The Sign of the Dying Body: How the Theology of the Body Helps Us to Die in Love

Dying—undergoing it, or helping one who is dying—is a privileged space where we see and encounter God himself … the ensouled body serves as a sign of gift and giving, yielding one’s life to the embrace of God … a sign that well-illumined the insights of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

My father-in-law died a very long and disabling death, suffering mini-strokes that affected his balance, strength, and memory. After years of peaks and valleys, he moved into his last days at home, with the help of hospice and his family. My husband broke away from our family travels to fly home and be with his parents and siblings for the last five days. There was prayer, waiting, brief talking, observation, prayer, sacramental anointing, more prayer, more waiting, steps away to take a brief walk, and more prayer. Finally, his father died, and hours later, I asked my husband how he was. He smiled wanly and shook his head in wonder, saying “That was the most intense retreat I have been on in my entire life.”

In a less intense manner for most of us, there was the long, observed dying of Pope John Paul II as well. John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease years before his death in 2005.  Over the years, many commented on how he seemed to be dying in a very emphatically public fashion: traveling, meeting people, giving audiences, allowing the world to see him grow increasingly frail and shaky, a rather active pope until close to the very end. There were people who questioned that choice, commenting that he should step aside and allow a healthier man to serve in such a crucial leadership role. But there was something very deliberate in this prayerful living out of his final days: a statement was being made, a bodily ars moriendi for the world.  When he died in his apartment, many thousands were holding candles and praying in a multi-day vigil in Saint Peter’s Square—and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them named it one of the more intense retreats of their lives.

Dying—undergoing it, or helping one who is dying—is a privileged space where we see and encounter God himself. And in dying, the ensouled body serves as a sign of gift and giving, yielding one’s life to the embrace of God. It is a sign that well-illumined the insights of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

What can we do to help people see dying rightly—to teach our brothers and sisters in Christ what it would look like to approach dying as a fiery gift, a given sign that points to God? How does the experience of dying, witnessed and undergone, teach and form us? If the human body is, by its creation, a spiritual sign—part of what eminent interpreter, Michael Waldstein, calls “a pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness” 1—then the approach of that particular physical limitation and transformation we call “death” will signify something: both in the individual’s experience of dying, and in others’ experience of being with the dying person. Dying, rightly perceived, is a sign that points to God’s lavish desire to be in loving union with us.

We’ve Lost the Ars Moriendi: Why We Avoid Seeing Dying

It’s a puzzle how we’ve come to this spiritual blindness, because even within our own era, we have honored the process of dying as one that calls us to seeing and responding in compassion.  Until very recently, the Catholic tradition paid a thriving attention to the ars moriendi, the art of dying. Erasmus and St. Robert Bellarmine wrote books that defined the practice for the early Renaissance period, focusing on a well-lived life being the key to a “good death.” Of course, there was also attention paid to opportunities to examine and confess sin, seek reconciliation, trust in God, and practice patience and endurance. And the tradition always underlined the importance of brothers and sisters in Christ being with the person dying, in part to serve the one dying, but in part to see the sign, and learn how to die.

But culturally, three elements have fostered “the perfect storm” that keeps us from seeing the sign of dying. First, as the human body became defined principally through medical realities, dying became defined as a medical event. It became a technical event to be addressed by professionals: not blood or church family. Second, youth, physical beauty, and ability began to be seen as a person’s defining virtues. Death, and all signs of aging, therefore, were resisted with a financially-backed vigor usually marked for enemy combatants. Third, if people have sensed more to dying than physical demise, they have turned to psychology—specifically Kubler-Ross’s popular stages of death and dying—to fill the void. The stages are useful in promoting a certain self-awareness, but they simply describe a pattern of dying in the Western world, no more. With these three elements, seeing the spiritual sign of dying has become 1) nonsensical, 2) akin to consorting with the enemy, and 3) reduced to a psychological observation. It is no wonder that we need to relearn to perceive the spiritual sign within the dying process. Insights from the Theology of the Body literature can help us do just that.

