The Art of Dying Well, with Jesus

Recently there has been some significant deconstruction of the grief cycle as postulated and engraved into our psyches in the last twenty years by the work of thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. So it is incumbent on me before I reference these “stages” for the work of Holy Week that I acknowledge the challenges that have been put to her work. I  concur with most of the criticism of the “Grief Cycle”.  What was intended to be a tool for helping professionals became popularized and bandied about by people who demanded of grieving friends that they pass through each stage in some kind of causal process. I am not sure Kubler-Ross would have been happy with what became of her insights anyway! The main outcome of the critique has been a realisation that what Kubler-Ross identified exclusively with death and dying processes are in fact normal human responses to chaos and change. For example, there is as much chance of experiencing the “stages” (and they are non-linear stages that come in any random sequence and recur multiple times) when your motor vehicle engine “dies”, as when you hear that you are suffering from a terminal illness.

Having paid my dues to current research, let me proceed to say that the headings of the Grief cycle still offer useful lenses through which to observe some of the archetypal activities and personalities playing out during Holy week. Along with the work of Kubler-Ross I have in the last few days been introduced to the themes of the classical “Ars Moriendi” – the art of dying from 15th and 16th Century Europe and so may be able to weave these into the themes as well.

Born in a time when death from Bubonic plague (Black Death) was prevalent. the Ars Moriendi, or “art of dying,” is a body of Christian literature that provided practical guidance for the dying and those attending them. These manuals informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a “good death” and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and they initiated a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that lasted well into the eighteenth century.

An article in the Christianity Today Library merges the themes of Ars Moriendi with the Seven words of Jesus from the Cross and this might just become my outline for the Three Hour Vigil on Good Friday,

The Grief Cycle Stages

DenialPeter and the crowing cock – the” rock” that wobbled.

What to do when the ground beneath you shifts.

“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” Denial is usually only a temporary defence for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of situations and individuals that will be left behind after death.

Of course Peter was denying knowledge of Jesus, in the presence of possible hostility and exposure, but was this denial rooted in a deeper denial within Peter that was the result of the chaos he was experiencing?

In my own experiences of shock and chaos, which include being blown up by a land-mine during the bush war, motor vehicle accidents, and experiencing divorce, I have known the numbness that floods the psyche and the functionality that has one feeling that you are standing outside yourself and simply going through the motions without being fully present. Peter had been very vocal about never allowing anything bad to happen to Jesus, but now it had and he was numb. This can’t be happening!

I wonder if Peter’s denial of any association with Jesus was an attempt to disassociate? Disassociation is a very powerful psychological protection mechanism and I don’t want to enter the Freud – Janov debate on this matter, suffice it to say, that there is a very strong pull in times of chaos to deny what is happening and extreme cases even to disassociate from the reality of what is taking place.

The first two woodcuts in the classical Ars Moriendi (see graphic above) show what are called Temptation in the Faith and Encouragement in the Faith respectively

The first woodcut shows the Saints and sages, isolated behind the headboard, whilst the dying one is beset with a horde of tempting and fear inspiring characters.

Chaos will do that won’t it?

All that we know and trust has little worth as we are overwhelmed by the experience.

The second woodcut, “Encouragement in the Faith” has the person surrounded by consoling and nurturing visitors.

Could this two stage process be a graphic illustration of Our Lord’s own experience on the cross?

My God my God why have you forsaken me?” is classically named the Cry of Dereliction, it could also be the cry of Desolation.

Jesus beset by the chaos, the pain, the loneliness, the sheer brutal horror, finds himself denying that God is present.

I insert this here, because I believe it is important that we recognise that these processes are largely unconscious. It is only one who has established a grounded spiritual practice of prayer and contemplation, who will be able, in every moment to be conscious of the inner and outer processes at work in their being and not disassociate and be overwhelmed by the demons who masquerade as realities, whilst the stable mind would know in a wink that they are illusory and ephemeral shadows on the screen of a tormented mind.

It is a great consolation for me that even Jesus had this moment of overwhelming fear!

Anger“Father, …take this cup away from me..”“Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?” Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.

