Column #016. First published in the St. Cloud Times Nov. 11, 2008
The “art of dying well” seems a morbid topic for two days before Thanksgiving, and could appear remote from the theme I have adopted for my column, the renewal of human community. But let’s give it a try.
My reflections are prompted by the near approach of death for Brother Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, president of St. John’s University from 1991 until last month, when he resigned because metastatic melanoma has struck his lungs and brain.
What he is teaching me and many others in recent days about living well and dying well is an incalculable gift.
First, though, something about tradition. People have probably been talking about death, whether directly or circling the subject from a distance, since language began.
The issue came full-blown into Western literature in the 15th century, with a text called “Ars Moriendi” (“The Art of Dying”) that was rapidly translated into many vernaculars. The most popular of its six chapters, about the five temptations that beset a dying person — lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride, avarice — was also published separately, illustrated by woodcuts replete with devils and angels.
By the 18th century, authors were attracted to other matters. Today we see a resurgence of attention to the art of dying well, perhaps because medicine does such a good job of forestalling death.
Interest was sparked initially by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” (1969), with its five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — that could probably be mapped, with some poetic license, pretty close to the medieval temptations. Kübler-Ross gives us descriptive terminology, but two more recent authors, read by millions, show how to die, not just how dying happens.
Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lessons” (1997), is based on conversations between Albom and his teacher Morrie Schwartz, with whom he reconnected after twenty years. Schwartz, who died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1995, gave Albom insights that could provide material for a year’s worth of columns, but one will have to suffice: “Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others.”
Randy Pausch, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, riveted the nation with “The Last Lecture” in 2007. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier, Pausch took the occasion of this talk to reflect on how his childhood dreams had been realized. (He died in July), Another year’s worth of material here too, but for now: “I mean I don’t know how to not have fun. I’m dying and I’m having fun. And I’m going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there’s no other way to play it...” All right, one more: “You might have to wait a long time, sometimes years, but people will show you their good side. Just keep waiting no matter how long it takes.”
Dietrich is in league with Schwartz and Pausch. At a Caring Bridge site that has been established for him (www.caringbridge.org/visit/brotherdietrich) you can read not only the hundreds of messages sent to Dietrich, but his periodic journal entries that relate his journey and what he is learning about life as he faces death.
“Something wondrous is afoot. I just can’t see it yet.” So ends his first message. Subsequent ones tell us what he is seeing. “We know something of the delicate array of dynamic forces within the universe, each of which interacts within a very narrow band of possibilities for life itself to exist. ... The odds have always been against the really important things. ... This is the most grace-filled time in my life ... pure gift, against all odds, and for that reason precious.”
And: “It helps to be surrounded as I am by love.” The Rule of Benedict instructs the monk to “keep death daily before your eyes.”
Dietrich demonstrates that this directive is life-giving; he cites an earlier monk who spoke of a situation that was “impossible but not hopeless.” Morrie the Jew, Randy the Unitarian Universalist, Dietrich the Christian — each teaches us much about what holds a community together. That’s a lot to be thankful for.