How the Theology of the Body Helps Us See Dying Rightly

There is no question that dying is an ambiguous sign. Mysteries bear a certain ambiguity. And death, as we know it, is a consequence of original sin: its “sting” is to be grieved, and its pain should not be gilded. Even Jesus did not joyfully approach his dying (Mk 14:32-5). But the limit and transformation that we call death was shaped and redeemed by Christ, and an all yielding to God participates in the act of faith that embodied the crucifixion. Dying—as an experience witnessed or undergone—encourages, shapes, and ultimately claims that yielding to God’s nourishment and love.

Let’s begin with John Paul II’s words:

The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God and, thus, to be a sign of it. 2

If we take these words to be true, we have to take death seriously as a sign pointing to God. The difficulty is that bodily death is the result of original sin, a ramification of Adam and Eve’s break from God. Death, as we know it, was not part of God’s intention for humanity—although what that endless life in God before the Fall would have looked like, we can only speculate. But even the Catechism says death is “in a bodily sense natural,” as a reaching of creaturely limits in a finite world. And more importantly, death is transformed by Christ: “The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing.” 3

If the obedience of Jesus transformed the curse of death into a blessing, what does that look like?  The person approaching death is an ensouled body with a relationship to God, and that ensouled body still “speaks” a pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness. We are not used to reading the sign of the body, and are hindered by our fallen vision. And yet the sign is still there. The key is to relearn to perceive how God compels us to yield to his love.

So: if we try to see past the cultural definitions of medical demise, and the veneration of youth, and through to the spiritual sign, what do we see? We see relationships disintegrating: relationships of soul to body, of person to family and friends. And people often react in fear.  People are often afraid of pain, of handling their body’s gradual breakdown in any given way.  People are often grieving the ideal life left behind, the loss of that control. People carry a constellation of troubled relationships that want resolution. People want to be sure dependents are taken care of. People are afraid of hurting their spouses or children. The experience of all these disintegrating relationships is difficult.

Underneath that first layer of sight, grounding all those experiences, is the spiritual reality of all realities: a person’s relationship with God. And when death is defined as only a medical or psychological reality, it is a reality that may not be addressed: a disaster, because it is the core truth that influences all the experiences of death above. As Christians, we need to witness to a way to see and understand what God is calling the dying to in this moment. As we die, the Father is compelling us to yield to his providence and love, and in the midst of dizzying disintegration, God is the One who is safe.

The sign of the dying body can be unveiled by asking one question: How is the dying body given in love? 4 The question, first posed by Adrian Reimers, deliberately harkens us to John Paul II’s dynamic of life received as gift to be given. If the body was created with a spousal meaning, then it is intended for love, and intended to be given in love (as well as receive it), created for fruitfulness. Jesus Christ’s body was given in love through the passion, and the fruitfulness was the redemption of the world. We are called to give our ensouled bodies in love to God through the act of dying. We may not know the fruitfulness borne in that dying; that is a matter of deep trust. But we “let go” of the need to fight, to control: we learn to yield to God.  The Theology of the Body teaches us how to die, and for whom. It provides sight into what it actually means to join our suffering with the passion of Christ. As John Paul II summarizes: “Life finds its center, its meaning, and its fulfillment when it is given up.” 5

How Is the Dying Body Given in Love? Seeing the Sign

If there is a primary theme in the Theology of the Body literature, it is what many interpreters call “the law of the gift”—that the human being was created as gift and as one who gives, and that spiritual reality is embedded in the physical body as a sign that can be read, which points to the gift and giving of the Trinitarian Godhead. The “smaller themes” of the Theology of the Body help us perceive this spiritual dynamic in the act of dying: attending to the present moment, disponibilité, and hospitality. They all help us see rightly the law of the gift within the given sign of dying, a space where we are called to give our lives to God, and we receive anew our true identity from God. Perhaps, more than any other time in a person’s life, the spiritual aspect is visible (or maybe we attend death so much more closely that we are able to perceive the spiritual).  The “ecstatic” reality of dying, of giving one’s life to God in love, is abundantly perceived when we know how to read the fullness of this sign. Let’s attend to some of the smaller themes embedded in the Theology of the Body literature, perceiving them in the process of dying.

