Planning for a happy death

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posted by our religious correspondent Richard Rawlinson

A recently widowed middle-aged woman came in tears to Benedictine monk Fr Christopher Jamison, and thanked him for explaining in a talk based on his book, Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life, what she had felt since her husband died.

Fr Christopher had shared his thoughts on achieving a happy death, a phrase that is for most people today a contradiction in terms. The woman’s pain at the loss seemed overwhelming but through loving interaction with so many concerned people she had experienced deep consolation too. In the midst of pain, she could still contemplate the good and do good. She had never understood before how she could be experiencing both such grief and such consolation.

Here’s an abridged version of Fr Jamison’s words:

Each of us will have a particular desire for the time of our death: that an estranged relative might be reconciled, for example. The trouble is we cannot control our death.

People can, however, take steps to make death happy by ‘back-planning’. Starting at the end point people need to ask: in order to be in that state, what needs to be done the day before, the week before, the month before and so on.

This vision is at odds with many contemporary understandings of happiness. The most common assumption about happiness is that it is the same as pleasure; so being happy means feeling good.

The ancient Greeks had a better answer. Plato concluded that the contemplation of truth, goodness and beauty was the height of happiness. Our dislike of dishonest politicians, our admiration for the generosity of those serving the sick, and the popularity of art galleries, all show that our appreciation of truth, goodness and beauty is as high as ever.

Aristotle took Plato’s ideas a step further. He said that happiness consists not simply in contemplating the good but in doing good. He wanted people to be taught to act virtuously because virtuous living made both individuals and societies happy.

This approach to happiness is not dependent on religious faith yet all the major faith communities support it. Christianity offers practical steps to live out this view of happiness. The Church’s contemplative tradition shows us how to pray so that we can contemplate the truth, the goodness and the beauty of the Blessed Trinity. The Catholic moral tradition teaches us how to live virtuously and how to find forgiveness when we fail.

People should enjoy feeling good as a bonus that can accompany contemplation and good living.

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