Bellarmine believed there was a particular “art” in dying well, allowing us to truly “rest in peace.”
As much as we may try to avoid or “cheat” death, prolonging our lives as much as possible, death will come knocking at our door soon enough. It is inescapable in this world and so the question is not if we will die, but how we will die.
Death is something that can come to us unexpectedly, but that does not mean that we can’t prepare for it. Many of the saints tried to live every day as if it were their last, and prepared for death daily. For them, death was always around the corner and they welcomed it with open arms.
In a similar vein of thought, St. Robert Bellarmine wrote a book in 1619 on the Art of Dying Well. He details what he believed to be the key to preparing for death, not only when death is imminent, but most importantly when we are in good health.
Bellarmine reiterated a popular phrase that has been passed down throughout the centuries:
«He who lives well, will die well.»
He goes on to explain, “We must acknowledge that it is a most dangerous thing to deter till death our conversion from sin to virtue: far more happy are they who begin to carry the yoke of the Lord ‘from their youth,’ as Jeremiah said.”
We can not put off turning our lives around until we are old, but must begin doing so today. Bellarmine reiterates this fact by saying, “This first great truth now remains established, that a good death depends upon a good life.”
Interestingly, Bellarmine goes on to explain that if we wish to die well, we must first die to the world.
That we may live well it is necessary, in the first place, that we die to the world before we die in the body. All they who live to the world are dead to God: we cannot in any way begin to live to God, unless we first die to the world.
What does this mean?
The New Testament is full of references to dying to our sin, so that we may live in Jesus Christ. We must be plunged into the death of baptism so that we may rise to new life. If we wish to live well, we must first die to our sinful ways.
Additionally, besides living a life of virtue, a central key to dying well is to be detached from all earthly things. This requires a recognition that any wealth a person may possess is not for their own personal benefit and that they are only a steward of such riches.
Bellarmine explains, “Every rich man of this world must acknowledge that the riches he possesses … are not his: that if they be justly acquired, he is only the steward of them.” This is often difficult to put into practice as wealth can easily breed a sense of selfish possession. We want to keep our money and material things for our own benefit and not share them with others. Yet, a true Christian understanding of wealth is that it is a gift given by God for the good of all. We are only stewards of that gift and will need to provide an account of our stewardship at the end of our life on earth.
As we go forth in our daily lives, let us remember that death is near, and if we wish to die well, we must first live well.