With reluctance a monk opens this new book, a sleek, slim paperback having the appearance of appealing to the sepia-toned spirituality of people who see monks and nuns as living Hummels. “In this desolate world,” writes Nicolas Diat, a French journalist, “I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death.” Fortunately, despite eye-rolling sentences that might come from French 101 (“The streets are calm and wise.”), Diat’s study, A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, starkly considers the reality of death in eight modern French monasteries.
This English translation of Un temps pour mourir appears the same summer that saw a French court of law determine that medical doctors in Reims could remove food and water from Vincent Lambert, a forty-two year-old married quadriplegic. In the utilitarian logic of socialism, he served no useful function to the state and was using valuable resources. It took doctors nine days to kill Vincent Lambert, who was informed of the court’s decision and wept. One would call such sanitized barbarity medieval, were it not an insult to the Middle Ages.
With French monks, the situation is reversed. Monks are open to passing away into the next life, while doctors want to try their best to prolong this life. “Shouldn’t a ninety year-old brother,” asked one Benedictine abbot, “who suffers from terrible pneumonia return to God?” He added, “I can hardly oppose a medical decision,” but for him the problem is “the moment we call emergency services or the ambulance, we lose control over the patient.”
Along with control over the patient and benignly letting a sick old man slip away, abbots must count the cost of medical care. “How should I react,” asked that same Benedictine abbot, “when a ninety year-old monk asks for a hearing aid?” He explained, to some ears echoing Judas, “this investment of three thousand euros could help twenty people in an African village.” The cloister and the world seem not too far apart when Malthusian bookkeeping determines whether a ninety-something monk gets his hearing back or whether a forty-something quadriplegic gets a death sentence.
Augustinian, Benedictine, Carthusian, Cistercian: Diat recounts stories of deaths in these monasteries, deaths of monks old and young, deaths long and lingering, deaths sudden or by the monk’s own hand. Stories of those deaths necessarily include the effect on those left behind. Monks seek God in community, they do not seek community in itself; otherwise, they would simply join an Elks club or hang out nightly in a sports bar. Still, especially in small monastic communities such as Diat visited, one death can have reverberations wide and deep.
In a larger monastic community the ripples soon diminish. Sometimes lay people attending a monastic funeral observe that the monks rarely cry. Oftentimes in a large monastery it is because the deceased was essentially a stranger. It would be like going to the funeral of an elderly long-term neighbor; for a man with whom one occasionally exchanged greetings, only dangerous emotional fragility would make one weep.
Mention of emotional instability recalls Diat’s most significant chapter, “The Shadow of the Black Mountain.” In his Holy Rule, Saint Benedict refers to a monastery’s “variety of characters,” and he tells the monks to bear with one another’s mental and physical limitations. An American monk, exasperated with millennials, jokes about wanting to make a recruiting poster saying, “Are you: Autistic? Bipolar? Recovering from substance abuse? Sexually repressed? If you answered Yes to any or all of the above, you may have what it takes to discern a monastic vocation! Special consideration will be given to men between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four who balance zero life experience with overwhelming self-confidence.”
That monk’s drollery aside, Diat asks an astute question: “Where is God in the life of monks suffering from a psychological illness?” For example, self-absorption usually goes hand in hand with insanity, and sometimes there is a monk with an immature need for attention, often taking the form of hypochondria. Of course, with a man craving attention at every turn, one must engage in tough love and ignore him, starving his bratty beast.
However, the bleak shadows Diat reports are more ominous. Here Diat means mental illness along a broad spectrum, including Alzheimer’s disease and crippling depression. As troubling as it can be to see a monk over time become ever more fogged, more disturbing is the monk for whom all he used to believe has gone blank. He seems to have lost sight of the Carthusian pattern Diat describes: “A beginning full of enthusiasm, a middle of difficult and contrasted experiences, then a peace that announces eternity.” For him, God seems long absent and prayer seems like talking into starless space.
A barren life, one some men can muddle through, but for others, the ringing emptiness and soul-draining drudgery of going through the motions becomes too much. Diat sketches the case of one such monk, who left painful notes tersely saying he could no longer go on. His abbot especially remains haunted by that trauma.
A contemporary atheist might declare that such an end comes when gullible fools are duped by a fairy tale. A secular materialist would tell Diat and his monks that death is simply the end, merely bringing molecular decomposition. For an unbeliever, any talk of life after death is metaphorical, a literary motif about collective memory pathetically misunderstood by the simple and literal-minded.
What makes believers skeptical of such skepticism is what they have seen of others, like Diat’s monks, at the end. Skeptics must account for perfectly lucid people who see with clarity that they are about to step through something—a portal, a gate, a door—into William Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.” Skeptics must further account for the amazing serenity with which those people accept the imminent prospect of that new step.
Here a recent scene from an American monastery may supplement Diat’s worthy little volume. A nurse’s aide was wheeling a lay brother in his nineties to his infirmary room. The old brother was often silent, a man of very few words, and he suddenly said, “Well, I’m goin’.”
“Yep,” said the aide, “you’re going to your room.”
“No,” he corrected her, “I’m goin’.”
He then slumped over and died.