What Monks Can Teach Us About Death

BOOK PICK: A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life

(photo: Cropped book cover)


Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life

By Nicolas Diat; Cardinal Robert Sarah (Foreword)

Ignatius, 2019

180 pages, $17.95

To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531



When death is talked about, if it is talked about at all, hushed tones are employed, as if the very subject is too shameful to say aloud.

Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we are talking about it more and more.

It is impossible to hide from the toll this disease is taking when we are reminded of it at every turn. As we pray for those afflicted and those who have perished, we are confronted by the reality of death.

Our aversion to confronting death comes from a fear of the unknown and fear of suffering. 

What this is reminding us of is something that we should have already grasped: Death is always with is. And in our Christian lives, being prepared for death is part of our journey of faith.

French author Nicolas Diat wanted to find if there were still places where death and suffering were not considered an insult but rather a natural end to this reality and the gateway to another realm. (Readers of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book-length interviews — The Power of Silence, God or Nothing and The Day Is Now Far Spent — will recognize Diat, who served as the interviewer in all three.)

To find out, Diat visited a number of French monasteries whose views on death fall outside today’s norm on the subject. The result of his travels is his 2019 book A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life.

“Today, the liturgy of death no longer exists. Yet fear and anxiety have never been so strong.” writes Diat in A Time To Die. “Men no longer know how to die.”

He explained, “In this desolate world, I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks have to teach us about death. … I thought their testimonies could help people understand suffering, sickness, pain and the final moments of life.”

There were those monks who die like “happy children who wait with impatience to open a gift they have no doubts about the fulfillment of the promise.” Of course, that was not always the case.

The monastery is not immune from pain, despair and even suicide. Even the promise of being in heaven with God can in an odd way be a cause for anxiety.

“I am very nervous about dying, like I was before taking an exam,” explains Dom David Tardif d’Hamonville, who lives in the Abbaye d’En-Calcat, an imposing series 19th-century stone buildings near the village of Dourgne in the south of France. “This [idea of heaven] is beyond me. I have realized the incredible immensity of what waits for me on the other side.”

We in the modern world often imagine death in a sterile hospital room. The sounds are not birds or gentle warm breezes, but the rhythmic beat of machines doing for our bodies what we can no longer do for ourselves. Worse, many die without the company of friends or family, either because they too have passed or cannot be there.

What really comes across in A Time to Die is the notion of accompaniment. When a fellow monk is dying, the ties of brotherhood become deeper, as Diat illustrates. Whereas many in the outside world flee from suffering and death, the monks rush toward it.

One of Diat’s visits was to the community of the Canons Regular of the Mother of God, located in the medieval town of Lagrasse, also in the south of France.

It is a place where the spirit breathes, Diat writes.

“The buildings … harmoniously combine Carolingian, Roman and classical elements, the cloister of fiery, yellow sandstone, the imposing refectory, the subtle light in the abbey church, the canals of living water …”

As he walks to meet the abbot he passes by an empty grave covered by a tarp. It was intended, he finds out, for Brother Vincent.

When Vincent entered the monastery as a young man, he was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. He was healthy enough to work as the abbey’s electrician. But by the age of 36, his body was failing.

The brothers suddenly had to learn palliative care — a skill that normally takes great training.

But mainly they became a constant presence to Vincent. Whereas in the world outside many pull away from death, the monks were drawn toward it. They understood that a great part of care is providing a simple presence. When he was struggling, someone would stay with him. The brothers knew that Vincent was more at peace when they were close by. They also understood that death is the great mystery of our faith.

When the end was near, when suffering was at its greatest, Father Abbot Emmanuel-Marie told Vincent it was okay to let go: “You are no longer made to stay on this earth. We have shared extraordinary moments. You have been a Christ child, like an infant who we had to swaddle, and a suffering Christ, in the throes of unjust suffering.”

Diat writes of Vincent’s passing: “At the hour of his death, he was radiant.”

Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.