Orthodox America

  The Art of Dying Well

      So conscious are Americans of their right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that they are all but oblivious to the purpose of their earthly existence, which is the preparation for death. A similar thought was expressed in a letter written this summer by a Mount Athos monk:

      "Whether young, old or in between, we cannot view the future of this world and its institutions with a confidence and good hope that distract us from our more important and far more essential view--of our passing from this fleeting life into the eternal.

      "A young man was converted to Orthodoxy he told me, because he saw an Orthodox priest with terminal cancer, befriended him, and watched him "die well." He said he wanted to die well, and in order to learn how to be able to do that, he became Orthodox. An amazing insight for an otherwise thoroughly a-religious young American of the hippy generation."

     This letter arrived not long after our attention had been drawn to a sermon on this very subject by the 16th century Italian monk Savonarola. We are printing it here in hopes that it encourage those who read it to spend their lives in such a way as to reach a Christian end, and in so doing to inspire others to learn the art of dying well.

     The sermon is prefaced by an introduction by Archimandrite Ambrose Pogodin whose translation of the sermon from Italian into Russian appeared in Vestnik (No. 36, 1981) from which it was excerpted and translated into English for publication in "Orthodox America" with his kind permission.


A Tragic Idealist

     Close to 500 years have passed since the day when a monk of holy life and burning faith in the possibility of creating a Christian state and a Christian society, Fra Jerome Savonarola, abbot of St. Mark's monastery in Florence, was hanged, his body given over to be burned and his ashes thrown into the troubled waters of the Arno. Everything was done to eradicate his memory once and for all. Contrary to these efforts, Savonarola remained in the memorial of the ages--not only as a great man, but as a man worthy of love and admiration, as a hero, as a martyr, as a warrior battling for the sanctity of the Church and the uprightness of society. He raised his voice against the lawlessness which characterized the Roman Church 'at that time; he desired to witness a renewal of spirit an, morality in the Church, he essayed to have an Ecumenical Council Summoned. Perhaps he overstepped the established limits and in his zeal, so much a part of his noble character, he made some mistake s and gave in to the temptation to take upon himself the role of popular leader, thereby quitting the framework of strict monastic obedience. But he was convinced of the veracity of his actions and in any case he sought neither gain nor honor, but unto blood, unto a martyric death he burned with the desire to save men's souls, to call them to repentance and ascetic struggle to the measure that each was capable.

     Savonarola desired to see that people-especially those in positions of authority in the Church--were Chistians, striving in their lives to realize--even to a small measure-the principles of Christian morality; that they be ascetic strugglers--even on an elementary level, limiting their passions and their pride; that--even to a small degree-they have more love for their fellow man (for, as he bitterly observed: "in the Church not an iota of love remains"); that they be more devoted to spiritual life and to truth.

      Christianity is, after all, not some work · of literature, not a philosophical treatise,

not an aesthetic inspiration; Christianity is life's all-embracing task; it is the very meaning of life and work, meaning without which life is empty, dark, a dead end lost in the fog and the night; Christianity is a man's life, built upon a bright, joyous and profoundly conscious imitation of Christ. It is of this that Savonarola reminded people and with this he confronted the evil perpetrated at that time in the Church and in society...

     Savonarola, an Italian monk who lived in the second half of the 15th century (1452-1498) in Ferrare, Bologna and Florence where he died, appears to be a man who belongs to the whole world and to all Christians. It is not in vain that St. Maximus the Greek, who did so much to benefit the Holy Russian Church, became, under the influence of Savonarola, a profound believer and his disciple; all his life he preserved the bright image of this monk and held him up as an example.

     In his person, which shared certain elements with Don Quixote, Savonarola is close to all men: Catholic saints loved and venerated him; Protestants saw in him a "precursor of Luther"; the fresh flowers we see on the plaque marking the site of Savonarola's execution on the Piazze della Signora in Florence bear testimony to his popularity among both local inhabitants and tourists--of whatever nationality or creed. But to us Orthodox Christians he has an added affinity for the fact that his teaching concerning the Ecumenical Councils as the preeminent authority of the Holy Church is precisely a fully Orthodox teaching; and his treatise De simplicitate vitae Christianae (not yet translated) is a brief Philokalia

     Here I make bold to offer the reader Savonarola's sermon "On the Art of Dying Well," which I have found to be not only very beautiful but altogether soul-profiting; from the entire body of spiritual literature it stands out as quite unique. It seems that having once read this sermon, so profound and full of love towards the listener whom it addresses with filial affection, a person will never forget the beneficial lesson which Savonarola offers to the Christian soul. The sermon forces one to think seriously about the future life and about the need for extreme attentiveness in this life and a careful preparation of oneself for death, for entering those gates which open into eternity.


