The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Thematic: The Evening of Life

The Lost Art of Dying

Thomas Pfau

Detail from “Triumph over Impatience,” colored woodcut from Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying), fifteenth century; Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Why, for the past 200 years or so, have death and dying been experienced as essentially incomprehensible?

You want, if possible—and no “if possible” is crazier—to abolish suffering. And we? It looks as though we would prefer it to be heightened and made even worse than it has ever been. Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal; it looks to us like an end, a condition that immediately renders people ridiculous and despicable—that makes their decline into something desirable! The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—don’t you know that this discipline has been the sole cause of every enhancement?

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil11xFriedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 225.

Is there a better portrayal of the modern individual’s horrified perplexity in the face of death than Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich? Unfolding with the economy of detail and stringent mastery of narrative so characteristic of Tolstoy’s art, the story captures the frightful isolation of modernity’s “buffered” individual. Ivan’s doctors reduce his terminal condition to a mere “weighing of probabilities—a floating kidney, chronic catarrh, or appendicitis.” An unbridgeable emotional chasm separates the dying Ivan from and friends and family members: “‘You see, he’s dead, and I am not,’ each of them thought or felt.”22xLeo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, NY: Vintage, 2009), 40.

Above all, the process of dying exposes Ivan’s own metaphysical perplexity. As soon as he has grasped the terminal nature of his condition, he finds himself ensnared “in continual despair.… It cannot be that I should die. It would be too terrible.” What leaves Ivan reeling is less his physical deterioration than his utter inability to sum up his life as having served any purpose beyond the usual quotidian successes that identify him as the quintessential petit bourgeois. Having judged others throughout his career as a magistrate, Ivan is stunned by what the last judgment reveals about himself: “More terrible than his physical sufferings were his moral sufferings…these were his chief torment.”33xIbid., 88.

Inexorably, metaphysical questions intrude upon Ivan, questions that he, with a complacency characteristic of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, had long assumed to have been “solved” or “overcome” by decades of scientific progress. Learning otherwise, Ivan weeps “over…his terrible loneliness, over the cruelty of people, over the cruelty of God, over the absence of God.” Dying belatedly exposes the essential hollowness of the life that has preceded it, “easy, pleasant, merry, and always decent and approved by society.” Now, at the threshold of death, “it occurred to [Ivan] that what had formerly appeared completely impossible to him, that he had not lived his life as he should have, might be true.” Death for Ivan is the very distillation of meaninglessness, an enigmatic termination of the pointless agony that precedes it: “Three days of suffering, and then death.”44xIbid., 45. All Ivan can summon is “a three-day ceaseless howling” of rage and despair, a continual scream of incomprehension that will resonate throughout modern fiction, strikingly, for example, in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

Modernity’s Inept Response to Death

Why, for the past 200 years or so, have death and dying been experienced as essentially incomprehensible? By construing death as sheer negation, the modern worldview—naturalistic, reductivist, and skeptical—has framed dying as little more than an economic proposition to be approached and “solved” from a cost-benefit perspective. Death is experienced as the total absence of meaning and, consequently, as something not to be understood but merely to be managed by drawing on medical ingenuity, pharmaceutical resources, and the (increasingly limited) forbearance of insurance companies. The recent loosening of centuries-old restrictions on physician-assisted suicide is but one feature of a multipronged approach that seeks to manage and expedite dying.

Writing in 1910, the German sociologist Georg Simmel may well have understood that he was fighting a rear-guard action when he warned against precisely this reductive conception of death as negation. As he noted, such a naturalistic account of death as something to be avoided, postponed, and denied ultimately ends up understanding “each of life’s steps…only as a temporal approximation of death.” What Martin Heidegger would soon reformulate as “being-toward-death” Simmel captured in an image of “people who walk in the opposite direction of a moving ship: as they walk towards the south, the ground on which they are doing so is being carried to the north.” And, as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich realizes so clearly in his last weeks, people walk south mainly so as not to have to admit that they, too, are inexorably headed north, toward death. What, then, accounts for this ubiquitous and paradoxical pattern whereby, in Simmel’s formulation, “the life that we use up as we approach death is used up to flee death”?55xGeorg Simmel, “The Metaphysics of Death,” in Theory, Culture, and Society, 24 (2007): 72–77; quotes from 72, 75. First published 1910.

