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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Teddy Kennedy and 'making a good end'

For those of us schooled in the tenets of Catholicism before the changes of Vatican II, the headline in a Thursday NYTimes story on Kennedy's last year (see here) may have brought a frisson of recognition of something as ingrained as genuflecting or making the sign of the cross: the concern that in dying, we would 'make a good end'.

How alien this idea has become can be garnered from the order in which the Times's writer lays out the story -- from 'big bowls of mocha chip and butter crunch ice creams...smushed together', to 'putting his affairs in order' (which occurred very early on), to 'tak[ing] stock of his life'.

This is just about the reverse of the way Teddy Kennedy and the rest of us inculcated the concept (and, I suspect, the way that Teddy approached his dying moments), and shows Kennedy's attitude to be a bridge to a faith-life barely recognized today.

Earlier generations were much concerned about sudden death, as witness the deprecation from the Anglican 'Great Litany' --
from violence, battle, and murder;
and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.
Drawing on ancient traditions, Thomas Cranmer prepared the Litany, the first rite to be published in English (in 1544, see more on the context here) in a time when sudden death could come for many reasons -- war, pestilence, natural disaster, or running afoul of the Royal pleasure -- and 'making a good end' meant both having the time to prepare for one's demise and to meet the occasion with a calm and confident demeanor.

Thomas More, who ran afoul of his former drinking buddy and boon companion Henry VIII, made his own 'good end' on Tower Hill in July 1535, and perfectly illustrates the desire to prepare for one's death. He considered himself to have been privileged to have gotten a year's confinement before his execution after having refused to uphold the Act of Succession (making Anne Boleyn queen) on account of its anti-papal preface.

More's fascinating life is well told in Peter Ackroyd's 1998 biography (see here) which, while sympathetic, does not gloss over the ferocity with which as Lord Chancellor he executed Henry's policies before their split. During his imprisonment he penned for his daughter Margaret "A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation" ('comfort' here having its original sense of 'strengthening'), still in print as a devotional classic to this day.

Catholic teaching emphasizes the connectedness of the believer -- to God, to other believers in the Church (past, present and future), to humanity, and to the natural order. It takes cognizance of the ways in which that connectedness can be rent asunder, and makes ways for believers to restore and strengthen that connectedness (the sacraments, especially baptism, reconciliation and the Eucharist).

In this context, 'making a good end' meant not just setting one's temporal affairs in order, but in repairing, restoring and celebrating that connectedness at the heart of the Catholic faith.

Eamon Duffy, in 'The Stripping of the Altars', his magisterial survey of English religious life in the two centuries bracketing its Protestant ascendancy, goes into the matter in great depth (esp. Ch. 9, 'Last Things') --

... it is clear that there was a well defined set of attitudes and gestures which dying Christians were expected to manifest at this, the most solemn and important moment of their lives. The deathbed was a communal event, not a private one...
To have hope of Heaven the Christian must die in charity, reconciled to enemies, if possible having paid, or being purposed to pay, all debts.
...the bonds of simple neighborliness also found religious expression at this moment above all. The sick and their families were supported by the company, prayers, and encouragement of friends and neighbors...

Teddy Kennedy, whose life was both great and messy (unlike most of the rest of us who must be content only to have messy lives), understood what 'making a good end' was all about, and the testimony of his last year, in which he accepted he had been given this chance to amend, connect and reconcile, can put us in touch with an idea and a practice which we moderns rushing hither and thither have lost.

For that we can thank him.
In Paradisum deducant te angeli...
Lux eterna luceat eis. Requiescat in pace.

[May the angels lead you into Paradise.
May light eternal shine upon him. Rest in peace.]

-- Dan Damon

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