(A sermon delivered November 2, 1496)

In all thy actions remember the end of thy days and thou shalt never sin. (Sirach 7:36)

It is not difficult, dearly beloved in Christ Jesus, to prove to a man that he has to die; this fact is demonstrated by life itself. But it is most difficult to impress a man with the need for a constant thought of death. Why?

     The desire to live is perfectly natural to man, and because life is more precious to him than anything else, he is governed by the instinct to survive: all his thoughts and, one may say, all his actions, are directed by this thirst for life and he is driven to do everything possible to safeguard his existence. And just as someone in love cannot conceive of wanting to be apart from the object of his affection-the very thought of which is painful, so too it is difficult for anyone to abandon all concern for his life and think about death.

There is a saying that opposites begat opposing feelings. So it is here: the more passionately a man laves life, the more passionate his hatred for death, the very thought of which he finds abhorrent. It is, therefore, very difficult to draw a man away from this state, to inspire a tendency to think about death, and to persuade him to rise above the perfectly natural concern for life which is so pleasing to him while the thought of death is odious... One might add that people are so occupied by the everyday business of living that they simply have no strength to think about death.

      The holy men of ancient times all practiced the remembrance of death; this led them to observe great spiritual strictness with themselves, and now they are enjoying the bliss of paradise. So the remembrance of death is very healthy, for according to the Christian faith, neither the beginning nor the middle of life will bring any benefit without a worthy conclusion. We must therefore concern ourselves to come to a GOOD end, for which reason we must always think of death, as the wise Sirach says in his book: "In all your actions remember the end of your day, and you will never sin." And so, we entreat God to grant us the grace to speak of death in such a way that its remembrance would be firmly sealed upon your minds and that you would harvest much fruit iron, this sermon.

     Knowing that death awaits him, it seems quite unreasonable that man should have no desire to think about it; judging from his preoccupations, one would think he believed that this life was to last forever and that he would always be building lovely homes, acquiring possessions and growing rich. How foolish to think of nothing else but temporal things!

      That man is wise who orders his life mindful of its ultimate goal. For example, the final goal of a builder is a completed dwelling, and he directs all the construction activity to this end. The goal of a military commander is victory, and he conducts the entire campaign consistent with this aim. And so it is with other matters. Philosophers say that those people who steer their affairs towards a particular goal may be called wise in their fields, but not 'wise' in the general or absolute sense of the word, But we can call that person absolutely wise who bears in mind the ultimate purpose of human existence · and the purpose of his life, and who conducts all his affairs and his whole life accordingly.

Man's ultimate goal is the perfect contemplation of God, and whoever concentrates on this goal is wise indeed...

     You sometimes have doubts concerning matters of faith. If you would often think to yourself about death, these doubts would cease and your faith would be strengthened. Take this as a primary rule. Develop the habit, when alone, of sometimes reflecting upon death; say to yourself: 'One way or another I shall have to die.' Look at your body, your hands, and say: 'These hands, this body must turn to dust and ashes; soon everything will rot. Who is this corpse? that one was a grand maestro, that one was young, that one was rich, that one was handsome, that one was powerful. Not so long ago they were alive and now they are dead; all is decay and ashes. Perhaps I, too, shall soon die, and in a single breath everything pertaining to this life will change.'

     Then try to bring yourself further into the thought of death and ask yourself: 'What awaits us after death? Where does a man go after he dies? He doesn't know. And what have we to say about his fate? After all, man is the most excellent creation on earth. And where lies his ultimate purpose?' 'In contemplating God,' say the philosophers. And so, continuing to reflect, say: If the contemplation of God is the ultimate goal, the final destination of man, then everything has as its final destination a state of utter satisfaction and utter repose. We see that in this world no man is entirely without cares; on the contrary, he is constantly beset by various passions and problems. We can thereby conclude that man's destination is not to be found in this life...

     O man, throughout life the devil plays chess with you, waiting for Death to come and call out 'check-mate'. It is your responsibility to observe great vigilance in order to win this move, because if you win, you will have won everything, but if you lose, you will lose everything that you attained in this life.