Ilyich succumbs to despair because despair is the bourgeois epoch’s default response to death. The naturalistic underpinnings of such despair have resonated in modern fiction ever since, often taking the form of metaphorically comparing human death to that of animals expiring in isolation, without dignity, and overwhelmed by the aura of meaninglessness that such a demise casts back on the entire trajectory of one’s life. “Like a dog,” says the dying Joseph K. to himself in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, “and it was as though shame should outlive him.”

Modern fiction offers countless, almost always dystopic accounts of bourgeois individuals confronting death and, by extension, the utter incomprehensibility of modern existence. In so doing, the modern novel from Stendhal onward achieves a distinctive if sharply circumscribed lucidity. It is the lucidity of one who remembers forgetting something but, though profoundly unsettled by that very fact, cannot remember what that something was. As the fiction of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Mann, Rilke, Musil, Woolf, and many others captures so vividly, there is something frightfully stunted and inept about modernity’s response to death and dying. Ivan Ilyich’s perplexity and rage show the modern bourgeois to be conspicuously lacking forms of practical wisdom and metaphysical hope that once must have been built into the very framework of everyday life and practice. Yet the concepts required for (re)articulating this understanding appear to have withered away, seemingly for good. What would an alternative framework that viewed death as the decisive threshold within an eschatological narrative even look like?

To retrieve this knowledge, we must step outside modernity’s horizon of the epistemological skepticism and the naturalistic axioms it spawned, in consequence of which Charles Taylor writes, “reason is no longer defined in terms of a vision of order in the cosmos, but rather is defined procedurally, in terms of instrumental efficacy, or maximization of the value sought, or self-consistency.”66xCharles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 21. Taylor is right to stress, however, “that doing without frameworks is utterly impossible for us,” and that any claim to being able to do so would “be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as integral, that is, undamaged human personhood” (27). See also Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), esp. 185–413. Yet to extricate ourselves from this immanent frame, as Taylor calls it, demands nothing less than to retrieve a worldview that had framed dying, like the Eucharist in the Mass, as the culminating moment in a life of spiritual practice. It means to situate death within a liturgical order revolving around focused prayer and a sharply defined ritual that reveals empirical sight and transcendent vision as contiguous and intimately entwined, rather than as antonyms.

To exit the immanent frame also means opening ourselves to the encounter with forms of writing characterized by immense metaphysical certitude. One powerful tradition of such writing can be found in the spiritual and visionary first-person narratives that flourished from about 1250 to 1400: intimate spiritual meditations that provided a vernacular counterweight to the Scholastic language of learning. Neither philosophy nor Scholastic theology seemed able to engage death and dying with the same systematic fervor they brought to other subjects. To apprehend the eschaton—the final event in the divine plan—within time-bound existence ultimately exceeded the rhetorical scope of syllogistic argumentation and Scholastic disputatio. Instead, it is in first-person visionary testimony, often triggered by near-death or out-of-body experiences, that the question of eschatology, forever pressing and ineffable, was principally negotiated in late-medieval contemplative writing. 

