With Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday falling on the same date this year, today has been an especially opportune occasion to contemplate the lives of the saints and death.
I have been thinking of Saint Robert Bellarmine’s book which I read two summers ago titled, The Art of Dying Well. The first principle of the book is this: He who desires to die well must live well. And what does it mean to live well?
This question reminds me of when I visited St. Christopher’s Hospice in the U.K. There was a “Death Chat” event taking place where people gather to discuss death over wine and cheese. I was intrigued about this event, especially because it was taking place at one of the most humanizing and life-affirming hospices in the world. There were several participants there from diverse backgrounds. Occasionally, a social worker from the hospice who was present for the discussion would often a discussion prompt. At one point he mentioned that hospice patients (who generally have two weeks or less to live) are asked to complete a sort of survey which includes the question: “Are you at peace?” The social worker then proceeded to ask, “What does it mean to be at peace?” Most of us realized at this point that it is a rather unusual question and one that might be a bit difficult to answer at the end of life having not spent much time considering it during life.
There are other images that come to my mind this day: the ancient greek funerary monuments that depict an entire family sharing a meal together, the reconstructed scenes of the rooms in which saints such as Teresa of Avila or St. Faustina died.
If we take seriously the custom and spiritual practice of reflecting regularity about our own mortality, we can see the connections between love and death. “Tell me what you love and I’ll tell you who you are” the expression goes. Likewise, “Tell me what (and who) you love, and I’ll tell you how you will die.”
Thinking about death can really only increase our love and the greater the love, the greater the peace.