     I remember that once, in delivering a similar sermon, I advised you (desiring that you worthily prepare yourself for death) to commission three paintings. Depicted at the top of the first was paradise, and below it-hell. And I recommended that you hang this picture in a conspicuous place in your room, and that you accustom yourself not simply to look at it, but to feel its content. I suggested that you always keep in mind this picture and say: 'Perhaps I shall die today. ' You should be aware that death is always ready to meet you, to abduct you from this life. Where is it you want to go, up or down?

     In having death constantly before you, you can cleanse yourself of sin, for there are two things which lead a man to the doing of good: love and fear, and these two prime movers are the teachers of all arts.

     Look at a woman who is learning to care for her newborn; she is instructed by love and love calls to action. It follows that if you have love for eternal life, you will diligently apply yourself to attain it and you will not sin.

     The second prime mover is fear. Observe a rabbit: when chased by a dog it zig-zags in its course to throw its enemy off track and escape being caught. This it learned by nothing other than its terror of dogs. In the same way, if you will think of hell as your enemy, you will not sin as you do now, but you will learn to flee from sin. And when you

are confronted by the temptation to sin, you will ask yourself: For the sake of a little pleasure, for the sake of some glory, some wealth-all of which is fleeting--do I want to lose paradise where joy is eternal and go to hell to experience unceasing torment? In this way he who has confirmed himself in the remembrance of death will think of paradise and of hell, and then love of God and fear will enter his heart and they will lead him to do good and to turn away from evil.

            And so, my beloved son, when temptation comes, think well and say: 'If I succeed in doing good, I shall go to paradise with the saints, but if I act foolishly, I shall go to hell where all sinners are punished.' By thinking along these lines you will chase away all temptation. Ask God to enlighten you and pray that He plant His light in your mind in order that you firmly hold in remembrance the other world...

    Without God's grace and without the light of faith it is impossible to save oneself from sin. Make it your first rule, therefore, to ask God each day to give you His Light and that He enlighten you to do His will and strengthen within you the remembrance of death and the life to come. Here you would do well to recite the Psalm: "How long, O Lord, wilt Thou utterly forget me?" (Psalm 12:1). For we say that God has forgotten us when His light is not in us. And so, in reading this psalm, conclude together with David: Enlighten mine eyes, lest at any time I sleep unto death,' lest at any time mine enemy say: I have prevailed against him (Ps. 12:4-5)

     The second prescription is this: you yourself must have a strong desire to depart from sin. As an aid, make yourself an imaginary pair of spectacles, "spectacles of death," and through them look at everything. It is said: "Qualis unusquisque est, taliaet sibi videntur," i.e., "a man's perception corresponds to his disposition." Take, for example, someone who is irritated and full of anger and hatred; he is wearing red 'tinted spectacles through which everything appears to him to be full of anger and hatred, and he prepares himself for revenge. But if he took off these ugly spectacles he would no longer think of revenge.

    Notice that the imagination, if sufficiently strengthened, can lead a person where it will; if a person's imagination is disposed towards good, it will guide him towards what is good; conversely, if the imagination is full of evil, it will draw a person towards evil.

        If, then, you wish to act wisely and avoid sin, train your imagination to focus on the inevitability of death. Let this serve you as that pair of spectacles I mentioned just now in order that death may be constantly before your eyes. In the morning when you rise, the first thing you must do is to make the sign of the cross: and then put on your "spectacles of death", i.e., say to yourself: 'Remember, O man. that you are but dust and to dust you will return.' Then turn to the Lord and say: 'O Lord, I have grieved Thee in committing so many sins; forgive me. It may be that death is near; grant me grace to grieve Thee no more!' My dear one, put on these spectacles of death" and you will see what great benefit they will serve in your life.

       You who sit on councils, take heed that your decisions are governed by justice; put on your "spectacles of death" and tell yourself: 'I must speak the truth because death will come and I shall have to account for my actions, and if, against my conscience, I have ruled unjustly, I shall have to suffer punishment for it.' You who dream of making lucrative 'deals' and amassing a fortune, remember death and say to yourself: 'In hell there'll be no counting of money, no possessions in the world will be able to help me there.' You who are chasing after glory and honors, remember that death awaits you: put on the "spectacles of death" and think well upon the fact that if you should go to hell all the honors in the world would be powerless to help you. Woman, if your thoughts become fixed on fancy clothes and all kinds of luxuries, put on the spectacles of death and do not risk eternal condemnation because of an attachment to worldly extravagances. And you, young man. when you are aroused to commit a sin, put on the spectacles of death; remember that you will die, and give yourself over entirely to the service of Christ with a clean heart and pure body. Priest and monk, when temptation comes your way, put on the spectacles of death, and you will find them to be very helpful in your battle with all manner of temptation.