Ars Moriendi—Image and Fulfillment

In the fourteenth century, an important resource for entire communities struggling to offer pastoral guidance in the final hour emerged: the Ars Moriendi. Initially conceived as one in a long lineage of manuals guiding new clergy in assisting those on the point of death, “The Art of Dying” functioned as a complement to the priest’s manual for assisting the dying, the Ordo Visitandi. More than 300 Latin and vernacular versions of the Ars Moriendi still exist today. Yet what has cemented the enduring popularity of this short work are later printings, which began appearing around 1450, in which we find eleven woodcuts depicting practical advice to the priest ministering to the dying in ways largely consistent with the Ordo Visitandi.77xFor a survey of primary texts in the ars bene moriendi tradition, see Rainer Rudolf, Ars Moriendi: von der Kunst des heilsamen Lebens und Sterbens [The art of dying: On making a good life and a good death] (Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 1957), esp. 56–112; Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 313–27; and Paul Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 29–50. On the theology of death and the eschaton, see Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death: The Classic History of Western Attitudes toward Death over the Last One Thousand Years, trans. Helen Weaver (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2008), esp. “The Hour of Dearth: The Final Reckoning,” 95–139. First published 1981.

The first five images depict devils either challenging the dying person’s faith and hope or tempting her to give way to impatience, vanity, and avarice. They are followed by five contrasting images that show angels rebuffing vices and temptations, as well as strengthening the soul’s virtuous resolve in the face of death. The tenth woodcut, Contra Avaritiam, depicts the deathbed, a crucifix figuring prominently behind it. The downward lines of sight of Christ and the Virgin Mary converge on the dying person, whose own gaze is less focused on the angel at the center of the image than upon a transcendent beyond. Family members are kept to the upper left of the image, where they will not interfere with the sufferer’s concentration on Christ. The positioning of figures and sightlines underscores the nullity of all earthly attachments, which must be disavowed if the visio beatifica is to be attained.

The eleventh and final woodcut captures the moment of the good death, as opposed to the dreaded event of an unforeseen death. Numerous angels and saints hover in the background, with one of them receiving the dying man’s soul in the form of a child’s body—a common late-medieval motif—even as devils helplessly rage in the foreground. At the heart of both this woodcut and the Contra Avaritiam is the dyad of image and fulfillment, of the dying man and the Man of Sorrows, with Christ on the cross affirming the former’s capacity to face and master his own death. 

As the culmination of the eschatological narrative that is a Christian life, the dying person mobilizes all powers of conscious attention so to apprehend her own death as the just and meaningful completion of earthly existence. By the mid-fourteenth century, the hour of death was mainly understood as a “judging and weighing” of the individual’s soul, rather than an affliction of humankind in general. This “separation of resurrection and judgment” specifically defined the ars moriendi tradition, such that “the traditional interval between judgment…and physical death disappeared.”88xAriès, The Hour of Our Death, 107. Instead, the moment of judgment was now located in the hour of one’s death, when the dying person confronts what T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets calls the “intersection of timelessness with time.” Crucially, the ars moriendi framework situates this vision of the eschaton as being within historical time, albeit at its very endpoint. 

The “Shewings” of Julian of Norwich

It is precisely the quest to apprehend the eschaton that constitutes the point of departure for the writings of Julian of Norwich. Not much is known about Julian’s life. Born in 1342 (or 1343), she survived the plague. Her dialect appears to place her in East Anglia, in the vicinity of Norwich. In early adulthood she was likely a nun at the Benedictine convent in Carrow, close to the church of St. Julian’s in Conesford, Norwich. Subsequently enclosed at that church as an anchoress, Julian chose a life in direct obedience to God, not an abbess. 

The overriding purpose and end of the contemplative life of an anchoress is to approach more fully the visio beatifica with which that life will conclude at the hour of her death. This she does by observing a meticulously structured daily regimen of prayer and reflection that harkens back to the fourth-century desert monasticism of St. Antony and John Cassianus, though, unlike her spiritual forebears, Julian would also have been actively communicating with and ministering to members of her parish.

