Adoration of the Magi by Giotto.
Some celebrate today the Epiphany, which is traditionally marked on 6 January, but we shall defer our note of it here until tomorrow...
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 continue my presentation of this work, as I plan each Sunday, which now brings us to Chapter 4, On Three Evangelical Counsels.
St. Robert Bellarmine (+1621AD)
CHAPTER IV. THE FOURTH PRECEPT, CONTAINING THREE EVANGELICAL COUNSELS.
ALTHOUGH what we have said on faith, hope, and charity, may seem sufficient to enable us to live well and die well; yet, in order to effect these two objects more perfectly and more easily, our Lord Himself has deigned to give us three counsels in the Holy Scriptures: thus He speaks in St. Luke:
"Let your loins be girt, and lamps burning in your hands. And you yourselves like to men who wait for their lord, when he shall return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord, when he cometh, shall find watching." (chap. xii. 35, 36.)
This parable may be understood in two ways: of preparation for the coming of our Lord at the last day, and for His coming at the particular death of each one. This latter explanation which is that of St. Gregory on this gospel (Homily xiii) seems more adapted to our subject: for the expectation of the last day, will chiefly regard only those who will then be alive: our Lord seems to have intended it for the apostles, not for all Christians, although the apostles and their successors were many ages distant from this day.
Moreover, many signs will precede the last day, that will terrify men, according to the words of our
Lord:" And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars: and upon the earth distress of nations Men withering away for fear, and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world." But no certain signs will precede the particular death of each one: and such a coming do those words signify, which are so frequently repeated in the Holy Scripture, that the Lord will come like " a thief" that is, when He is least expected.
We will, therefore, briefly explain this parable, understanding by it that preparation for death, which above all things is so absolutely necessary for us. Our Lord commands us all to observe three things:
First, that we have "our loins girt;" Secondly, that we have "lamps burning in our hands;" Thirdly, that we "watch " in expectation of the coming of our Judge, being no less ignorant when He will come, than we are of the coming of thieves. Let us explain the words, “Let your loins be girt." The literal meaning of these words is, that we should be ready prepared to go forth and meet the Lord, when death shall call us to our particular judgment. The comparison of the garments being girt, is taken from the custom of Eastern nations that use long garments; and when they are about to go on a journey or to walk, they gather up their garments and gird their loins, lest their garments should be in their way. Hence it is said of the angel Raphael, who had come as a guide to the younger Tobias:
"Then going forth, found a beautiful young man, standing girded, and as it were ready to walk."
(Tobias v. 5.) And according to the same custom of the Orientals, St. Peter writes: “Wherefore, having the loins of your mind girt up, being sober, trust perfectly in the grace which is offered you,& c.” (1 Epist. i. 13.) And St. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians says: “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth.” (i. 14.) Now, to have our "loins girt," signifies two things: First, the virtue of chastity; Secondly, a readiness to meet our Lord coming to judgment, whether it be the particular or the general judgment. The holy fathers, St. Basil, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory, give the first explanation. And truly, the concupiscence of the flesh, beyond all other passions, doth greatly hinder us from being ready to meet Christ; whilst, on the other hand, nothing makes us more fit to follow our Lord, than virginal chastity. We read in the Apocalypse how virgins follow the Lamb “whithersoever he goeth.”
And the apostle saith: “he that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided." (1 Epist. to Cor. vii. 32, 33.) But another explanation, which does not restrict the "the loins girt" to continence alone, but includes a ready obedience to Christ in all things, is that of St. Cyprian (Liber de Exhortat. Martyrii, cap. viii): we shall also follow the explanation which most commentators give of this passage. The meaning then of these words is, that the affairs of this life even the most necessary and important must not so occupy our mind as to hinder us from directing our first thoughts, by preparing to meet Christ when He shall call upon us at our death, to give an account of all our works, yea, of all our words and thoughts, even unto every idle word and frivolous thought.
What will they do then, when death cometh suddenly upon them, who are now wholly immersed in worldly cares, and who never think for one moment of the account they will have to give to God, of all their works, of all their words, of all their thoughts, of all their desires, and of all their omissions?
Will these be able to meet Christ, with their loins girt? Rather, will they not, being entangled and bound, fall in their sins into despair? For what can they answer, when the Judge shall say unto them:
“Why did you not attend to my words, with which I so often admonished you, saying: Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all other things shall be added unto you? And why also did you not consider those words, which you must have so often heard in the church, Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her ? If I reprehended Martha, who was so anxious to serve me, can I be pleased with your anxiety to hoard up superfluous wealth, to attain dangerous honours, to satisfy your sinful passions; and, in the mean time, to forget the kingdom of God and His justice, which above all other things is so necessary for you?”