     To keep your spectacles from slipping you must use images or objects from the sensory world; make a rule to be present more often at the burial of the dead, go more often to cemeteries, visit more often the dying; my dear one, if you know that one of your relatives, or a friend, or someone else is near death, visit him today and then attend his funeral and think well: What is man? and judge for yourself how frail he is. And thereby you will guard yourself from sin.

       You do not know the hour of your death. Therefore do not postpone the hour of repentance, but go quickly and confess your sins; say, 'I want to have confession today and not tomorrow, for tomorrow I may die.'

Take the example of one saint to whom there came the thought: 'You can do this good deed tomorrow,' or 'tomorrow you can begin·.;' and he answered: 'Let us do it today and not tomorrow, because tomorrow we may not find ourselves among the living.' Prepare your will, arrange your affairs and do everything as though tomorrow you were to die, so that whenever the Lord should call, you could say: 'Here I am, Lord! I am ready for death·"

    Some people think they can lead a self pleasing life and come to repentance on their death-beds, but God does not call such people very many times· And this is entirely just, for if during his lifetime a person has time and again shown an unwillingness turn to God when called, it is unlikely that he will do so at the last hour. A corresponding thought is expressed in the first chapter of the Proverbs of Solomon:

Since I called, and ye did not hearken,' and I spoke at length, and ye gave no heed but ye set at nought my counsels, and disregarded my reproofs; therefore I also will laugh at your destruction, and I will rejoice against you when ruin comes upon you (24- 26)

In reaching the end of his life without having responded to God's appeals, a man earns God's withdrawal of grace--and under such circumstances it is very difficult to find salvation.

[The final section of Savonarola’s  sermon recommends how a person who is ill unto death should prepare himself as he senses the approaching departure from this world. At this point it is crucial above all not to succumb to despair--no matter what kind of life one has led.]

      First, run to Christ Crucified and behold His loving kindness: He willingly was crucified and died in order to save you. Trust that if you run to Him with a contrite heart, He will help you, even if you have committed a thousand sins. Just think how graciously He forgave the thief, and therefore do not fall into despair but firmly believe that He will also forgive you, if you run to Him in all humility; after all, it was for your sake that He shed His Blood.

     Secondly, from the depths of your heart you must grieve for all your sins, and determine never to return to them; and if it should please the Lord to prolong your life, make a resolution to lead a virtuous life and no longer grieve your Lord. Thirdly, call a good confessor and take pains to confess your sins thoroughly and wholeheartedly, and receive the Holy Mysteries. Finally, take care that there should always be someone by your side who is continuously immersed in prayer, And those of you who are at the bedside of the dying, don't chatter, but rather pray for him, all of you, the whole time, because in this hour prayers are what he or she needs above all else.

     St. Gregory the Great, in his Diclogues, relates that one of his monks had a brother, a most willful man by the name of Fyodor, tolerated at the monastery out of pity and love for his brother the monk. Many times the monks appealed to this willful man to amend his behavior, but he was obdurate in his failings, not having the least desire to improve. He reviled the monks and vowed that he would never be one of them.

     There came at this time a pestilence which, by God's allowance, visited this man. When the affliction was at its worst and he was near death, the brethren surrounded his bed and all present prayed fervently to God for him. Suddenly he began shouting: "Get out! Get out! All of you!" And when they asked him why, he answered: "Don't you see this serpent which has devoured my body? Only one part remains which the beast cannot devour because your prayers prevent it, and that for me is an even greater torment, than if he were to devour me completely." Then they knew that it was the work of a demon , and said to the unfortunate man: "Cross yourself." And he said: "I cannot, for the serpent holds my arms as if bound." Seeing him in this state, the monks immediately fell to their knees and renewed their prayers with even greater intensity, begging God to release him from the demon's tyranny. And suddenly he began to speak: "Thanks be to God! Thanks be to God! By your prayers I am freed; now I wish to become a monk." He began to lead a good life and died soon thereafter. ,

    And so, beloved, may each of you take care to live well if you wish to die well. May we always keep in remembrance the hour of death so that by our wise behavior we may in this life experience the grace of God, and in the world to come--the glory of our Saviour Jesus Christ Who was crucified and died for us, to Whom is due all honor and glory and power to the endless ages of ages. Amen·

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