On May 8 (or perhaps May 13), 1373, it appeared that Julian, gravely ill and expected to die, was finding her three most cherished wishes fulfilled—“to have minde of Cristes passion,” “bodelye syekenes,” and “thre wondes” (of contrition, compassion, and “wilfulle langinge to God”). Writing about her near-death experience roughly a decade later in “A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman,” Julian recalls hoping that “bodelye syekenes” would cause her to experience Christ’s passion not solely through empathetic imagination: “I desirede a bodilye sight, wharein I might have more knawinge of bodelye paines of oure lorde oure savioure.” Having lost sensation in her lower body, she writes,

was I stirred to be sette upperightes, lenande [leaning back] with clothes to my hede, for to have the mare fredome of my herte to be ate Goddes wille, and thinking on him whiles my life walde laste. And thay that were with me sente for the person my curette to be atte mine endinge. He come, and a childe with him, and brought a crosse, and be thane I hadde sette mine eyen and might nought speke. The persone [parson] sette the crosse before my face, and saide: “Doughter, I have brought the the image of thy savioure. Loke thereupon, and comforthe the therewith in reverence of him that diede for the and me.” Methought than that I was welle, for mine eyen ware sette upwarde into hevene, whether I trustede for to come. Botte neverthelesse I assended to sette mine eyen in the face of the crucifixe, if I might, for to endure the langer into the time of min endinge.99xJulian of Norwich, “A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman,” in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (College Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2006), sect. 2, lines 17–26.

Julian’s hoped-for vision is not some unusually vivid display or simulation of Christ’s suffering. Within the spiritual economy of the imitatio Christi pervading late-medieval religious life, imitation is precisely notrepresentation. Instead, Julian’s three figural wounds express her wish to merge with what she sees, and to be transformed both by and into Christ’s very being. Such a spiritual and physical merging with Christ’s passion, Julian suggests, is possible only at the threshold of death. Julian views her own illness, suffering, and expected death according to the sacramental order disseminated in the Ars Moriendi. This sacramental dimension is crucial, for to ignore it would likely lead one to (mis)construe Julian’s vision as a purely subjective and idiosyncratic form of piety. In fact, Julian insists that those in the throes of ultimate bodily suffering and impending death depend on the support and guidance of both their fellow Christians and the community of saints and Christ manifested in “shewings” perhaps uniquely placed in reach of the dying person.

Throughout Julian’s writings, vision is expressly linked to the dying person’s embodied consciousness. Its medium is the sufferer’s very flesh. Subject to “alle manere of paines, bodelye and gastelye [spiritual],” Julian experiences her physical being not merely as embodied but, specifically, as the self-sentiency of “this wreched fleshe.”1010xIbid., “Vision,” sect. 1, line 26. Yet as “bodelye sight” turns into “gastelye sight,” the physiology of the suffering, enfleshed being is not abolished. On the contrary, illness and physical suffering insistently tether all vision to the sentient, perceiving person.

If the crucifix is “the image of thy savioure,” as the Ordo Visitandi has the curate put it, “image” here does not function as a substitute representation. The crucifix is not the intentional object of Julian’s vision but only the conduit focusing her attention. Julian on her deathbed is not looking atthe crucifix but is, instead, assenting “to sette mine eyen in the face of the crucifixe,” riveted on “him that diede for the and me.” Consistent with the eschatological drama visualized in the woodcuts found in mid-fifteenth-century printings of the Ars Moriendi, Julian, during what are expected to be her final hours, maintains strict focus on the crucifix and does “nought assente to putte my saule in perille, for beside the crosse was…botte uglinesse of feendes.”1111xIbid., “Vision,” sect. 10, lines 52–53.

Julian’s “bodelye sight” focused on the crucifix yields to a dramatic vision of the suffering Christ: “sodaynlye I sawe the rede blode trekille down fro under the garlande alle hate [hot], freshlye, plentefully, and livelye, right as methought that it was in that time that the garlonde of thornes was thrystede on his blessede hede.… I conseyvede treulye and mightelye that it was himselfe that shewed it me, withouten any meen.” The hermeneutics of this vision appear deceptively simple. At first glance, it is experienced as a “shewing”: “that oure lorde Jhesu…walde shewe me comforthe before the time of my temptation.” Yet by conforming so precisely to some momentous passages in the Gospels, the vision also startles Julian simply on account of having been revealed to her: “fulle gretlye I was astonned, for wondere and mervyle that I had, that he wolde be so homlye [intimate] with a sinfulle creature lyevande in this wreched fleshe.”1212xIbid., “Vision,” sect. 3, lines 10–14, 18–19, 16–17.