Attending to the present moment. Jean Pierre de Caussade, an 18th century Jesuit priest, gave a series of talks at a French convent which were written down by the nuns and published posthumously as The Sacrament of the Present Moment. 6 His argument is that the path to holiness is easy to understand, and not an achievement of spiritual techniques, or intellectual knowledge: instead, according to our state in life, we are to find the will of God in the present moment. Stephen Rossetti picks up on this insight when he holds that we can only find God in the present, not in the past, nor the future. 7 He notes (as a psychologist) that most people spend their mental time in the past or future—any place but the present. Both will argue that God has a particular will for you in this moment: and more than at any other moment in your life, this is the moment where God calls you to step into trust.  There is no other rule than to accept the present moment as a place where God wants you. 8

One prime example of the fruit that comes of attention to the present moment is in the sacramental anointing of the sick. The sacrament deliberately attunes one to the reality of the present moment, and places that moment in its fullness before God. All sacraments do. But one of the observations about sacramental anointing, consistently mentioned by people who receive it (and observed by others) is the felt sense of profound peace, often visible through the recipient’s sudden quiet and relaxation. It is, in fact, one of the defined effects of the sacrament: 9  the Holy Spirit’s gift of “strengthening, peace, and courage” that “renews trust and faith in God, and strengthens against the temptations,” especially temptations to discouragement and despair. It is a beautiful and needed grace.

The acceptance of the grace of this particular sacrament may be part of the sign of dying. As we reach the limit of our earthly span, we know in our mind, and in our bones, that we need help. Sacraments are understood to be valid, depending only on whether they are done correctly, and by a valid minister of the sacrament (ex opere operato). But the sacraments are efficacious in correspondence to the openness of the person receiving the sacrament. The dying process brings a person to that place of yielding, to recognition that we are called to God. The dying body may be given in love via the acceptance of this gift, in consenting to God’s desire by saying, “Lord, I need You, your help, now.” To live in this present moment is to embrace vulnerability by stepping into the neediness that asks for the sacrament. It is a decision to see, rather than run away. And receiving this sacrament is a tangible response to the dynamic of the law of the gift. 10

Disponibilité.  A related “smaller theme” that lives within the law of the gift is disponibilité: often translated “availability,” but better understood as “putting oneself at another’s disposal.” When a friend comes to your aid, saying, “How can I be here for you? My hands are yours,” this is the disposition of openness to another called disponibilité. The sign of dying gives witness to disponibilité beautifully, in that as we reach the limit of our earthly span, our own body encourages us to turn to God, saying “I am at your disposal.”

De Caussade’s “sacrament of the present moment” joined to the fullness of the past, present, and future in the dying process is met in a sometimes loaded phrase: “abandonment to God.” But abandonment is simply another word for complete disponibilité: in this case, giving the dying body in love to God. When you are losing your natural abilities to think well, eat, walk, etc., you are called to put aside the ways you knew, and, in love, place yourself in the “Way” to come. This requires spiritual scouring, honesty, and radical detachment. But it is met, embraced, and lifted up by the lavish love and life of God himself. Dying is the most public moment of disponibilité: of being available to the Holy Spirit in the present moment, in the sometimes difficult circumstances of God’s beckoning.

Hospitality. Another “smaller theme” that anchors the law of the gift is the call to hospitality.  The natural sign of dying is embedded within the call to hospitality, in that dying and death creates a privileged space for hospitality to be lived. Hospitality “sets the table” for the strange, grace-filled fruitfulness of dying.

Hospitality needs to be broken of its cultural expectations to work here. For example, we tend to associate hospitality with conversation and food. That may not be possible in a person’s final days. Talking may be difficult, and usually people dying begin to refuse drink and food as part of the process, a move that is often hard for families to accept. But the ritual of washing is sometimes one of the last gifts of hospitality one can offer a dying person. A gentle washing is usually welcomed, as is simply being present, holding a hand, praying. These tender and hospitable acts make space to see the in-breaking of God.

