While We're at It
Neuhaus, Richard John, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
* As of January 10, it has been fourteen years since I died. After those terrifying operations for cancer, some of the doctors thought I had died, and, for a time, I thought maybe they were fight. I wrote about that ordeal and the aftermath in the little book As I Lay Dying. It is a source of inestimable gratification that so many people say they have found that book to be of great help in their own encounters with mortality. All this is brought to mind by a new book from Doubleday, Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death: Lessons on Living from People Preparing to Die. The author is John Fanestil, a Methodist minister in California, and the Mrs. Hunter of the title is a twenty-six-year-old English woman who died in 1801. Accounts of exemplary Christian dying were a staple of devotional literature of the time. Books on ars moriendi, the art of dying well, were extremely popular also in the Middle Ages. A man by the name of J. Wood was the chronicler of Mrs. Hunter's happy death: "The night before she died, between eleven and twelve o'clock, she sang with a loud voice, 'Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.' She said to the young person who sat up with the nurse, 'The enemy has deceived me long enough; but he shall deceive me no more; he shall not have me. O what a deliverance! What great grace!' ... 'Angels are coming for me! Cannot you see them?' ... Then, turning her face to the pillow, she said, 'O how easy! How easy!' From that time she spoke no more to be understood; but lay from three, till about seven o'clock, when she took her happy flight to the joys of the Lord, on Saturday, January 17, 1801."
* Mrs. Hunter's happy death is but one of many related by the Rev. Fanestil, who has made something of a specialty of ministering to the sick and dying. It is anything but a morbid or melancholy book. On the contrary, some readers may find it excessively sentimental, even treacly, in its depiction of death made uncomplicated by robust Christian faith. As I Lay Dying--although I trust the message of unconquerable hope is unmistakable--is, by comparison with Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death, a book of philosophical complexity and existential angst. And yet, John Fanestil has rendered a service by reminding us that, for Christians beyond numbering, the experience of dying can also be one of serene simplicity. His book is a counter-testimony to Dr. Sherwin Nuland's bestseller of some ten years ago, How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter. Nuland offers a relentlessly grim picture of dying and makes the astonishing statement that never in all his years at the bedside of the dying has he witnessed even one instance in which religious faith mitigated the horror. I'm afraid this is an unhappy comment on Dr. Nuland's relationship with his patients.
* Fanestil is a Protestant, and interspersed between the stories he tells are interesting reflections on various theologies of salvation, holiness, and eternal life. In a footnote, he includes this "Prayer for a Happy Death" by John Henry Newman: "O My Lord and Saviour, support me in my last hour by the strong arms of Thy Sacraments and the fragrance of Thy consolations. Let Thy absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me; and let Thine own body be my food, and Thy Blood my sprinkling; and let Thy Mother Mary come to me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and Thy glorious saints and my own dear patrons smile on me; that, in and through them all, I may die as I desire to live, in Thy Church, in Thy Faith, in Thy Love. Amen."
* Cardinal Newman's reference to his patron saints recalls last month's comment on the declining practice of bestowing the names of saints at baptism. At the risk of excessive self-referentiality, a word on the use of "Richard John," about which I have frequently been asked. The story of how that happened is quite prosaic. I was the seventh child and sixth son, and my parents had run out of preferred names for boys, so they suggested that the older children write the names they wanted and put the slips of paper into a pot on the stove, from which Dad, with eyes dosed, picked Richard John. …