Startling here is Julian’s forensic visualization of Christ’s face (“drye and bludyelesse with pale dyinge…turnede more dede to the blewe / in the lippes, thare I sawe this foure colourse”).1313xIbid., “Vision,” sect. 10, lines 3–6. More importantly, though, what Julian confronts is less a revelation per se than the focused intimations of meanings yet to be unfolded. Her response, then, is an appropriately studious and reflective one, rather than some affectively charged spiritual consummation. Nowhere in Julian’s writings are we presented with anything approaching what William James would call a “theopathic experience.” Instead, Julian experiences her “shewings” as an ineffable, transcendent gift—not as a subjective, let alone private, condition.

Is this vision of Christ’s dead body but a feverish projection on Julian’s part? Or, alternatively, should we read it as a retroactive dramatization, elaborated for the benefit of her “evencristene” [fellow Christians]? Are we looking at an empirically unverifiable occurrence or a sophisticated rhetorical performance? Having to choose between a verificationist approach that dismisses Julian’s “shewings” outright and a hermeneutics of suspicion simply will not do. To dismiss the startling specificity of Julian’s vision of the suffering and dead Christ’s face and body merely as retroactive inventions would be to subject her writings from the outset to a skeptical epistemology that is alien to Julian’s world. Of course, it is this very skepticism that makes it so hard for us moderns to engage with her theological insights. 

Internalizing the Ars Moriendi

At least in part, the hermeneutic challenge posed by Julian’s writings stems from the fact that modern, peremptorily skeptical, or insistently suspicious inquiry develops and deploys its basic concepts in a binary and disjunctive rather than integrative and complementary fashion.1414xIt bears recalling that experiential data will solicit an observer’s scrutiny only if it is embedded in the “subsidiary awareness” of background conditions that are deemed certain. As Michael Polanyi puts it, “We can use our formulas only after we have made sense of the world to the point of asking questions about it and have established the bearing of the formulas on the experience that they are to explain.” The quest for empirical certainty about new particulars presupposes an underlying certitude about the constitution of reality into which these particulars stand to be integrated. There must be a “tacit dimension” (Polanyi) or “fore-meaning” (Hans-Georg Gadamer) that causes us to apprehend, say, a rich and perplexing visual phenomenon as the kernel of insights as yet unrealized—in other words, as something to be experienced as a problem. “A problem,” Polanyi remarks, “designates a gap within a constellation of clues pointing towards something unknown.” Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being, ed. Marjorie Grene (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 179, 171. See also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York, NY: Continuum, 2006), 268–336; and Pfau, Minding the Modern, 35–75 and 584–90. Thus, “A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman” should not be subjected, at least not without serious qualifications, to modern critical methodologies. More than any of her readers, past or present, Julian herself continually struggles to comprehend what she has seen and to articulate, humbly though insistently, how the “shewings” in question fit into and enhance a religious stance that is experientially beyond all doubt even as its metaphysical grounds remain forever mysterious. 

It’s precisely this integrative, rather than disjunctive, view of lived experience—including the experience of one’s own dying—that has been terminally foreclosed by a naturalistic and skeptical epistemology that can view death only as total negation and in which causally warranted “sight” can never lead to spiritual “vision” of any kind. By contrast, Julian continually probes the enigmatic bond between intuitively assenting to and reflectively understanding the vision “shewed” to her, as well as grasping the spiritual demands encoded in this vision. For Julian, human knowledge unfolds not as a speculative overcoming or naturalistic discrediting but as the lived fulfillment—albeit partial and imperfect—of the experiential data that solicit it. To contemplate and reflect on the vision unfolded in the opening sections of her short text is, for Julian, never something merely discretionary and detached but, on the contrary, an enduring responsibility that reveals the deeper bond between her personal salvation and the flourishing of the “evencristene” to whom she addresses herself. That “sothelye [truly] charite stirres me to telle yowe it” confirms that articulating the vision for others is itself an integral component of the vision’s meaning.1515xJulian of Norwich, “A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman,” sect. 6, line 38.

