The Art of Dying Well

PATIENCE, COMPASSION, HOPE, AND THE CHRISTIAN ART OF DYING WELL. By Christopher P. Vogt (Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 4501 Forbes Blvd., Suite 200, Lanham, MD 20706), 2004, 176 pp. PB. $19.95.

In a culture of death that promotes euthanasia as compassion, in a secular world that imagines medical science as the cure-all to all human suffering, and in the modern therapeutic society which rationalizes death and dying, to quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, as “the final stage of growth in this life” and hence no absolute evil, Professor Vogt’s enlightening book restores the truth and reality of dying by illuminating the Christian tradition’s teaching about the art of dying (ars moriendi) and by studying the example of Christ’s death as a paradigm of a biblical ars moriendi.

Examining classic texts from this ancient tradition from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries— the Catholic Preparing For Death by Erasmus (1533), the Puritan Salve For The Sick Man by William Perkins (1595), the Catholic The Art Of Dying Well by Robert Bellarmine (1619), and the Anglican Rule And Exercises Of Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor (1651)—Professor Vogt’s engaging study recovers the religious wisdom of the Christian past as comfort and consolation for the agony of death. These works all prove that a happy death requires compassion on the part of the one dying and compassion on the part of caregivers: the dying, in imitation of Christ, are obligated to forgive the sins of others as an act of compassion; the caregivers must cultivate an awareness of God’s compassion in the minds of the dying: “Erasmus and Perkins suggest that caregivers and visitors recount appropriate passages from scripture that testify to God’s enduring compassion.” These works from the ars moriendi tradition all recognize also the primacy of hope, faith, and patience as potent medicine for the dying soul in the throes of death—virtues informed by the knowledge that “God’s compassion and mercy are more powerful than human sinfulness” and that “neither sinfulness nor death itself is enough to cut us off from the love of Christ.”

With great precision and clarity the book distinguishes between Christian mercy and specious compassion, between noble patience and Stoic endurance, and between Christian hope and false optimism in the experience of dying. While advocates of euthanasia like Dr. Timothy Quill seek to relieve the physical suffering of patients, they also equate compassion with the “autonomy” and “sense of control” of patients to use barbiturates to commit suicide. In contrast, Christian compassion listens to the voice of the one suffering and all its profound emotions (as in the Psalms of Lament) and does not moralize or judge like Job’s friends: “The initial moment of compassion is that of utter receptivity,” a receptivity that signifies respect for the mystery of another person’s unique suffering and its anguished cries and heart-searching questions. Also, Christian compassion requires sharing the suffering in a connatural way in the manner that friends and family members experience a “mutual indwelling” so that stranger is not caring for stranger. Rather those near and dear “are to share in and seek to alleviate the suffering of someone they love” in the most personal of ways. Above all, Christian charity opposes physician-assisted suicide because this alleged sense of autonomy and control ultimately “disempowers” the patient: “The act of providing a choice can actually create some pressure to make a particular choice,” that is, to choose euthanasia to avoid inflicting a burden on loved ones. When euthanasia assumes the nature of routine medical practice, it corrupts the entire network of human relationships: humans no longer acknowledge the duty to bear one another’s burdens or perform spiritual works of mercy.

Professor Vogt’s distinction between Christian patience and Stoic endurance is just as trenchant as his contrast between Christian compassion and mercy-killing. While the ideal of Stoic apathy celebrates the self-reliant, self-sufficient individual whose pride relies on natural strength and will power, Christian patience follows from the love of neighbor, for “Christians must be those who are capable of sharing their suffering with others” because of “the mutuality and interdependence of human life.” Whereas Stoic endurance ultimately rests upon human pride, Christian patience derives from humility, the recognition of dependence upon God and others. Instead of the illusion of autonomy or total control, Christian patience—following Christ’s example of learning “to hand one’s self over”—honors God’s will above human choice (“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done”). Christian patience, then, does not eschew the hard truth that “we must prepare to be handed over to the care of others” and “accept the loss of our independence.” Remembering that man is dust and that life is a gift, the man who practices the art of dying and imitates Christ on the cross knows that patience reflects humility and rejects all the temptations of pride.

Finally, Professor Vogt discerns the difference between Christian hope and false optimism. While false optimism hides the truth about terminal disease from a patient, exaggerates longevity as an absolute value, pretends “You won’t die from this now,” or imagines “with the next technological advance suffering and even death might be defeated enemies,” Christian hope promises eternal life—a new experience—rather than a continuation of life in a fallen world. The virtue of hope depends on God’s Divine Providence: the hairs of our head are numbered, God can bring good out of evil, Christ suffers with all who die, God cares for each human soul, and God is mercy and love. “For Christian hope is rooted in the faith that after we experience the real negativity that is a part of living in a finite, fallen world, there is still God who is eternal, and who has promised eternal fellowship to us.”

In short, this outstanding book restores man’s relationship to God in the act of dying and proves that the Church is not only an expert on human nature but also an authority on the meaning of all the profound mysteries of human experience from birth to death. The art of dying is not a matter of privacy between a physician and a patient, not a contract or living will between a patient and the extended family, and not a matter of self-determination on the part of the terminally ill but the most intimate of relationships between a child of God and a loving savior who modeled the real meaning of compassion, hope, faith, and patience and who taught man not only how to live well but also to die nobly. In a substantive, scholarly, and most readable style, Professor Vogt uncovers the riches of the Christian tradition that offers more truth on the reality of dying than all the contemporary literature that attempts to remove the sting of death or rationalizes the necessity for physician-assisted suicide.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Warner, New Hampshire

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