Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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“A Time to Die” by Nicolas Diat

November 27th, 2019, Promulgated by Diane Harris

I had no plan to read this book. Actually, I had never even heard of it until I saw it for sale at the Carmelite Monastery in Rochester, NY. At first I was a bit put off by the title, “A Time to Die” (Ignatius Press, 2019.) and by the macabre cover art of St. Francis’ contemplating a human skull. The next thing I noticed was the author’s name, and remembered Nicolas Diat as the translator of Cardinal Sarah’s books. Diat’s book is dedicated to Cardinal Sarah, whose name also leads the back cover endorsements. His Eminence writes: “… death is the most important act of earthly existence.” All that, and the usual November focus on the ‘last things’ and end times, was enough. I left with “A Time to Die” in hand for my November reading.  

A Time to Die” is a collection of end-of-life stories about monks from various monasteries in France. One might expect that people of such highly advanced spirituality would have singular and inspiring passages from this life, but that is not always or necessarily true. Death is a great leveling force for which it is difficult to prepare. And the impact is also upon the healthy who remain in the community from which a fellow monk has passed.  While the entire book was interesting, for the purpose of review, and for the sake of simplicity, I focus below on excerpts related to just one element — which is usually ignored in contemporary writing – the implicit competition between the continuously evolving medical system and structures of this age, with the possibility of losing all meaning of death and its preparation and, yes, even suffering, and the societal pressures to hide and deny much of the death experience, especially pain. To make the point more sharply, the challenging decisions are not only between choosing medications leading to and maybe risking death, with the extraordinary rate of technological change associated with such treatments, but also the level of participation in the experience of death as the most important moment of life. Here are the related excerpts on a difficult subject, from “A Time to Die.” 

  • P41: “The Father Abbot of En-Calcat had always believed it was not right to struggle to keep a very elderly person alive: ‘If a monk allows himself to be dragged into this game, he loses the meaning of his religious profession, which consists in the knowledge that we owe our lives to Another.’ Dom David does not trust a system where medicine alone gives meaning to life. ‘Where is God in these complex mechanisms?’ He is afraid of this transfer from the divine to medical power.”
  • P42: “When a doctor calls to tell him that a monk is going to leave the hospital, it is not unusual for a monk to be almost in a coma. He has little time to accompany him toward death. Before the doctor comes to recognize that he can do nothing more, the monks have lost precious time…. The doctors have the power to delay the definitive meeting of a religious with his Creator…. The moment we call emergency services or an ambulance, we lose control over the patient.”
  • P52: “Father Patrice died two days later … The doctors had defeated the famous bacteria they had relentlessly pursued in his lungs. But the poor man had become a weak and emaciated little fledgling. He was so thin that his pacemaker was visible beneath his pale skin. The brothers wondered if the doctors had tried new medications without informing them… How does one resist the authority of a medical decision….? Is it even possible? The elderly are without defenses.”
  • P53: “By relentlessly repairing the living, like robots, we will end up in tatters. When we put a pacemaker in a brother with Alzheimer’s disease, we are caring for the heart in order to prolong the disease of the brain.”
  • P55: “…God allows doctors to shorten lives…. [Dom David said:] ‘Today the problem of sedation is serious. We have to fight against intolerable sufferings. But if we do not feel pain anymore, life goes away. Now, with the progress of analgesics, we no longer feel anything. We no longer feel life. We no longer feel humanity. We no longer feel God approaching…. The doctors induce artificial comas to be certain the patient does not suffer any more. Fear is a bad counselor. It is the ultimate antithesis of faith.”
  • p80: “…the tyranny of ever-increasing medications punctuated his days.”
  • p84: “At … All Saints Day, the Father Abbott … decided to bring him back for good [from the hospital to the monastery]…. On December 7 … a stroke carried him away. Outside, the church bells were ringing for Compline. The final attack had deformed his face. Then, a few moments after death, in an instant, he recovered the beauty of his youth. Brother Théophane became again forever a young man with a fair, fierce, passionate complexion.”

I was particularly struck by the unashamed beauty and timelessness of the rites administered on behalf of the deceased, from the  Subvenite sung immediately after death, to the rituals at the gravesite, ending with the gesture of prayer the Trappists call “prostration on our knuckles,” from Clunesian funeral traditions codified in the thirteenth century.

  • P91: “For the first time in my life, I had been confronted with a situation where painkillers could precipitate death. The line is blurred. Can I speak of disguised euthanasia? Without the help of a doctor, would I have understood the proposition that was made to me? The fight against pain can become a way of killing.”
  • P92-3 “Dom Patrick responded… “I am never so much aware of the presence of God as at the moment of the death of my brothers. There is a break, a before and an after.”
  • P127: “…the latest medical advances risk leading to the theft of death. The excess of painkillers plunges the sick into nebulous states that cut them off from the moment they are going to experience…. The response of the monks is simple: men of God do not want to hasten death. They prayed their whole life to live this moment fully…. Hospitals must remain places where we feel safe. Certainly medicine saves lives. But we have to watch out for ideological abuses.”
  • P129-30: “Dom Thevenin is amazed to see how little modern deaths resemble those of the past: ‘ The monks are men of their times and they are better cared for than their predecessors. Diseases that once rapidly led to death in our time willingly take on a chronic guise. What is especially new is the refusal to look death in the face. We would like to forget it and avoid all the sufferings and anxieties that go with it.’ For a monk death must be available. It is the last act of life and the first step in the adventure of eternity. The offering can only be conscious … Fontgombault considers continuous and heavy sedation … unacceptable and immoral….a deep and continuous sedation associated with the withholding of food and water … is a form of euthanasia that the artifice of wording cannot conceal.”

So, one can see in these writings not only the obvious need for guidance related to end of life medical and nutrition practices, but also the more difficult to assess idea of the ‘theft of death’ and loss of associated ‘soul preparation’ which monks may await more consciously and explicitly, but which is also at least implicitly intended as the goal by every Christian soul. What is particularly striking is the key role of prayer at a time when perhaps it is more difficult than ever to pray.

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