Whenever I am confronted by people who insist that Jesus knew every step along the way that he was going to die as a substitutionary sacrificial lamb as his Father’s will, I refer the discussion to Jesus in Gethsemane. Here we see a Jesus who is not resigned like some robot to the execution of the programmed plan. I see a young Rabbi, with dreams and trust in a Kingdom of Love that could change the world if given a chance to grow in people’s hearts. The looming opposition, the sinister leaving of Judas bringing in the darkness (and it was night!), all of this brings Jesus to his knees before God and he isn’t acquiescent, could he be angry?

God knows it didn’t have to be this way! Jesus knows it too. For me the grappling Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane is a deeply consoling image, a transformative icon. Once again I see the move from desolation to consolation. The shift that is shown in the woodcuts at the start of this blog. From, “Take this away!” to “Let your will be done in my life“. And if you thought that the movement from that desolate pole to the consoled one was easy, count the drops of sweated blood along the way!

BargainingJudas said, , “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

“Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…” The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time…”

Judas makes a bargain. Thirty silver coins, a month’s wages for a life. What makes this deal unconscionable is the fact that Judas is bargaining with someone else’s life. There is the hint of the scapegoating theme here again. It is easy to bargain with the lives of others, but it is also cheap and has suicidal consequences. We can speak of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”), we can speak of Colateral Damage but what whatever our euphemistic name for the bargaining with the lives of others may be, we have to realise that it is never a fair exchange, and Emotional, Ethical or Soul suicide will be the real outcome of such bargaining.

In contrast, Jesus doesn’t bargain at all. Not even for his own life. Is this not the ultimate challenge for the Christ follower. To be prepared to be the one who pours my life out, instead of trying to get someone else to do it in my stead? There is a business in Port Elizabeth called Q-4-U (Queue for you ) For a fee, this company will stand in line for you so that you don’t have to have the unpleasant experience. It’s a bargain! It makes me wonder though how many of us look at the church and the clergy as “Serve- 4 U” or “Compassionate-4-U” or “Suffer-4-U”. Doesn’t “vicar” mean “in place of” or “substitute”? What a bargain!

DepressionHe said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?”

“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die… What’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

I discovered during months of psycho-therapy that depression is the leaden blanket we pull over our souls when the anxiety of reality is too hard to bear. Is this what the pre-Psychology gospel writers are trying to portray with these disciples who cannot keep awake?

They had been in the Upper Room, they had seen Jesus offering Judas the reconciling, dipped bread. They had witnessed the refusal. They must have felt the tension, the apprehension the anxiety. How much easier to pull their robes over their heads and sleep. I thank God that in the moments when this life is overwhelming and I sink into the shadow world of depression, that Jesus is still awake and praying for me and every other one who at times find living their life too much to bear. May I in moments of clarity and calm, be prepared to sweat blood for those whose suffer mental anguish and illness.

Acceptance“Father,… yet not my will, but yours be done.”

It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death that is approaching. Generally, the person in the fifth stage will want to be left alone. Additionally, feelings and physical pain may be non-existent. This stage has also been described as the end of the dying struggle.

The final consolation, comes here in the Garden and also on the Cross. Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Those moments when we can breathe it all out and surrender ourselves to the reality of God’s consoling care. Soon enough the cycling chaos will whirl me up and down the spiral, but just for now, I rest in God and practice for the moment when my out breath will be all there is and what follows is not another in breath, but whatever the Spirit, who first gave me life, wills.


7 responses to “The Art of Dying Well, with Jesus”

  1. Peter avatar

    Hi Scott,
    Good question.
    It’s not certain.

  2. scott gray avatar
    scott gray


    there is an interesting article in a recent chronicle of higher ed:

    (it’s behind a wall, unfortunately)

    i’d be interested, in an age of emerging church, how facebook grief responses might change your essay here.



  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rev. Alan Rudnick. Rev. Alan Rudnick said: A great blog post on the #Passion and the 5 stages of grief: #holyweek #easter […]

  4. Peter avatar

    Hi Jeni
    Greetings from South Africa
    Thanks for stopping in at the Listening Hermit
    Glad of my musings being helpful to you
    Have a Blessed Awe-Full Easter

  5. Jeni Goring avatar

    Really interesting approach. Has helped me give form and pattern to my thinking. Thankyou. Jeni

  6. Peter avatar

    Dear George
    Many thanks for stopping by and for the affirming comments

  7. george avatar

    really enriching. I wkokuld use it for my Easter Triduum reflections. I appreciate. Blessed Easter.

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