Today a Facebook memory came up from three years ago when I happened upon the Church of St. Robert Bellarmine in Rome.
I recognized the patron of the church as the author of a book that I had very much enjoyed reading a few months earlier entitled The Art of Dying Well.
As I stood outside the church, I recalled St. Bellarmine’s remark, “Now every one will admit, that the ‘Art of dying Well’ is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects…”
The most important of all sciences!
Well, if you have not until now considered it a science, here is a excerpt from his preface to introduce you to the tenor of his argument:
BEING NOW FREE FROM PUBLIC business and enabled to attend to myself, when in my usual retreat I consider, what is the reason why so very few endeavour to learn the “Art of dying Well,” (which all men ought to know,) I can find no other cause than that mentioned by the Wise man: “The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite. (Ecclesiastes, i. 15) For what folly can be imagined greater than to neglect that Art, on which depend our highest and eternal interests; whilst on the other hand we learn with great labour, and practise with no less ardour, other almost innumerable arts, in order either to preserve or to increase perishable things? Now every one will admit, that the “Art of dying Well” is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects, how after death we shall have to give an account to God of everything we did, spoke, or thought of, during our whole life, even of every idle word; and that the devil being our accuser, our conscience a witness, and God the Judge, a sentence of happiness or misery everlasting awaits us. We daily see, how when judgment is expected to be given, even on affairs of the slightest consequence, the interested party enjoy no rest, but consult at one time the lawyers, at another the solicitors, now the judges, and then their friends or relations. But in death when a “Cause” is pending before the Supreme Judge, connected with life or death eternal, often is the sinner compelled, when unprepared, oppressed by disease, and scarcely possessed of reason, to give an account of those things on which when in health, he had perhaps never once reflected. This is the reason why miserable mortals rush in crowds to hell; and as St. Peter saith, “If the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” 1st of St. Peter, iv. 1
It is true that we all study and work in order “to preserve and increase perishable things” and yet, knowing that we will die, we also know that we will not retain these things.
I find it particularly striking how Bellarmine begins the preface with the words “Being now free from public business and enabled to attend to myself…” I do not think this is an accidental or incidental first sentence. We often see how serious reflection demands extricating ourselves from public business and retreating into our interiority in order to contemplate “our highest and eternal interests.”
St. Bellarmine goes on to discuss the connection between a good life and a good death – “for since death is nothing more than the end of life, it is certain that all who live well to the end, die well; nor can he die ill, who hath never lived ill; as, on the other hand, he who hath never led a good life, cannot die a good death.”
Likewise I think we can glean much about what constitutes a good life by considering first of all what we think constitutes a good death.