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Ars Moriendi 2009

Th' nearest anny man comes to a conciption iv his own death is lyin' back in a comfortable coffin with his ears cocked f'r th' flatthrin' remarks iv th' mourners.---Finley Peter Dunne

Right now, at this very moment, a friend of mine is dying in a hospice far away in Ireland.In my biological family, people have always had a tendency to die suddenly. There is usually little or no lingering. My friend, on the other hand, is dying ofemphysema, slowly and terribly where one false move leaves him choking for air for what he and the people around him keep thinking is the very last time.This is the first lingering death that I have been exposed to in many years. (He finally slipped into a coma last night, so he is no longer awake and alert.) Aside from the fact that I have grown to love him over the years (he is my late brother's father-in-law) there is something else that causes me to especially think about him as he dies.He is an old fashioned, old school Irish believer, very devout and very sure in his faith. He used to be a plumber, but a great plumber who instilled what I call a Christian sense of craft in his apprentices. His apprentices in turn have been instilling this in their apprentices, a wonderful examply of how a touch of grace can radiate outwards. He and his wife also adopted a number of children over the last 40 years up until today and raised them along side their own biological children despite the fact that this family is of average means.But there is something else that has demanded my attention as he lay dying. Twenty years ago he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. It moved rapidly and painfully and in what seemed like no time, the doctors were standing at the foot of his bed telling him that they could do no more for him other than to keep him comfortable for the immanent end.At this point, his best friend (a man whom I have always found rather irreverant) bundled him out of bed and dragged him off to the shrine at Knock, site of a possible appearance of the Blessed Virgin in the 19th century.As it happened, a miracle occured and my friend was cured. The cancer permanently disappeared, which is why he is now dying of something completely different. Now my friend as far as I can tell was never the kind of man who needed miracles in order to trust and believe in God. We of course can be sure of nothing, but the people that know him agree that if there is anyone who has little to worry about in the next life it is he.Still, the prospect of dying soon has been as terrifying to him as I'm sure it would be for me. I pray for him, earnestly, and I know that I should be happy for him as he stands on the threshold of eternal life. But in a way, I'm not even sure what I am praying for. Would I like him to have a little more time? Would I like him to be healed again with another miracle? (He is a very old man now.) Or do I think that at this point death is the greater blessing?We are sometimes asked to remember as Catholics that this life is a vale of tears, especially when compared to the delights of heaven. But we are human too; life is sweet. If even Christ shed tears in the Garden of Gethsemane, how much harder is it for us to let go--- let go of life and let go of each other.Faced with this paradox, I see no easy resolution. My friend Noel is so close to death that he may be gone by the time you read these words. But I find as I compose my prayers for him, what I now ask for is simply strength; strength for him, strength for me, strength for us all.

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Thank you for this moving meditation. Yesterday my seminar read Pope Benedict's encyclical, "Spe Salvi," and these words of his came to my mind when I read your reflection:"The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the othermy prayer for himcan play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well."Prayers for your friend and for you.

In such cases it is not unfitting to pray, it seems to me, for the speedy and peaceful death of the person you love.Modern medicine has not made death painless, but has caused many people to die in protracted agony over long months, or to be kept alive for long years in a vegetative condition. The Church is silencing theologians who want to explore this twilight zone (such as Fr Juan Masia).

I frequently begin prayers for the terminally ill with, "Thy will be done". I also pray that, if s/he die, s/he be in God's loving embrace, and for strength and comfort for the family and friends - for whom the care during the decline and deathwatch is another palpable form of suffering..

Father Imbelli, your quotation was perfect. Thank you Joseph and Jim.My friend Noel Barry of Cork Ireland died this morning.

Prayer is the one action available when all else is not. Death is the fruition of life yet it can feel like a separation. Even Jesus felt this in his last moments. Unagidon, you have given us a solid meditation and we can only hope to bring you reconciliation and prayer in this very acute period. May Noel rest in peace and God comfort you in your grief.

But I find as I compose my prayers for him, what I now ask for is simply strength; strength for him, strength for me, strength for us all. I can't think of a better way to give voice to your obviously heartfelt and wrenching thoughts. Fair winds and following seas, Unagidon.

Regarding Father Imbelli's quote, some years ago when I started to learn to pray again (long story) I started praying on my long daily walk to the train station in the morning. It's about 3 miles, so I have a lot of time.I took up the idea of praying for the dead; specifically my deceased parents. Then it struck me that I should pray for my deceased grandparents, aunts and uncles. Then I thought I should also probably pray for my wife's deceased relatives. But why stop there? When I went through the list of dead in my head, I found that it was massive and there were many people that I had not thought of for years. They used to be so important to me, or at least they loomed large at one time (like some of my crazy neighbors over the years). I could not help (probably the influence of my Irish grandmother here) but actually picture all of these people waiting for me to pray to them. This prayer time has become very intimate in my mind.But the startling thing about it was how easy it turned out for me to forget the dead. I am not suggesting that one becomes obsessed with them, but I think that our religion tends to say that the dead do not have many to speak for them among the living (and they can't speak for themselves in quite the way they could when they were alive).Of course thinking about the dead I have forgotten made me also think about the living I've forgotten. That's another story. But sometimes I think that part of being a Christian is simply in not forgetting the people around one.

A friend of mine has a practice (which I try to imitate from time to time).He prays before Rublev's ikon of the Trinity, assuming the fourth place at the eucharistic table. Then he visualizes others, at his right, who are the living for and with whom he prays; and others on his left, those who have gone before him, praying for them and with them. Thus the communion of holy ones accompanies his prayer.

May Noel Barry breathe the fresh air of heaven now. My dad is in hospice with emphysema. It's a hard, hard way to go.

Oh, Jean, I'm so sorry to hear that. I will pray for him too.

Actually, Dad has done better since he went on hospice. I think laying down that burden of monthly doctor visits only to hear, "yup, you're getting worse and there's nothing we can do," was a relief. You might pray to St. Bernadine of Siena, patron of patients with lung conditions, that those with terminal COPD get the medication they need to leave this life with some measure of comfort. Meds that reduce anxiety and ease dyspnea are often withheld because they're CNS depressants.