On Christian Dying edited by Matthew Levering, Sheed and Ward £14.95 This book brings together many classic texts on how Christians have faced death, some from the “red” martyrdom of blood to be shed, others from the “white” martyrdom of living out the demands of faith in the circumstances of ordinary life.
Although the subtitle states that it includes “contemporary” accounts, this is misleading; St Thérèse of Lisieux is the last writer cited and she died in 1897. I would have thought that 20thcentury Christians such as Padre Pio and Maximilian Kolbe, not to speak of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), might have had some uplifting words to say on death for the benefit of their toiling fellows.
For our times, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is relevant: his brilliant, macabre and prophetic description of the debasement of the dying process that we know all too well makes a reading of these inspiring texts more urgent.
For humanists, death is the end; for Christians it is the beginning of the real adventure – eternal life. Only this conviction could have sustained St Ignatius of Antioch as he begged his friends not to stop him from being torn apart by wild beasts in the arena, or St Polycarp, aged 80, refusing to hide from his pagan persecutors.
Their readiness to suffer violent death – but not inflict it – is quite different from the “martyrdom” of suicide bombers. All the extracts teach us truths in different ways. St Ambrose, lamenting the death of his muchloved brother, Satyrus, emerges as very human: “My tears break forth at every utterance of your name.” St Catherine of Genoa’s death, related by one of her followers, is formidable: weeks of mystical and physical agony, interspersed by periods of seemingly miraculous recovery.
My own favourite in this absorbing – and chastening – selection is St Thomas More’s reflections on Christ’s agony, composed when he was in the Tower awaiting death. All the intellectual resources of his legal training are skilfully deployed; they buttress his steadfast composure at the prospect of certain execution. “Fear,” he observes, “is often harder to overcome than the enemy himself.” For us moderns who flinch at the thought of physical pain, Thomas is reassuring: God will never allow us to undergo trials without providing the strength to bear them.
The writings of St Thérèse, equally eloquent in a different age and idiom, are marred by the editorial error of capitalising and adding exclamation marks at critical places; this unfortunately makes this tough woman, who died slowly of TB without complaint or morphine, read sometimes like a breathless schoolgirl.
The questions for the reader at the end of each chapter are occasionally repetitive. A future, expanded edition, will, I hope, give us some of the serene and poignant words of our late Holy Father, whose recent death was a magnificent testimony to Christian hope – and resignation – more powerful, perhaps, in our media age than those of all his noble, spiritual ancestors gathered in these pages.