Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ars Moriendi My You Know What

I’ve just been looking over the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” site which, today at least, features a hell of a lot about religion and very little about ethics. What drew me to the site was this article by Scott Stephens, the Religion and Ethics (but Mostly Religion) Editor for ABC Online. It’s a shocker - short on fact, long on unsubstantiated claims and portentous moralising. 

After noting the release of the Productivity Commission’s draft report on aged care, Stephens declares:

There is an ... important moral or personal dimension to the ongoing catastrophe of aged-care in Australia that demands a reform of our moral imaginations as well.

What sort of reform of our moral imaginations does the ongoing catastrophe of aged care demand? Read on and you’ll discover that we need to recover the forgotten ars moriendi - the art of dying - which was such a prominent part of the medieval Christian tradition:

We forget that the ars moriendi or the "art of dying" - of which Langland's Piers Plowman is perhaps the best literary example - was cultivated in the mediaeval Christian tradition as an indispensable part of living well. But it was never understood as an individual virtue. It was instead a communal effort, whereby the community gathers to listen with patient gratitude to lives that have finally learned to tell the truth about themselves.

Dying, in other words, was deemed the last theatre of virtue and courage, the manifestation of the bond between the living and the dead whereby what it might mean to die well is exemplified.

I’ve read a fair bit on mediaeval history and the one and only mention of ars moriendi I’ve ever come across was in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror - The Calamitous 14th Century. So my first reaction to Stephens’s claim that mediaeval Christianity cultivated the art of dying as an indispensible part of living well was complete disbelief. With the help of Google I found that my disbelief was quite justified :

Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying). A late medieval compilation of texts (prayers, maxims, exhortations, and so on), intended as a guide for the comforting and counselling of the dying; it was issued as a block book c.1460–5 and subsequently in various editions, including an English translation by Caxton (1491), made from an abridged French version. [Oxford Dictionary of Art]

As for the idea that Langland’s Piers Plowman is the best literary example of ars moriendi, that’s looking pretty nonsensical. How can a 14th century  poem be an example of either a social practice or a 15th century book? Finally, Stephens’s claim that dying was “was deemed the last theatre of virtue and courage” just doesn’t sit well with the muddle-headed reality of the mediaeval period. Most of the population of mediaeval Europe - the much put upon Third Estate - were, by mediaeval definition, irredeemable cowards.

Stephens doesn’t limit himself to specious historical claims that any adept Googler can debunk within ten minutes plus extra time for writing and editing. Earlier in the article he makes some pretty scurrilous claims about the current state of nursing home care:

Anyone who has had any experience of working or volunteering in aged-care facilities knows the conditions in which our elderly so often live: their clothes drenched with either excrement or the property-less mush served to them as food; cavernous hallways echoing with howls and plaintive cries for assistance; under-resourced, overworked and frequently untrained staff rushing frenetically from task to task; the ambient disdain for these frail, barely existing hominoids who are not treated as though they were alive, but simply "not yet dead".

Really? You’d think that if nursing homes were really that sordid some of those workers and volunteers would be speaking out about it. Particularly the volunteers. But never mind that - why provide the extraordinary evidence to support this extraordinary claim when you can make your case by quoting poetry and ruminating on it:

[In her poem “Old People’s Nursing Home” Elizabeth] Jennings captured the unreality - and indeed, the hellish immorality - of the nursing home as a place where past and future, memory and hope, are somehow eradicated and all that is left is the nightmare of an immutable, insipid present in which not even cups can break.

Putting our aged relations in these living hells, Stephens argues, is a moral failure equivalent to our failure to fulfil our obligations to the unborn: a moral failure born of our desire for “a kind of lived immortality sustained by unlimited choice, a freedom from obligation to others, and the delusion that we can somehow indefinitely defer our deaths.”

Stephens finishes on an admonitory note:

...if we don't allow our lives to be formed by our obligations, it is not simply our elderly that will continue to suffer. We will find ourselves, and our moral imaginations, immeasurably poorer.

I think it would have been perfectly appropriate if he had used the pronouns “you” and “your” instead of “we” and “our” in those concluding remarks. The article shows that Stephens is by no means lacking in “moral imagination”.

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