But we will now explain another duty of the diligent and faithful servant: "And lamps burning in your hand." It is not sufficient for the faithful servant to have his "loins girt," that so he may freelyand easily meet his Lord; a burning lamp is also required to show him the way, because at night he should be expecting the Lord, when He returneth from the nuptial banquet. In this place, "the lamp" signifies the law of God, which will point out the right path. David saith: " Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path."
The "law is a light” saith Solomon in the Book of Proverbs. But this lamp cannot illumine or point out the way, if it be left in our chamber or house, and therefore we must hold it in our hand, that it may show us the right way. Many there are well acquainted with divine and human laws, but they commit many sins, or omit many good and necessary works, because they have not a lamp in their hands that is, because their knowledge does not extend to works. How many most learned men are there, who commit very grievous sins, because when they act they consult not the law of the Lord, but their anger, their lust, or some other passion! If King David, when he saw Bethsabee naked, had remembered the command of God, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife," he would never have fallen into so great a crime; but, because he was delighted with the beauty of the woman, forgetting the divine law, this man, once so just and holy, committed adultery. Wherefore, we must always hold the lamp of the law, not hidden in our chamber, but in our hands, and obey those words of the Holy Spirit, who orders us to meditate on the law of the Lord " day and night," that so with the prophet we may say: "Thou hast commanded thy commandments to be kept most diligently. That my ways may be directed to keep thy justifications!”(Psalm cxviii.) He who always keeps before his eyes the lamp of the law, will always be ready to meet his Lord whenever He cometh.
The third and last duty of the faithful servant is "to watch” being uncertain when the Lord shall come: "Blessed are those servants whom, when the Lord shall come, he shall find watching." Our Creator does not wish that men should die at a certain known time, lest during all the period before this they should indulge in sin, and then endeavour to be converted to God a little before their death.
Divine Providence hath, therefore, so disposed things that nothing is more uncertain than the hour of death: some die in the womb, some when scarcely born, some in extreme old age, some in the flower of youth, whilst others languish a long time, or die suddenly, or recover from a severe sickness and almost incurable disease; others are only slightly affected, but when they seem secure from death, the disease comes on again, and takes them away. To this uncertainty our Lord alludes in the Gospel:
"And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. But this know ye, that if the householder did know at what hour the thief would come, he would surely watch, and would not suffer his house to be broken open. Be you then also ready: for at what hour you think not, the Son of Man will come." (St. Luke xii. 38,& c.) In order that we may be convinced how important it is for us to be persuaded of the uncertainty of the time inwhich the Lord shall come to judge whether it be at our death, or at the end of the world nothing is more frequently repeated in the Holy Scriptures than the word, "Watch," and also the comparison of the " Thief," who often cometh when he is least expected. The word, Watch," continually found in the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke; also in the Epistles of the Apostles, and in theApocalypse.
From these considerations it is evident, how great must be the negligence and ignorance, not to say the blindness and madness of the greater part of mankind, who, although so often warned by the Spirit of Truth itself, who cannot deceive, to prepare for death, that great and most difficult affair, on which eternal happiness or misery depends; yet few are there that are roused by the words, or rather by the thunder of the Holy Spirit.
But some one may reply: "What advice do you give to teach us to watch as we ought, and by watching to prepare for a good death?" Nothing more useful occurs to me, than for us frequently and seriously to examine our conscience, that so we may prepare for death. All Catholics, when every year they are about to confess their sins, fail not beforehand to examine their conscience. And,indeed, when they fall sick, according to the decree of Pope Pius V., the doctor is forbidden to visit them a second time, until, having examined their conscience, their sins have been expiated by anhumble confession. In fine, there are hardly any Catholics, who, when near death, do not confess their sins. But what shall we say of those who are snatched away by a sudden death? What of those who are afflicted with madness, or fall into delirium before confession? What of those who, being grievously afflicted by their disease, cannot even think of their sins ? What of those who sin whilst dying, or die in sin, as they do who engage in an unjust war, or in a duel, or are killed in the act of adultery?
Prudently to avoid these and other like misfortunes, nothing can be imagined more useful than for those who value their salvation, , twice every day, morning and night, diligently to examine their conscience; what they have done during the night, or the preceding day; what they have said, desired, or thought of, in which sin may have entered; and if they shall discover anything mortal, let them not defer seeking the remedy of true contrition, with a resolution to approach the sacrament of penance on the very first opportunity.
Wherefore, let them ask of God the gift of contrition, let them ponder on the enormity of sin, let them detest their sins from their heart, and seriously ask themselves who is the "offended and the offenders." Man, a worm, offends God the Almighty; a base slave, the Lord of heaven and earth!
Spare not then your tears, nor cease to strike your breast: in fine, make a firm resolution never more to offend God, never more to irritate the best of Fathers. If this examination be continued morning and night, or at least once in the day, it can scarcely happen that we shall die in sin, or mad, or delirious. Thus it will be, that every preparation being made for a good death, neither its uncertainty will trouble us, nor the happiness of eternal life fail us.
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