Arthur Middleton looks at the teaching of two bishops on the subject of ‘Holy Dying’ and is reassured by the unity of theological outlook
It is often said that the Victorians were obsessed with death but our present age is obsessed with sex. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon speaks to a nation where people have lost or never had any consciousness of regular Christian worship and so have deprived themselves of the Church’s ghostly counsel for their emergent needs’, either from Scriptural reading, Sacrament, Pulpit or from a spiritual guide.
The Archbishop speaks of how the New Testament and the Church understand death: ‘…the whole idea of a battle between life and death in the events of Christ’s death and resurrection doesn’t suggest an event that is ‘nothing at all’. Death takes quite a bit of overcoming… Easter may tell us that death is conquered, but it doesn’t tell us that there was never any contest’.
We are warned not to try avoiding it or to deny its seriousness, but to keep it in remembrance, ‘as the tradition of the Church proposes that you think daily about death and prepare for it, it isn’t being morbid but realistic: get used to it and learn to live with the fear.’ Death can destroy anything in our universe – but not God. So to die is to fall into the hands of the living God.
Keeping death in daily remembrance is a source of life and hope that commends ourselves every day into God’s hands. What follows death is not just a continuation of our present life in slightly different circumstances but a new world. ‘Yet all that God has seen and worked with in this life is brought into his presence once more and he renews his relationship with it all, spirit and body’
Our culture finds the thought of death too painful to manage and searches for security in an acquisitive way of investment in what will eventually die. It is the ‘mark of an inner deadness’. Nations will be eclipsed as resources of energy, power and land expire. For individuals, material things cannot outlive their ‘sell-by date’. ‘We shan’t really die’ is a cry from individuals who cannot contemplate an end to our acquiring, and we as a culture cannot imagine that this civilization, like all others, will collapse. So the Church says: ‘We shall die, we shall have no choice but to let go of all we cling to, but God remains. God’s unshakeable love is untouched by death. He and he alone is free to make us afresh, to re-establish the world on the far side of every catastrophe.’
As people of faith, we must prepare for death by daily seeking to let go of all that we cling to, so that our naked souls are left face to face with the creating God. If we are prepared to accept in trust what Jesus proclaims, we can ask God for courage to embark on this path. We do not hope for survival but for re-creation – because God is who he is, who he has shown himself to be in Jesus Christ.
The Church must not only challenge human reluctance to accept death, but also challenge any human acceptance of death without hope, of death as the end of all meaning. Death is real; death is overcome. Mortality is a fundamental fact of being human. Equally, we are creatures made to hear the call of God, a call that no power in heaven or earth can silence. This conviction is the foundation at the heart of our Easter hope. ‘The Gospel,’ insists Dr Williams, ‘by insisting on both our limits and our eternal hope in God, safeguards equally the humility and realism we need for mature human life and the sense of a glory embodied in our mortality because it has been touched by God.’
In 1650-51, Jeremy Taylor published his books Holy Living and Holy Dying which became one volume. His reason for such writing was ‘the degraded state of the Church of England and the disturbance of all religious life’ and ‘the dispersal of the duly ordained ministers of religion. In this state of the Church of England where the Prayer Book was forbidden in the celebration of feasts like Christmas, churchpeople had been deprived of their liturgical services. This government prohibition and the practical extinction of the clergy made it impossible for the laity to obtain the Church’s ghostly counsel, either publicly or through a spiritual guide.
The short book Holy Dying was written for Lady Carberry, whose confidant Taylor was, but she died before it was complete. When she first felt the approach of death, she was fearful, but as the thought lingered with her she grew from fear to consent and acceptance and expectation of it, as Taylor had counselled her. His own wife died shortly afterwards, so as he wrote his own personal experience of sickness and death was in his mind, as were the deaths of his children.
His first aim is to convince healthy people that sickness and death are subjects they ought to think about and not leave only until it is unavoidable. So in the Dedication he advises that in contemplating death the first thoughts should be of the ‘change of a greater beauty’ that ‘calls you to dress your soul for that change which shall mingle your bones with that beloved dust, and carry your Soul to the same quire, where you may both sit and sing for ever.’
The book’s five chapters contain, first, a general preparation towards a holy and blessed death, followed by practical application as an exercise. The temptations brought by sickness are listed, with their remedies and the practice of graces a sick person may practice alone. Finally there is advice for the clergy ministering to the sick and dying.
His aim was to raise people’s awareness that in the transitoriness of life ‘we must look elsewhere for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest or else be restless for ever’. Whatever ease we have here is soon changed into sadness. Where there is sorrow or an end to joy, there can be no true felicity. ‘We must carry our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, the angels are the company, the Lamb is the light and God is the portion and inheritance.’