The week after Christmas begins with the liturgical celebration of St. Stephen, martyred as a young man, and ends with the celebration of the long-lived Pope St. Sylvester. But St. Sylvester could very well have become a martyr, having begun his papacy just before the Emperor Diocletian’s widespread, horrific persecution of the Church. Both men braved the demands of leadership and the possibility of death for their faith and for those whom they led.
How might they have prepared themselves to confront suffering and death? The scant information about either man’s life makes it impossible to know much. As a theology professor, I wonder if education had a role. St. Stephen’s brilliant defense of the Gospel before the Sanhedrin leads some to think he might have studied under Gamaliel. St. Sylvester, a Roman, might have received a liberal arts education and in any case governed a Church led by bishops like St. Athanasius and Eusebius of Caesarea, whose family background, work, and writings give telling signs of their liberal arts training.
Ancient Roman culture relied on the liberal arts education to prepare its leaders, but today we struggle to show its practical value or wonder if it should have any. To enlarge my own perspective, I have begun reading through The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce Kimball. In his introduction Kimball explains that some have held the liberal arts tradition to teach an ideal conception of the human person, others have held it to teach eloquence through the study of language, literature, and rhetoric, and still others have held it to pursue knowledge of the truth of things, especially of the human person.
While recognizing the value of each of these three approaches, Catholic theological and philosophical traditions lean upon the last one because it seeks to know perennial qualities of reality, often denoted by “nature,” as in human nature. Belief in God encourages this search for the perennial qualities of things, which are created “good” by God. What is this goodness?
Let us consider another of these “big questions”— “What follows this earthly life?”—to illustrate the kind of thinking that the liberal arts wedded to the Catholic tradition seeks to promote. A liberal arts approach will examine various responses to this question and their implications. We can compare two approaches to care for the dying, one recognizing a Christian vision of the afterlife, Midwife for Souls: Spiritual Care for the Dying by Kathy Kalina, and a secular vision that remains agnostic, Living at the End of Life: A Hospice Nurse Addresses the Most Common Questions by Karen Whitley Bell.
In a nutshell, here is the difference between these two views of dying. If one does not recognize any life after death, then dying is about finding and celebrating a new depth of meaning in the life one has lived, as Bell illustrates:
For now, what I’ve come to understand is that we live among people who understand, not what will be after the last breath, but what can be with this breath, for this life, this moment. They live with a clarity of purpose, with compassion, kindness, and grace.… From them I’ve learned that it’s possible to live that afterlife – that paradise, that heaven, that rebirth – to forge a better existence, now (202).
By contrast, if one recognizes an actual life beyond this one, then dying can be a preparation for that life, even if one’s last years or months also involve discerning and celebrating the meaning of one’s earthly life. It is the time when the person not only detaches from this life but attaches to the next.
The “spiritual tools” of the caregiver help the dying examine their lives, and therefore easily draw upon the liberal arts tradition of leading an “examined life.” I do not know whether Kalina or Bell ever pursued such an education, but I do know that the liberal arts tradition offers rich versions of the spiritual tools each offers.
Take narrative for example. Bell teaches spiritual lessons primarily by telling the stories of her patients. She then adds open questions, often suggested by the stories and designed to help people explore their deepest values. Kalina too encourages the practice of “life review, sorting out the events of life and finding meaning” (20).
Given her theological convictions, Kalina’s primary tool is prayer and her primary narrative is scripture. Only God overcomes sin and brings the person into union with Himself. The caregiver asks God to receive the dying person into heaven and to help her help the dying and their families perform the spiritual work of preparation. For example, Kalina observes that some patients begin to moan at the very end of the dying process. She does not assume that this moaning is caused by pain because she knows from scripture that it could be the work of the Holy Spirit within the person: “as St. Paul explains in the Romans 8:26, ‘when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words’” (35-36). When Kalina hears this groaning, she first looks for indications that it has caused by pain. But if there are no such indications, she does not try to quiet the moaning and instead prays with the Spirit in the dying person. It might do productive spiritual work.
Whether one encounters the dramatic martyrdom of St. Stephen or the many trials of St. Sylvester, one handles suffering and death better with some personal preparation and with the help of others. The liberal arts tradition remains well equipped with narratives expressing the meanings people have found in life, suffering, and death.
Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.