Sunday, January 22, 2012

Robert Bellarmine and 'The Art of Dying Well'

I named this blog after a book by Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) entitled The Art of Dying Well. The book might as well have been titled The Art of Dying without Fear

The book, which is not very long, is a road map for living a heroically virtuous life. For anyone who would like to read it, here’s a link to a free PDF: The Art of Dying Well (text PDF). Take note, the PDF is littered with typographical errors. You can buy a copy that might be error-free from Amazon, but I suspect the version being sold is the Coffin translation and will contain the same errors as the free PDF.

Robert Bellarmine (his full name in Italian was Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino) was an Italian Jesuit and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. He was canonized a saint in 1930 and has been named a Doctor of the Church.

Bellarmine was born at Montepulciano, Italy, the son of Vincenzo Bellarmino and his wife Cinzia Cervini, who was sister of Pope Marcellus II. As a boy he knew Virgil by heart and composed a number of poems in Italian and Latin. One of his hymns, on Mary Magdalene, is included in the Breviary. 

Bellarmine's systematic study of theology began at the University of Padua in 1567 and 1568, where his teachers were Thomists. In 1569 he was sent to finish it at the University of Leuven in Flanders. There he was ordained, and obtained a reputation both as a professor and a preacher. He was the first Jesuit to teach at the university, where the subject of his course was the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.

Until 1589, Bellarmine was occupied as professor of theology. After the murder in that year of Henry III of France, Pope Sixtus V sent Enrico Caetani as legate to Paris to negotiate with the Catholic League of France, and chose Bellarmine to accompany him as theologian. 

The next pope, Clement VIII, set great store by him. He was made rector of the Roman College in 1592, examiner of bishops in 1598, and cardinal in 1599. 

In 1602 he was made archbishop of Capua. He received some votes in the 1605 conclaves which elected Pope Leo XI, Pope Paul V, and in 1621 when Pope Gregory XV was elected, but only in the second conclave of 1605 was he "papabile."

In 1616, on the orders of the then pope, Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine summoned Galileo Galilei, notified him of a forthcoming decree of the Congregation of the Index condemning the Copernican doctrine of the mobility of the Earth and the immobility of the Sun, and ordered him to abandon it. Galileo agreed. When Galileo later complained of rumors to the effect that he had been forced to abjure and do penance, Bellarmine wrote out a certificate denying the rumors, stating that Galileo had merely been notified of the decree and informed that, as a consequence of it, the Copernican doctrine could not be "defended or held.”  Cardinal Bellarmine was himself ambiguous about heliocentrism, personally noting that further research had to be done to confirm or condemn it.

In his old age he was bishop of Montepulciano for four years, after which he retired to the Jesuit college of St. Andrew in Rome. Bellarmine died in Rome on September 17, 1621.

During his retirement, he wrote several short books intended to help ordinary people in their spiritual life: De ascensione mentis in Deum per scalas rerum creatorum opusculum (The Mind's Ascent to God) (1614) which was translated into English as Jacob's Ladder (1638) without acknowledgement by Henry Isaacson, The Art of Dying Well (1619) (in Latin, English translation under this title by Edward Coffin), and The Seven Words on the Cross.

He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930; the following year he was declared a Doctor of the Church. His remains, in a cardinal's red robes, are displayed behind glass under a side altar in the Church of Saint Ignatius, the chapel of the Roman College, next to the body of his student, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, as he himself had wished.

Saint Robert Bellarmine's feast day is on September 17, the day of his death. In 1969, it was downgraded to an "optional memorial.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What happens to us after we die? Six Answers

The human race has come up with five basic answers to the question "What happens to us after we die," and God has come up with a sixth.

According to C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, the first five possibilities are:

   1. Annihilation. Nothing. Death ends it all, except our reputation, our works, and our children, which live on after usbut we know and enjoy nothing of them if we are annihi­lated forever. This is a typically modern concept, although a few ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, such as Demo­critus and Lucretius, held it. For materialism, death is everything, because in it we be­come nothing.

   2. We survive death, but only as ghosts. We become pale shadows of the living selves we once were. This is the mythic view of shades in Hades. It is the belief of most ancient tribes and cultures, including the early Jews and Greeks. In the mythic view, we become less than we were before death.

   3. Reincarnation. We come back to earth in another mortal body. Belief in reincarnation has been popular in many times and places, including the present. It usually exists together with possibilities 4 or 5 below. In reincarnation, we become the same sort of thing we were before death.

   4. The natural immortality of the soul. Each individual's disembodied spirit, liberated by death, survives as a pure spirit, like an angel. This spirit had been imprisoned in an alien thing, a body, until released forever by death. The concept is grounded in Platonism, but is often confused with Christianity, which teaches supernatural resurrection rather than natural immortality, and of the whole person, not just of the soul. For Platonism, death is nothing, as can be seen in the way Socrates faces death: as indifferently as Buddha. Whether the spirit is a universal impersonal spirit, as in Buddhism, or an individual human spirit, as in Platonism, death does not affect it, since it is radically different from the body. In Bud­dhism the individual body is illusion (so is the individual soul); in Platonism it is a mere prison (soma, "body," equals serna, "tomb").

   5. The only thing that survives death is the only thing that was real before death: cosmic consciousness, the One, Atman, the Buddha-mind, perfect, eternal, transindividual spirit. This is the cosmic consciousness view of Hinduism and Buddhism. For Hinduism and Buddhism, death is nothing, because we already are everything, and death does not change that. It simply occurs within the all-encompassing Everything we are.

And God gives us the sixth answer:

   6. Only in Christianity do we become more than we were before death. It is the startling, surprising idea of a new, greater resurrected body. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Miracles: "The records represent Christ as passing after death (as no one had passed before) neither into a purely . . . 'spiritual' mode of existence nor into a 'natural' life such as we know, but into a life which has its own new Nature. . . ." As described in the New Testament Gospels, the resurrected Jesus in the forty days before his ascension into heaven had a physical body that was solid, a body into which the doubting Thomas could put his hand to feel the wound of the spear of a Roman soldier, yet a body that could pass through solid walls into locked rooms where his frightened disciples hid.