St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. (+1621), Jesuit, Cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, wrote Ars bene moriendi, the Art of Dying Well, in 1619AD. Today I present Chapter 3, On the Theological Virtues.
St. Robert Bellarmine (+1621AD)
CHAPTER III. THE THIRD PRECEPT, WHICH IS CONCERNING THE THREE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES.
IN the last chapter we showed, that no one can die a good death, without first dying to the world.
Now we shall point out what he must do who is dead to the world, in order that he may live to God; for in the first chapter we proved, that no man can die well, without having lived well. The essence ofa good life is laid down by St. Paul, in his first Epistle to Timothy, in these words: " Now the end of the commandment is charity from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith." (chap, i.) The apostle was not ignorant of the answer our Lord gave to one who had asked Him: "What shall I do to possess eternal life ? " He answered, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." But the apostle wished to explain, in the fewest words, the end of the first commandment, on which the whole law, and the understanding of it, and its observance, and theway to eternal life, depend. At the same time he also wished to teach us, what are the virtues necessary to attain perfect justice, of which he had spoken in another place: "And now there remain faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greater of these is charity." (1 Epist. to Corinth, xiii. 13.) He says, therefore, the end of the precepts’ is Charity: that is, the end of all precepts, the observance of which is necessary for a good life, consists in charity.
Thus, he that loves God, fulfils all the precepts which relate to the first table of the law; and he that loves his neighbour, fulfils all the commands which relate to the second. This truth St. Paul teaches more clearly in his Epistle to the Romans: "He that loveth his neighbour, hath fulfilled the law. For, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet: And if there be any other commandment, it is comprised in this word, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. The love of our neighbour worketh no evil. Love, therefore, is the fulfilling of the law." (chap. xiii. 8, & c.)
From these words we can understand, that all the precepts which relate to the worship of God, are included in charity. For as the love of one neighbour towards another does not produce evil; so also the love of God cannot produce evil. Wherefore the fulfilling of the law, both as regards God and our
neighbour, is love. But what is the nature of true and perfect charity towards God and our neighbour? the same apostle declareth saying: "Charity, from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and in unfeigned faith." In these words, by a "good conscience," we understand with St. Augustine, in his Preface to the xxxi. Psalm, the virtue of hope, which is one of the three theological virtues. Hope is called a "good conscience," because it springs from a good conscience, just the same as despair arises from an evil conscience; hence St. John saith: " Dearly beloved, if our heart do not reprehend us, we have confidence towards God."(I Epist. iii. 21.)
There are, therefore, three virtues, in which the perfection of the Christian law consists; charity from a pure heart, hope from a good conscience, and faith unfeigned. But as charity is first in the order of perfection, so in the order of generation, faith cometh first, according to the words of the apostle: "Now there remain, faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greater of these is charity."
Let us begin with faith, which is the first of all the virtues that exists in the heart of a justified man.
Not without reason, doth the apostle add " unfeigned" to faith. For faith begins justification, provided it be true and sincere, not false or feigned. The faith of heretics does not begin justification, because it is not true, but false; the faith of bad Catholics does not begin justification, because it is not sincere, but feigned. It is said to be feigned in two ways: when either we do not really believe, but only pretend to believe; or when we indeed believe, but do not live, as we believe we ought to do.
In both these ways it seems the words of St. Paul must be understood, in his Epistle to Titus: "They profess that they know God: but in their works they deny him." (chap. i. 16.) Thus also do the holy
fathers St. Jerome and St. Augustine, interpret these words of the apostle.
Now, from this first virtue of a just man, we may easily understand, how great must be the multitude of those who do not live well, and who therefore die ill. I pass by infidels, pagans, heretics, and atheists, who are completely ignorant of the Art of dying well. And amongst Catholics, how many are there who in words, " profess to know God, but in their works deny him?" Who acknowledge the mother of our Lord to be a virgin, and yet fear not to blaspheme her? Who praise prayer, fasting, almsdeeds, and other good works, and yet always indulge in the opposite vices ? I omit other things that are known to all. Let not those then boast that they possess “unfeigned” faith, who either do not believe what they pretend to believe, or else do not live as the Catholic Church commands them to do; and therefore they acknowledge by this conduct, that they have not yet begun to live well: nor can they hope to die happily, unless by the grace of God they learn the Art of living well.
Another virtue of a just man is hope, or "a good conscience," as St. Paul has taught us to call it. This virtue comes from faith, for he cannot hope in God who either does not know the true God, or does not believe Him to be powerful and merciful. But to excite and strengthen our faith, that so it may be called not merely hope, but even confidence, a good conscience is very necessary. For how can any one approach God, and ask favours from Him, when he is conscious of heaving committed sin, and of not having expiated it by true repentance ? Who asks a benefit from an enemy? Who can expect to be relieved by him, who he knows is incensed against him ?
Hear what the wise man thinks of the hope of the wicked: "The hope of the wicked is as dust, which is blown away with the wind, and as a thin froth which is dispersed by the storm: and a smoke that is scattered abroad by the wind; and as the remembrance of a guest of one day that passeth by."
(Wisdom v. 15.). Thus the wise man admonishes the wicked, that their hope is weak not strong; short not lasting; they may indeed, whilst they are alive, entertain some hopes, that some day they will repent and be reconciled to God: but when death overtakes them, unless the Almighty by a special grace move their heart, and inspire them with true sorrow, their hope will be changed into despair, and they will exclaim with the rest of the wicked: "Therefore we have erred from the way of truth, and the light of justice hath not shined unto us, and the sun of understanding hath not risen upon us. What hath pride profited us? or what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us? All those things are passed away like a shadow," &c. (Wisdom v. 6 8.) Thus doth the wise man admonish us, that if we wish to live well and die well, we must not dare to remain in sin, even for one moment, nor allow ourselves to be deceived by a vain confidence, that we have as yet many years to live, and that time will be given to us for repentance.
Such a vain confidence hath deceived many, and will deceive many more, unless they wisely learn whilst they have time the Art of dying well. “There now remaineth charity, the third virtue, which is justly called the “queen of virtues;" with this no one can perish, without it no one can live, either in this life or in the next. But that alone is true charity which springs from a " pure heart: " it is "from God," as St. John saith; and also more clearly St. Paul, "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us." (Epist. to Romans v. 5.) Charity is therefore said to come from a "pure heart," because it is not enkindled in an impure heart, but in one purified from its errors by faith, according to the words of the apostle Peter: "purifying their hearts by faith: " and by divine hope, it is also purified from the love and desire of earthly things. For as a fire cannot be enkindled in wood that is green or damp, but only in dry wood; so also the fire of charity requires a heart purified from earthly affections, and from a foolish confidence in its own strength.
From this explanation we can understand what is true charity, and what false and feigned. For should we delight to speak of God, and shed even tears at our prayers should we do many good works, give alms and often fast; but yet allow impure love to remain in our heart, or vain glory, or hatred to our neighbour, or any other of those vices that make our hearts depraved this is not true and divine charity, but only its shadow. With the greatest reason then does St. Paul, when speaking of true and perfect justice, not mention simply, faith, hope, and charity: but he adds, “Now the end of the commandment is charity from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith." This is the true Art of living and dying well, if we persevere till death in true and perfect charity.
I shall be presenting this work at length, but in chapter-length installments each Sunday. If you simply can't wait for the next chapter, or want to read it all at once, you can find the full text here: http://goodcatholicbooks.org/pdf/bellarmine_art-of-dying-well.pdf
Merry Christmas & live well!