Editor’s Note: Brother Columba Thomas, OP, MD, is a Dominican friar studying for the priesthood and a physician specializing in internal medicine. He graduated from Yale School of Medicine in 2012 with distinction, and also completed a primary care-internal medicine residency and chief residency at Yale before joining the Dominicans in 2016. Br. Columba’s current clinical and research interests include geriatrics, end-of-life care, prognosis, and bioethics. Charles Camosy of Crux recently spoke with Thomas about his new edition of the Ars moriendi (“Art of Dying”).
Crux: The Ars moriendi (or The Art of Dying), a classic, has been around since the late 15th Century and has been translated into dozens of languages. Why did you and the National Catholic Bioethics Center decide that a new English translation would be important to have?
Thomas: We had two main reasons for undertaking this project. First, before this new translation, the Ars moriendi was simply unavailable to the general public in modern English. Second, after carefully considering the text, we were convinced that the Ars moriendi would provide a valuable resource and guide for Catholics today. The overall goal with this annotated translation was to strike a balance—maintaining the integrity of this classic work through careful research, and also making it available to the Christian faithful with a view towards practical use. Allow me to explain the origins of this project in greater depth.
The Ars moriendi was written in the early 15th century to guide dying persons and their loved ones in Catholic religious practices when access to a priest and the sacraments was limited. The work became hugely popular and influential, and as you allude to, was translated from Latin into a number of European languages, including middle English. The go-to reference on this topic among English-speakers remains a book written by Sister Mary Catharine O’Connor in the 1940s, in which she thoroughly discusses its history and development. O’Connor also played a major role in reviving scholarly and popular interest in the Ars moriendi in the twentieth century.
Despite this renewed interest, there remained a problem of lack of access to the text itself. O’Connor and others largely relied on translations of the work in middle English; access to the Latin text required studying and transcribing the early manuscripts and woodblock prints. Ironically, it seems the main reason scholars have avoided this undertaking is that extant manuscripts are so numerous (in my estimation, at least 300 in Latin alone) that systematically studying them and developing a critical text would be a herculean task. A more streamlined approach would be conceivable, but no autograph manuscripts have been found (its authorship is anonymous), and pinning down the earliest manuscripts has proven elusive.
Simply stated, for this new English translation, we went for low-hanging fruit. The Ars moriendi exists in two main versions in Latin, a longer and a shorter one. We opted to study the shorter, abridged version that was developed around 1450 and designed to accompany illustrations in woodblock print. Thanks to more recent scholarship, the origin and dating of this shorter version is much clearer than the longer version, and we were confident about putting together an edited translation that preserves the integrity of the work. Our graphic designer produced exact reproductions of the woodblock print illustrations, which are famous in their own right and beautifully match the contents of the text. To maximize the practical value of this work, we also provided a descriptive introduction, annotations on the theological and pastoral content, and supplemental educational and devotional materials.
We live in a culture dominated by tension and paradox when it comes to death and dying. On the one hand, we are obsessed with death in that it dominates our video games and popular movies and shows. But on the other hand, the very structures of our actual lives are often designed to keep reminders of our own death, and the death of our loved ones, as far from the front of our minds as possible. How might engaging the Ars moriendi help one make sense of this? Does it offer some ways to resist this culture?
What you say about our simultaneous preoccupation with death and avoidance of it is profoundly true. I think it’s a fundamental characteristic of our fallen human nature, and a major reason that the Ars moriendi is relevant in any era. At a minimum, the Ars moriendi can provide a helpful reference for people who have arrived at a crisis point—a serious illness in a loved one, for instance—and understandably find themselves unable to navigate it well through the lens of faith. Family members and friends generally want to be as supportive as possible, but they are often unaware of what they can do, as well as the abundant resources available in the Church to help people prepare for death. The Ars moriendi is meant to help in precisely that way.
That being said, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for us in our daily lives as Catholics to lean into the reality of death, in light of Christ and the Church, rather than avoiding it. Our natural instincts fail us in this regard, because they incline us to withdraw from death and to cling to transient, worldly pursuits. The Ars moriendi makes a careful study of this in its main section, which features a series of temptations from the devil and inspirations from an angel.
The best way to think about these temptations is that they are interior struggles people commonly face in every stage of life, but especially as death approaches. In the Ars moriendi, these temptations are organized according to virtues and vices; ultimately, they are about our relationship with God, both knowing and loving Him. In response to each temptation, an angel offers advice and encouragement, drawing from Scripture and other sources to console and strengthen the person. The virtues, which strengthen us in the life of grace, enable us to lean into the reality of death as we look forward to eternal life with Christ.
