Meditations on Death: Preparing for Eternity
By Thomas à Kempis. Translated by Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB.
TAN Books, 2023.
Hardcover, 88 pages, $19.95.
Reviewed by Thomas Banks.
To scratch an itch of curiosity, I recently entered the word “Death” into the Amazon search bar. Scanning the first couple of dozen book titles among the infinity of results, I took note of the fact that most of these were either thrillers of the cheaper, more sensationalist type, or self-help books authored by dubious spiritual gurus or popular psychologists. To judge by their jacket blurbs and introductions, most of these bereavement Baedekers affect a fastidiously indefinite spirituality, as free of confessional commitments as of even the remotest reflection on three of the Four Last Things. Like a valetudinarian rentier supported by a loyal servant with the most unimpeachable references, the interested reader may take from these enchiridia food for his more delicate appetites. Care, understanding, and empathy (a word of novel and increasing holiness) are here in inexhaustible abundance. Nowhere in evidence is the least reproach or faintest criticism—never a hint that the man on the banks of Jordan might be well advised to examine his soul before crossing over. The senses are lulled by the gentle cushioning of a hundred euphemisms and padded phrases, lest the wings of Azrael be heard beating not far off in the background. Into such an antiseptic method has the ars moriendi been lately developed by the careful hands of certified professionals.
To pass from these titles to a death-manual of the fifteenth century is to be taken from a florid and luxurious coastal resort to a cold and bracing Alpine valley: the northern atmosphere is purer and less sultry, but our lungs and muscles labor more strenuously in its thinner air. Thomas à Kempis, who wrote this little book perhaps a lifetime after the Black Death had snatched away a third part of the population of Christian Europe, appears to have felt minimal obligation to flatter the sensibility of his listener. “My friend”, he begins, “it is most useful for you to call to mind frequently and assiduously the reality of your own death. This, indeed, is the one universal reality of our human condition.” Turning over these pages, I began to consider how the contemplation of one’s mortal end as one of the chief practices of philosophy changed so very little from Classical Antiquity until the first stirrings of Modernity. That a reasoning man owed it to his God or gods to die well is an obligation felt equally by Solomon, Socrates, the Stoics, and countless anonymous monks and desert anchorites; even so late as the Renaissance, a somewhat worldly Catholic like Montaigne could title one of his essays Que Philosopher C’est Apprendre a Mourir. To constrain the mind to the recognition of life’s inescapable closure was one of the more solemn means of rightly submitting one’s will to nature and the Divinity that rules it. This principle could be acknowledged equally by Jew, Christian, and Pagan, more or less without exception until the Baconian revolution and the reshaping of applied philosophy into an instrument for the subjugation of nature to man’s exigencies. To enter into the older spirit for us most recent children of Adam means breasting an adverse current. It is second nature for us to demand that even our most unavoidable predicaments be alleviated, and if this cannot be, we search for the best means of ignoring them. To accept them simply and without bellyaching would require habits of self-restraint that we have long abandoned, if ever we were taught them in the first place. And old Medieval Thomas, standing on the distant bank to summon us onward, is not given to shouting unearned encouragements.
The chapters in this book are all quite short, but at least one or two of them seem rather longer, especially that on the torments of Hell. It may be that a God-fearing contemporary brought up in the Fundamentalist tradition fancies that he has heard at some time a stout soul-burning fire and brimstone sermon of the old kind. For a while I remembered my own youthful churchgoing to consist at least in part of such experiences. Older books like this one have satisfied me that I was wrong on that score. To have been raised to believe in the physical and eschatological reality of Hell as a half-conscious notion buried in the recesses of the mind is quite a different thing from the images that Thomas summons up for our fear and our refining:
Imagine a great and immense city populated entirely by the damned and by devils… The air there is filled with the dire resonance of the ceaseless groans, laments, squeals, and wailings of the inhabitants. For all of the damned souls cry out in pain and despair over the varied tortures and miseries they endure, while the demons…issue forth their own malevolent cacophony of cruel taunts, callous derision, and sinister, diabolical laughter.
The hand of a master homilist is at work here—not only one who can frighten effectively, but one who does not need to drown his canvas in lurid blacks and reds to produce the desired emotion. The canon regular knows how long to let his protégé stare into the pit before leading him back to brighter uplands:
Those who have lived holy and upright lives…shall rejoice knowing that they are about to depart…to enjoy unending and infinite bliss in the company of glorious angels and saints, illuminated by the magnificent and glorious radiance of the Holy Trinity itself… Exultantly they shall ascend to the realm of everlasting happiness and peace, departing from the miseries of this present world without a single shadow of regret.
The artist in Thomas reveals himself also in the arrangement of his material; for instance, the way in which the voice of the narrator shifts from the position of spiritual advisor to that of the sick man awaiting his mortal end preserves the book from falling into that monotony which besets much spiritual writing of whatever vintage.
Previous to meeting this work I had known Thomas only through his immortal Imitatio Christi. This little handbook reminded me of his almost peerless importance in the development of devotional literature, not only in the Catholic Church of the later Middle Ages and after, but also on many of the great names of the several Protestant traditions as well: the onetime slave trader John Newton credited his reading of the Imitation with his conversion, and it appears that Bonhoeffer kept a copy with him while awaiting execution at Flossenbürg in 1945.
To acknowledge and respect the end to which we are destined, to meditate and learn to bear the thought of it—this is one of the ancient disciplines which we have, beyond all argument, let fall into oblivion, and which we must, past all denial, dedicate ourselves to recovering. This six hundred year old book, the handiwork of a Dutch religious so little envious of reputation that he signed none of his writings, is a draught of strong medicine to aid us in our purpose.
Thomas Banks lives in North Carolina and teaches online at the House of Humane Letters. His writings have appeared in First Things, Quadrant, Touchstone, The New Oxford Review, and elsewhere.
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