In the Great Litany one finds the following petition: “From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord deliver us.” Why is “sudden death” in this list? What is wrong with sudden death? Most people want their death to be quick and painless; they don’t want to look at death coming towards them; they fear the pain of it or that it will be drawn-out and undignified. They don’t want to burden others and they don’t want to suffer themselves. It would be better, they say, just to be hit by a Mack truck and be over with it. Why did traditional piety ask God to spare us from “sudden death”?
There is a clue in more recent versions of this Litany. For instance, in the 1979 BCP, instead of asking deliverance from “sudden death,” the prayer is that we be saved from “dying suddenly and unprepared.” It’s not the suddenness per se that is the problem, but rather that, when dying suddenly, one might fail to be prepared for death.
This is a hard lesson: that we should prepare for our deaths. So much of our medicalized existence is aimed at extending the length of life, delaying death as long as we can. Our gut says that if we stop seeking a cure we will be giving up. We don’t want to be quitters! We want to push on for as long as we can. It is indeed true that pushing on, for the most part, can be an exercise of moral courage, for instance when one bravely undergoes difficult medical treatments. If a proposed treatment is likely to provide benefit to us, then normally speaking it is a treatment we should take on. To cite a personal instance: it was right for my wife to undergo surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy when her brain tumor was found. These treatments promised to kill off her brain cancer, and they were successful in that, and she went on to live many more years. Even though her later years were marked by mental declines that were caused by those treatments, her life was a blessing to more people than she ever knew.
That said, the focus on curing sickness cannot be the only focus of our lives. Every one of us will die; it is wisdom to pray that we not die unprepared.
When he was in his 80s, my father had a recurrence of cancer. He consulted his oncologist and decided not to try to defeat the cancer: the treatments were unlikely to succeed and their effects would have been a great burden. As he came close to the end, many people visited him, lots of friends and neighbors. I was there for some of these visits. Again and again a visitor would try to put into words what their friendship had meant. And my father said, with tears and a smile at once: “I’ve had a good life, and I’m looking forward to meeting Jesus.”
How do we prepare for death? It’s actually not hard. There are two things: give thanks, and say “I’m sorry.” We do both these things in prayer. We also do them with other people. To whom do I want to say “thank you” while I still can? And to whom ought I to say “I’m sorry”? These exercises are how we prepare for death.
There’s no reason to put them off. How good it feels to speak from the heart and say “thanks” and “forgive me”! It turns out—O wonder of divine providence!—that preparing to die is the best way to live.
Out & About. Saturday, November 19, at 5:30 p.m. at Church of the Epiphany, Richardson, Tex., yours truly will be preaching at the ordination of Ignacio Gama to the priesthood.
Sunday, Nov. 20, at 10:20 a.m., a class on Book XI of the Confessions of St. Augustine. This book is about creation, and thus speech, since God is said in Genesis 1 to create by speaking. But does God speak in time? Do his words have a beginning and an end? Along the way Augustine notes the question often asked, “What was God doing before he created the world?”, and the answer often given, “He was creating a hell for people who ask that question!” Augustine does not think this is a good answer. Visitors are welcome to the class: in Room 205 of the education building, Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.
The following Sunday I will teach a class on Book XII of the Confessions. And the same day at 5 p.m. we will have a seminar on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which, if you haven’t read it, you should, even if you don’t come to the seminar! All are welcome to the conversation, which goes to 6:30 p.m.
On the Web. This week’s blog is reprinted from the website of the Human Life Review, where you can also find the only articles by Susan Austin that ever got into print. The first one was in the Fall 1981 issue, starting on page 20: https://humanlifereview.com/issue/fall-1981/