As you would expect, the Ars moriendi also emphasizes the importance of receiving the sacraments with faith and reverence, as well as a life of prayer and meditation. It offers careful instruction about these things, and provides beautiful prayers written specifically to aid the dying. Collectively, the elements of the Ars moriendi provide an effective weapon for resisting the culture of avoidance of death.
Your new version of the book, with your introduction and annotations throughout, has been around for a bit over a month or so. How has the feedback been thus far?
The feedback has been very encouraging so far. I especially appreciate stories from people who feel their perspective on serious illness and end-of-life care has changed for the better. For example, I know of a woman who is a devout Catholic and attends daily Mass, whose husband was recently in the intensive care unit with covid. Thanks be to God, her husband recovered, but afterwards she came across this book and realized that she had somewhat neglected her husband’s spiritual and religious needs during his hospital stay! For one, she had not remembered to call for a priest and have the sacraments given to him. She found my introduction to the book helpful because it emphasized the priority of the soul over the body, an important theme in the Ars moriendi, and because it explained how the current healthcare context can present a number of challenges to living that out.
A number of people have found other parts of the book helpful as well. Bishop Joensen recently interviewed me for his radio show in Des Moines, and he said that he found the footnotes clear and pastorally oriented. He also made a point during the interview to recite the prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which contains prominent themes from the Ars moriendi and may been written specifically for it. (The section of prayers in this edition is taken from the longer Ars moriendi; some of the prayers are of ancient origin, and many of them are otherwise unavailable to the general public.) To give another example, a lay man told me how grateful he was for the overview of the sacraments included in the appendix. He especially appreciated the comment about requesting the little-known apostolic pardon, which removes the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven in the sacrament of Penance.
That being said, I also realize that the Ars moriendi contains a great deal of content—it’s a lot to take in—and much of it is quite new and unfamiliar to people. In keeping with the spirit of the work, I recommend that they spend time with it and gradually start to wrap their heads around what it offers. It’s a lifelong project, really.
The opening section of the Ars moriendi suggests that everyone, not just those who are in the process of dying, would greatly benefit from spending time with this work. Can you say more about this?
With this insight, the Ars moriendi touches upon a mystery that is central to our lives as Christians: the art of dying is also the art of living. At the heart of Christianity is the reality that Christ overcame death so we can be united with him in eternal life. We have the privilege and joy as Christians of reflecting upon this reality every day—the victory has been won.
Yet we know also that we are to follow Christ in first undergoing bodily death, when the soul separates from the body; then on the last day, we will be rejoined to our bodies at the general resurrection. Remembering this puts the Christian life into sharper perspective. It’s not just something extra that’s helpful to remember, but something central to the life of grace. As such, it ought to impel us to live more intentionally as Christians. The Ars moriendi says it well: “Whoever bears in mind his end rouses himself strongly to doing good works.”
In providing advice and encouragement for those preparing for death, the Ars moriendi also presents an overview of basics of the Christian life. It’s interesting to note that the main elements of the work, with its emphasis on the sacraments, the virtues that enable us to know and love God (faith, hope, and love), and a life of prayer and meditation, are the very things that Christians should be focused on every day. In this sense, our whole life is a preparation for death.
One of the most horrific things that the pandemic revealed, especially early on, was that the structures many rich Western cultures have built to house those who are elderly and dying are incredibly isolating. How might diving into the lessons of Ars moriendi build what the Holy Father calls a “culture of encounter” with those who are making the final leg of the journey toward eternal life?
One of my favorite pieces of practical advice from the Ars moriendi is its recommendation that the sick person identify a family member or friend who can reliably assist him or her throughout the course of illness, up to and including the point of death. This person is to serve as a constant companion—as much as possible—and to play a fundamental role in advocating for and supporting the dying one. The text makes clear that it’s not simply a matter of calling for a priest and ensuring that the sacraments are given. It’s also about praying and meditating with the sick person, encouraging devotion to cherished saints, reciting the Creed aloud, and ensuring in various ways that the person stays focused on Christ and eternal life with Him.
In my experience as a physician and chaplain caring for patients at the end of life, I have not seen enough of this companionship; it’s simply not engrained in our culture. Part of the reason is that healthcare has become so comprehensive that family members and friends end up entrusting their loved ones to the system of care. But I know that we can do better than that, and hope that we can strike a more successful balance of comprehensive care and constant companionship. What the Ars moriendi calls for is a paradigm shift.