anger; by every thing in providence and every thing in manners, by every thing in nature and every thing in chance. (Holy dying 1:1, Works 3:269-70). ** Taylor's worldview is deeply pessimistic but highly relevant to the late C20, though the next-worldly perspective with which he views it is different from our own: If we could from one of the battlements of heaven espy how many men and women at this time lie fainting and dying for want of bread, how many young men are hewn down by the sword of war, how many poor orphans are now weeping over the graves of their father by whose life they were enabled to eat: if we could but hear how many mariners and passengers are at this present in a storm, and shriek out because their keel dashes against a rock, or bulges under them, how many people there are that weep with want, and are mad with oppression, or are desperate by too quick a sense of a constant infelicity; in all reason we should be glad to be out of the noise and participation of so many evils. This is a place of sorrows and tears, of great evils and a constant calamity: let us remove from hence, at least in affections and preparation of mind. (Holy dying 1:5, Works 3:291). 5
  6. 6. * Taylor's point is that, precisely by meditating soberly on death, we "make death safe and friendly" and free ourselves from its terrors (Holy dying 2:1, Works 3:292); cf. "If we follow Christ, death is our friend", A course of sermons 2:3, Works 4:361). He exhorts daily self- examination with some vivid contemporary images: "the computations of a man's life are busy as the tables of sines and tangents, and intricate as the accounts of eastern merchants: and therefore it were but reason we should sum up our accounts at the foot of every page, I mean, that we call ourselves to scrutiny every night when we compose ourselves to the little images of death" (Holy dying 2:2, Works 3:296). We should thereby "dash our sins against the stones, that we may go to God and to a spiritual guide, and search for remedies and apply them" (ibid. p297). T does not encourage prayers for the dead, on the grounds that we have no guidance from the Lord regarding them, and they cannot alter the condition of someone who has died (Dedication to Holy dying, Works 3:263). TEXT 7. IMMORTALITY IN NATURE: SHELLEY Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: What if my leaves are falling like its own! The tumult of thy mighty harmonies Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone, Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce, My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth! And, by the incantation of this verse, Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawakened earth The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? (Ode to the west wind, 1820, written less than two years before Shelley's own death; Complete poetical works p579). Paul Foot argues that the wind here represents both a source of chaos and the free wind of revolution bringing a brighter day: the last verses express, not self-pity, but Shelley's own longing, at a time when he was censored, abroad and politically powerless, to have a share in bringing about the new world he dreamed of (Red Shelley, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980 pp224-6). But the key point is surely that Shelley seeks immortality through nature, by merging his own individuality into that of the wind which can give voice to him, just as through his poetry he has sought to give voice to humans and nature alike. Cf. the Benedicite. The birds and rabbits will sing for me when I am no longer there to do it. Meanwhile I can sing for them, and for all who have gone before me. Today: woodland burials &c. 6
  7. 7. ** NB how much more individual this is than medieval worldview. TEXT 8. DEATH AND WAR: GEOFFREY STUDDERT KENNEDY I know. It is not easy to explain Why should there be such agony to bear? Why should the whole wide world be full of pain? But then, why should her hair Be like the sudden sunshine after rain? Turn cynic if you will. Curse God and die. You've ample reason for it. There's enough Of bitterness, God knows, to answer why. The road of life is rough, But then there is the glory of the sky... (Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929), from Tragedy) CONCLUSION There may be trouble ahead But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance Let’s face the music and dance. Before the fiddlers have fled, Before they ask us to pay the bill, And while we still have the chance, Let’s face the music and dance. Soon we’ll be without the moon, Humming a different tune, and then There may be teardrops to shed. So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance Let’s face the music and dance (Irving Berlin, from Follow the Fleet, 1936) Gordon Mursell 02 November 2009 7