Death and Happiness

Oct 25, 2019

Quite often the stimulus material for a Philosothon concerns death. Many of our students have experienced the trauma of death in their close relationships and it is right that we should be sensitive to this and approach the subject in a way that does not cause unnecessary distress. However, there is a balance to be struck between deliberately causing psychological pain to a young person and sensitively opening up the subject in a way that is therapeutic and results in healing. Unfortunately, the temptation is often to protect the affected person by avoidance or distraction, well-meaning platitudes or shallow words.

As a priest, I have often witnessed happy deaths. This is an experience of great worth whenever it happens and each one remains embedded in my memory. There was a monk at Worth Abbey called Father Michael Smith. He was, for many years, one of the monks from the Abbey working among the poor in Peru. Father Michael was famous for his ability to walk over the Andes mountains to minister to poor communities. He became known as “el gran misionero”, “the great missionary”. In his eighties, he returned to England and before long was diagnosed with inoperable cancer caused by many years of exposure to bright sunlight. Father Michael said that he had always wondered what he would die from and now he knew. He reflected that he had climbed many mountains in his life and that this challenge would be the highest of all. He said, “the best part of climbing a mountain is the view from the top”. 

During his final weeks, Michael was unable to eat or to leave his room; his life was reduced to the bare minimum. He had been the servant to the people Jesus once called “the least of these” and now he himself had become one of the least. He died as he had lived and his death was more than just the end of a happy life, his death was a happy death and a great source of inspiration. In his living and in his dying, Michael knew and lived out something of the joy, as he saw it, of being in God’s presence and living a virtuous life. 

When my father was recovering from a massive heart attack, he spoke about how his priorities had changed; how he had reassessed what was important. St Benedict founded an Order of monks and in his “rule” he says that a monk “must have death daily before his eyes”. This sounds morbid. Thinking about death all the time is morbid. Not so! Morbid means being fascinated and enthralled by death and dwelling on its many manifestations. Having death daily before our eyes means conquering death by contemplating it without fear and imagining how it might be happy. 

Abbot Christopher Jamison draws an example from the world of business. He explains that when managing a project, starting with the finished product and working backwards is called “back planning”. When we know what the final product looks like, we can then work backwards, outlining each previous stage. As well as giving us an idea of the finished product, it also gives us an idea of the first step. 

So, what is the practical application of all of this? What does the idea of a happy death offer us as we live life? Or, what is the “phronesis”, as Aristotle would have it? If we are to live with our own death daily before our eyes, what kind of changes might we make to the way we live? Here are a few suggestions; you will, no doubt, come up with many more… 

  • Living each day deliberately 
  • Staying in communion and right relationships with loved ones (as far as possible) 
  • No greedy clinging to people or things 
  • Gratitude as we look back at life and expressions of gratitude to loved ones. 
  • Draw up a description of our own happy death (as we do so we will probably discover what a happy life involves). 

Father Mark Smith