Thinking Ahead and Preparing: Looking to ‘Ars Moriendi,’ the Art of Dying Well

BOOK PICK: The Church’s devotional tradition has encouraged us to live every day as if it were our last so that when our last day comes, we will be ready. That’s where Roger Nutt’s ‘To Die Is Gain’ comes in.

‘To Die Is Gain’
‘To Die Is Gain’ (photo: Cropped book cover / Emmaus Academic)

Throughout the month of November, the Church ponders the last things, and on All Souls’ Day, the Church not only prays for the faithful departed but focuses on the reality of death as a part of everyone’s life.

Dying is our last moral action. Whether it takes place at the end of a long life or protracted illness, or whether it takes place suddenly, even in the springtime of life, it is meant to be a faith-filled entrustment and self-offering to the God who gave us life and whom we hope will mercifully grant us life to the full.

The Church’s devotional tradition has encouraged us to live every day as if it were our last so that when our last day comes, we will be ready. It has been called the ars moriendi, the art of dying well. Thomas à Kempis wrote in the spiritual classic Imitation of Christ:

“Happy is the man who has the hour of his death always before his eyes and daily prepares himself to die. … When it is morning, reflect that you shall not see the evening, and at eventide dare not to boast yourself of the morrow. Always be prepared and so live that death may never find you unprepared.”

When Christ comes for us, he wants us to embrace him with longing rather than find him as a “thief in the night” (Matthew 24:43). As Cardinal Justin Rigali wrote in 2011, rehearsing our death each day gives us the opportunity to say daily with Christ: “No one takes my life from me; I freely lay it down” (John 10:18), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). If we do so, then our death, whenever it comes, will become the emphatic reiteration of the way we have lived.

To prepare well for a holy death should involve proper formation about the sacrament of the anointing the sick, the first purpose of which is to help us unite our sufferings and death to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

The sacrament of the anointing of the sick is the most misunderstood, underappreciated and neglected of the seven sacraments. While there is generally extensive preparation for adult and child baptism, first confession and first Holy Communion, confirmation, matrimony and holy orders, most receive little preparation for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. As a result, even many practicing Catholics know little about it, and the little that they do know is often second-hand and erroneous. Very few Catholics, therefore, are prepared to receive it.

That’s why Roger W. Nutt’s new book, To Die Is Gain: A Theological (Re-)Introduction to the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick for Clergy, Laity, Caregivers and Everyone Else, published earlier this year by Emmaus Academic, is a very timely and helpful resource.

Nutt, provost and theology professor at Ave Maria University, provides us with an easy-to-read, clear and theologically accurate primer on the sacrament of the anointing the sick, which contextualizes it not only in Church history but in contemporary questions, practices and misunderstandings. He helps us to see the crucial importance of the sacrament as part of life and as a Christian response to the modern phobia of suffering and death.

“Western culture,” Nutt writes, “is currently in a crisis about the meaning of life, suffering, and death. We live at a time in which the doctrinal message of the sacrament of the sick and the graces that it confers are needed — more than ever. We live in a time in which the loss of an awareness of the significance of this sacrament is catastrophic. “Anointing of the Sick is a proclamation and application to the dying of Christ’s victory over death. … This Sacrament should be at the forefront of thinking about the Gospel message for those facing death, and it should be something that we desire for ourselves and our loved ones as we contemplate mortality and are confronted by death.”

He makes several important clarifications about the Church’s teaching on the sacrament.

The first is with regard to the proper recipient. Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and modern popes, Nutt reiterates that the sacrament is meant to be administered to “those who are in danger of death due to illness or old age.”

This means that the sacrament does not need to be delayed until the person is about to take the last breath because its first effect is to consecrate the person to God in suffering, so that the person may more efficaciously offer his or her weakness, pains and eventual death to God in union with Christ’s redemption.

But it also means that it is not meant to be administered to those who are not in danger of death due to sickness or senescence.

It’s not meant, Nutt writes, for those “who are sick or injured but in no way in danger of death, like those getting their tonsils out, or having arthroscopic surgery, or just feeling under the weather, or anyone over a certain age. Not everyone in a hospital or nursing home needs anointing, because not all are in danger of death. Certainly not everyone in a parish at a ‘healing Mass’ is in danger of death.”

Neither is it intended for those who have “a cold or a flu,” who are “feeling off emotionally,” or who are experiencing an “external threat to life such as war, natural disaster, crashing planes, sinking ships, or even the death penalty.”

It’s meant, exclusively, to be given to those who are in danger of dying because of the internal conditions of life-threatening malady or old age. It is proper to be given to those going in for open-heart surgery, but not for arthroscopic surgery or a root canal.

Another important clarification Nutt makes is that while miracles of physical healing have occasionally been associated with reception of the sacrament, the purpose of the sacrament is as a remedy to the “primary illness every human being suffers from,” namely, “sin and its effects,” as the “spiritual antidote to the bodily remnants of sin that remain in each human being.”

Christ didn’t establish the sacrament “so as to deprive those facing death from having to die,” he writes, but so that “they can die in union with him without being overcome in their weakened state by the bodily vulnerabilities and temptations that sinning can make us susceptible to.”

Nutt expresses the concern that “if the primary expectation of the sick and their loved ones is for the avoidance of death by obtaining a miraculous cure, then they are fixed on a false hope that is not consistent with the message of the Gospel. … If a miraculous cure does not happen, it is not because the sacrament lacks power or efficacy, but because the ‘greater’ miracle is the healing from the effects of sin so that we can die in union with Christ and enter into eternal glory.”

“This truth should be a consolation, not a disappointment,” he states, because “the Christian faith offers the sick and dying much more than mere optimism that God might give a miracle.”

After all, the purpose of the sacrament, as indicated by the words of St. James that the priest echoes during the anointing, is that “the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up.”

The sacrament of the anointing of the sick, therefore, is meant to be a “sign of definitive conversion to the Lord,” “of total acceptance of suffering and death as a penance for sins,” and of hope for the “supreme reconciliation with the Father.”

It is the fruit of a Christian’s proper preparation for death, the highest expression of the ars moriendi, and an important part of the Christian life lived well.

Nutt’s book is important reading for every Catholic this November.