But this hospitality is mutually offered. How can a dying person can offer hospitality? This is part of the genius of the Theology of the Body. To give one’s dying in love doesn’t require a deliberate Emily Post-scripted welcoming of visitors. The meaning of the dying body seems to offer its own hospitality. Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley’s Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, is an excellent resource on how the natural death of a human being consistently bears its own fruitful gifts. Dying persons often will try to do what they can in love for those around them.  11 But in the dying process, there are often big and little gifts offered. Callanan and Kelly argue that dying does seem to yield a desire for reconciliation, which can be the greatest of gifts. But some unusual little things occur when the dying person is often semi-conscious: for example, people seem to “time” their own natural deaths to avoid hurting others, perhaps “hanging on” until a loved one arrives from far away. 12 There are also many examples, especially in the case of dying children (adult or younger) of surviving parents, where the dying person passes as soon as the parents leave his, or her, bedside. Callanan and Kelley suggest that it may be that the child wanted to spare the parents his or her moment of death (especially if the dying patient mentions their concern about how hard the dying will be for their parents). Callanan and Kelley suggest that people consider thinking this last act as intended gift.

However, one of the greatest gifts a dying person both receives and gives to those accompanying could be the gift of sensing the presence of God and heavenly hosts. As noted in hospice work, it is common for people to slip into a period of hours or days when the dying person has some sense of a spiritual reality within the dying process. For example, people not uncommonly mention deceased family members being present at their bedside (even family members who, unknown to the dying person, have already passed away). Others mention a bright, beckoning light, sensing it as God or a pathway to God. Others, like Henri Nouwen, specifically mention the presence of Jesus and Mary. 13 Most cannot say much at all, and do not, even when asked (often saying “I can’t describe it, it’s beautiful,” etc.). But they also report this with a remarkable sense of peace, smiling. One of many lovely witnesses in Final Gifts refers to Clare, a hospice patient who had asked the hospice nurse about her own dying experience (the nurse had survived a near drowning and remembers a fearless state of God’s presence and light before her resuscitation). Clare was intrigued.

Two months later, Clare died. In her final week, drained of energy, she often seemed to be looking through people. Sam {her brother} asked me if she might be seeing something or someone. He’d asked her and received no reply, just a slight smile. Sam recalls the exchange:

“Clare, what are you seeing?” I asked.

“It’s that place, you know, you were there,” she said.

“Clare, what’s it like?” Sam said, putting a hand on her cheek. “You have to tell me.”

Clare snuggled against her brother’s hand and smiled.

“I can’t,” she said. “You’ll have to wait your turn.”  14

These are life-changing graces: to know God is present and loves you, or to see that your loved one is loved by God, and at peace. As such, these experiences contribute to the sense of wonder that is built into the destiny of every human being. They are part of beholding death through the law of the gift. We do not always see effects of the drawing back of the veil (when a person is in a coma, or dies suddenly, and some deaths are simply very dark); but as Christians, we must say they always occur: in the dying process, seen or unseen, or in the passing into death. More often than we may expect, we are privileged to see beyond the veil. And in seeing, in that consolation, we bear God’s work in the world to others.

All of this is the fruit of hospitality: to offer the dying body in love, means to love those accompanying you on this journey (as you are able), to love the one dying through offering companionship and encouragement, and to offer loving welcome to the Spirit of God in this crucial time. Attending to the present moment, disponibilité, and hospitality clear a space for welcoming Jesus Christ, who teaches us how to give the dying body in love, by example and as Guide.

