Death and Dying

by Andrea Elizabeth

“Everything essentially Christian must have in its presentation a resemblance to the way a physician speaks at the sickbed.” (preface to The Sickness Unto Death by Sören Kierkegaard).

This and the first chapter about physical death and eternal despair can seem morbid, but they call to mind St. John of the Ladder, which many people read during Lent, and St. Silouan’s statements:

2. The remembrance of death is a daily death; and the remembrance of our departure is an hourly sighing or groaning.

4. As of all foods, bread is the most essential, so the thought of death is the most necessary of all works. the remembrance of death amongst those in the midst of society gives birth to distress and meditation, and even more, to despondency. But amongst those who are free from noise, it produces the putting aside of cares and constant prayer and guarding of the mind. But these same virtues both produce the remembrance of death, and are also produced by it.

10. Never, when mourning for your sins, accept that cur which suggests to you that God is tenderhearted (this thought is useful only when you see yourself being dragged down to deep despair). For the aim of the enemy is to thrust from you your mourning and fearless fear.

11. Anyone who wishes to retain within him continually the remembrance of death and God’s judgment, and at the same time yields to material cares and distractions, is like a man who is swimming and wants to clap his hands.

20. Let us rest assured that the remembrance of death, like all other blessings, is a gift of God; since how is it that often, when we are at the very tombs, we are left tearless and hard; and frequently when we have no such sight, we are full of compunction? This is the sixth step. He who has mounted it will never sin again. Remember thy last, and thou shalt never sin unto eternity. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Mass., 1979, pp. 66-70.)

and from the latter,

“Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.” (quotes from this article)

It can seem that dwelling on death is faithless and unChristian in light of the Resurrection. Kierkegaard contextualizes the resurrection as the thing that can bring despair since one cannot ever escape onesself, even by death. This is a person’s ruination. So if death is destroyed, why would St. John tell us to constantly remember it? I believe he’s warning us that eternal bliss is not assured. We should be afraid. If this is true, happy, clappy, once saved, always saved Christianity is a lie. So, if we are sick and on the brink of ruination, how should that affect the way we speak to each other, borrowing from Kierkegaard’s quote above.

There is a transition from a therapeutic focus towards sick people, to a palliative focus towards dying people. The first is full of faith in earthly measures to preserve life. It is faith in the system. It denies death. But a sickness unto death is fatal. It is treated as inevitable. Perhaps we should treat our sins as leading to this sickness unto death, or eternal ruination from which we cannot escape. We should quit wasting our time treating the body, and prepare the spirit instead. Get ready to meet your Maker, as it were.

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