The fact that Julian does not die, and that the eschaton of seeing God “face to face” is for the time being deferred, recalls the analogous predicament confronted by first- and second-century early Christian communities. Given that Christ’s apparently deferred return could not be anticipated with any certainty, early Christians had to rethink the relation between finite, historical time and the eschaton by embracing the church (Christ’s body) and investing it with enduring hermeneutic and practical responsibility. Placing a great ethical and interpretive burden on time-bound and manifestly fallible human existence, the incalculably deferred eschaton comes to be understood as “an event breaking into history, an event that transcends and is heterogeneous to it,” and that, for the time being, saddles historical time with the task of self-legitimation.1616xHans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 30–31.

The goods, practices, and goals shaping the lived practices of time-bound individuals and communities had to be demonstrably worthy without, however, entering into competition with the eschaton or, under the heading of “progress,” claiming to realize it in the manner of modern political theology. Understanding her physical recovery as both gift and obligation, Julian thus approaches the writing of her vision as the hermeneutic challenge of putting the time unexpectedly granted to her to spiritually legitimate use without claiming for herself some privileged perspective. Repeatedly professing her sinfulness and understanding her “shewings” as a hermeneutic burden rather than privileged knowledge, Julian can only legitimate her quasi-posthumous existence by contemplating and sharing, in reflective writing, what she has seen. What good there is in her vision—and Julian believes it to be altogether inexhaustible—can be honored only by imparting her “shewings” to a community of the faithful in an extended act of charity: “I was mekille [much] stirred in charite to mine evencristene, that thaye might alle see and knawe the same that I sawe.” Yet to write is not merely to report on her “shewings” but, rather, to draw out their spiritual meanings, and thus to acknowledge the “soverayne techare” and the “blissede techinge of oure lorde.”1717xJulian of Norwich, “A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman,” sect. 7, line 8–9; sect. 6, line 38; sect. 7, line 1.

Throughout the short text, seeing and understanding death are fully entwined such that to look at the crucifix means eo ipso to witness—bodily, imaginatively, and empathetically—the Passion.1818xIbid., sect. 7, lines 1–2. No case of merely passive recipiency, sight constitutes an act of will that links attention (“visemente”), understanding (“wittande”), and knowing (“knawande”) in a single, albeit complex, hermeneutic constellation. As she focuses her gaze on the crucifix by her bed during what are expected to be her final hours, Julian sees neither a material object nor a representation of what transpired on Calvary centuries ago, but the Passion itself:

I sawe with bodely sight the face of the crucifixe that hange before me, in whilke I behelde continuely a party of his passion: despite, spittinge, sowlinge of his body, and buffetinge in his blisfulle face, and many langoures and paines, ma than I can telle, and ofte changinge of coloure, and alle his blissede face a time closede in dry blode.1919xIbid., sect. 8, lines 1–5.

Such attending to, knowing, and understanding of what one sees manifests an extreme form of empathy. “I feled no paine botte for Cristes paines,” Julian remarks, effectively drawing a direct parallel between Christ’s suffering and her own. Her vision thus consummates what she calls “a grete aninge [union] betwyx Criste and us. For when he was in paine, we ware in paine.” Empathetic vision in Julian involves not some contingent feeling but a transformation of the beholder’s very being. Her vision is focused on Christ as person rather than as some ineffably transcendent being, and the knowledge encompassed by her vision is not unfolded dialogically but in a temporally extended, written meditation. Not only is Julian’s question concerning sin answered by Christ in her vision, but vision is the only form in which that answer can be tendered, and the meaning of Christ’s love is all that the vision was ever meant to convey: “For he wille that we be like to him in anehede [unity] of endeles luffe to oureselfe and to oure evencristen.” Facing imminent death and admittedly troubled by her vision (“I consayved a softe drede”), Julian is reassured that the ultimate meaning of her vision is never solely her dominion and responsibility. In her vision itself, “oure lorde answerde me thus: ‘I kepe the fulle sekerly.[I keep thee fully secure.]’”2020xIbid., sect. 10, line 30–31; sect. 10, line 44; sect. 18, line 15; sect. 17, lines 2–3.