“Where I Am Going, You Know the Way”

We need, as Christians, to recognize and witness to God’s work within the ensouled body—perhaps, most especially at a moment of real vulnerability, the hour of our death. The Theology of the Body reminds us that the body has meaning, a spousal meaning, and the process of the dying spousal body demands to be read more clearly, and taught more directly, to the faithful. An ars moriendi for our time should attend to the spiritual sign of dying as a pointer to union: that all over the landscape of dying, we are invited through our very bodies to the eternal embrace of God. Dying is part of the path to union with God, and when we see it, we can step onto it. We are shaped to offer our lives in love as part of the path to union with God, and at a deep level, we know how to do this: we were created and redeemed to do this. We only need recognize that this is the curse of death turned to blessing, part of the dynamic within the law of the gift: as Christ encourages us all through the evangelist John, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.  Where {I} am going you know the way” (14:3-4, italics added).

  1. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006). This line is from Michael Waldstein’s introduction, 127.
  2. Man and Woman, 19:4
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), #1009.
  4. See Adrian Reimers, “Suffering and John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body,’” personal paper, accessed 5/26/2011. http://www.nd.edu/~areimers/Suffering-JPII-expanded.htm.
  5. Evangelium Vitae §51.
  6. Jean Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, ed. Kitty Muggeridge (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1989).
  7. Stephen Rossetti, When The Lion Roars: A Primer for the Unsuspecting Mystic, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2003), 60-64.
  8. To my mind, this does not mean God wants us in pain. Pain is a consequence of original sin, part of our walk toward death, but not something directly created by God. Yet, even in pain, God can bring all things to good for those who love him, as Romans says. First and foremost, God wants to draw us near to him in the process of dying.  And the best way to cooperate with that is to recognize that God is the Lord of Life, including the transformation we call death.
  9. From CCC 1520: “A particular gift of the Holy Spirit. The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness, or the frailty of old age.  This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will.  Furthermore, ‘if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’”
  10. Thomas Aquinas argued that extreme unction (as the sacrament was called in his time) had the effect of removing temporal effects, or punishments, of sin. That is, the suffering that is the result of venial sin is removed. These sufferings can be felt in numerous ways, and many would say there is a natural cause and effect of action here: living a sinful life has its own consequences. Could the felt peace be a part of that spiritual reality? Could the path to courage, and living through the dying process, be cleared through that effect? I thank Fr. Andrew Cozzens for bringing this up in conversation.
  11. Some of these gifts may be well-intentioned but not at all good, unfortunately.  One of the most common, when the dying person says, “I don’t want to be a burden,” is a sad example of this. The intention—to save their loved ones’ pain—is good, but misplaced. They should be assured with words like these: “We will reach out for help when we need it, but making sure you are cared for is not a burden. Human beings are not burdens.” The “death with dignity” argument needs to be reclaimed by people working in spiritual theology and theological anthropology: both to persuade people that the dignity of the human being can be seen in all stages of life, and to intentionally end a life before its time is not only a moral evil and a public menace, it destroys a window to the work of God.
  12. This would be the case in an extended illness, not a traumatic accident.  See Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. (New York, N.Y.: Poseidon Press, 1992), ch. 15.
  13. Henri Nouwen, Beyond the Mirror: Reflections on Death and Life. (New York: Crossroad, 1991).
  14. Callanan and Kelley, 111.
Bookmark and Share
avatar About Susan Windley-Daoust

Dr. Susan Windley-Daoust is assistant professor of theology at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a spiritual director, and a wife and mother of five children. The article is based in research done for her book, "The Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Childbirth, Impairment, and Dying." (to be published by Lectio Publishing, summer 2014. For more information, see www.tobextended.com or www.lectiopublishing.com).

Comments

  1. avatar GTB says:

    JPII’s suffering at the end of his life has been called “the fifth gospel.” This article is a lovely exegesis of that gospel. Really lovely.

  2. Thank you, GTB. I appreciate that.

  3. avatar sheila denton says:

    Hello……At first, I just “copied” some quotes from your article…..then I simply forwarded the whole thing to my email. My niece is a hospice nurse and educator, on the difference between hospice care and palliative care……she will be very interested, too. Thank you……! Sheila Denton

NeverWinter Astral Diamonds