Worded in ways that show Julian to remain firmly within an apophatic, mystical tradition, Christ’s reassurance confirms that Julian’s vision of Christ’s love does not embody but only prefigures that fullness. For the eschaton of this love is only ever partially manifested, through a glass darkly, within the changeful “now” of finite existence, only mediated by figural or visual forms whose full import (the “now” of eternity) forever exceeds the discernment of finite, time-bound, and sinful individuals or communities.

The affirmation that “This shewed oure lorde me in the holehed of luffe [fullness of love] that we stande in, in his sight,” and that “he luffes us nowe as wele whiles we ere here as he shalle do when we ere thare before his blissed face,” is not an instance of epistemological overreach or metaphysical hubris.2121xIbid., sect. 17, lines 12–14. Julian’s unshakable certitude in approaching death is tempered by her awareness that the visualized “grete aninge betwyx Criste and us” pertains to a state of completion beyond death. Thus she assents to her vision not as a possession but as a gift, which the anchoress’s lifelong habit of prayer and contemplative visualization has merely prepared her to receive. Like other contemplatives, followers of the devotio moderna, and, ideally, the entire community of the faithful—Julian has been internalizing the ars moriendi long before the decisive moment arrives. The most emblematic form of such spiritual practice is, of course, the transfiguration of death into eternal life celebrated in the Eucharist.

Yet even as Christianity’s framing of death within a sacramental order has continued to play a significant role in modernity’s imaginary, the key elements of Julian’s eschatology appear to have eroded by the early seventeenth century. A key moment in this shift involved Descartes’s principled discrediting of empirical sight on account of both its alleged impermanence and the propensity of all sense-based cognition to expire in error or self-deception. In a world governed by a “deceiving god” (un dieu trompeur), knowledge becomes axiomatically counterintuitive. It is subject to the anthropomorphism of what John Dewey called “warranted assertability,” whereby experience is judged “real” only insofar as it conforms to manmade terms and concepts. As a result, the patristic and medieval premise of a mutually supportive relationship between sense-based certainty and metaphysical certitude has withered away. 

Yet insofar as the modern, method-based rationality presupposed an all-encompassing skepticism, it was only a matter of time before the modern view of death as the mere cessation of all vital functions spawned an equally reductionist view of life as no more than the mindless and meaningless self-prolongation of biochemical and neural processes destined to expire in sheer nothingness. The reductionist view of death as comprehensive negation, against whose “bad infinity” Hegel had already warned, is a direct entailment of modernity’s principled distrust of all things visible. They are no longer credited with the power of manifestation but only with that of confirmation—namely, what conceptual, monocausal accounts have independently taken upon themselves to demonstrate as correct, verifiable, and abstract cognition. 

Once the concept of knowledge has been placed under the exclusive jurisdiction of an anthropomorphic, naturalistic framework, sight and vision are no longer intuitively experienced as contiguous, but instead are construed as wholly incommensurable. Shorn of any narrative, eschatological dimension, death and dying are thus pared down to a sudden rupture, a terminal lapse into a pathological darkness where there is no community, only total isolation, no vision, only opacity, no focused and articulate prayer, only unremitting howls of existential rage. Tracing the changed experience of dying and death as depicted in Western literature from King Lear to Stendhal and Flaubert all the way to Ian McEwan is rather like reading the three canticles of The Divine Comedy in reverse:  We end up in an infernal domain where the vivid culmination of Julian’s spiritual narrative has been supplanted by manmade and abstract proofs of that narrative’s impossibility.