The value of scripture at the end of life

As we, or our loved ones, near the end of our earthly life, we may notice a shift in focus from the things of this world that have often preoccupied us, to the eternal truths unpacked in Holy Scripture and contained in the Bible.

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The rite for the commendation of the dying, found in the Pastoral Care of the Sick, begins with a number of short texts that may be recited with the dying person. The first five, read slowly and sequentially, reiterate the hope for our salvation through Jesus Christ: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35) … “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8) … “We have an everlasting home in heaven” (2 Corinthians 5:1) … “We shall be with the Lord for ever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) … “We shall see God as he really is.” (1 John 3:14)

Death and life thereafter are matters that we tend not to dwell upon and so, when they manifest in the life a loved one or even threaten our own mortality, we may struggle to know how to respond and what to do and say. A recent survey commissioned by the Catholic resource, The Art of Dying Well (https://www.artofdyingwell.org/) found that few of us feel really prepared for the challenge of sitting with a loved one as their life ebbs away. It can be a sharing of the experience of the agony in the garden (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-49) as the dying person suffers, both spiritually and physically, and their family watch on, like the disciples, feeling tired and helpless.

At these times the letter of St James (5:14) offers a heartening and practical prescription,

“If one of you is ill, he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again: and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”

The Sacrament of the Sick provides strength and healing to the dying and their families. Healing is spiritual and sometimes physical too; it is inextricably bound up with the forgiveness of sin and a resulting sense of peace.

Within end-of-life care it is widely accepted that hearing is the last of the five senses to fade away; thus familiar readings and prayers can offer spiritual comfort and consolation right up until the moment of death, and beyond for family members and friends. On one occasion, when I was chaplain to the hospice, I sat with several religious sisters gathered around the bed of one of their congregation. It was early in the morning and, as the rising sun bathed the bed in light, it seemed natural to suggest that we recite morning prayer together. The oft-repeated verses of the psalms served to quell the feeling of helplessness in the room and, I hope, offered the dying sister a sense of normality, hope and peace.

The origin of the Lord’s Prayer can be found in three of the four gospels (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4; John 17:1-3). The words of the Hail Mary echo those of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Luke 1:28) and Elizabeth at the visitation (Luke 1:42-43). For those who have prayed the rosary throughout their life, the gentle rhythm of the decades recited around the bedside can be profoundly comforting. Similarly, words of Scripture read at the bedside vigil may find resonance for relatives in the time of bereavement that follows. The verses from John 14:1-6, often read at funerals, recall Jesus’ reassurance to his disciples as he tried to find a way to say goodbye, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God still, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; …” Many family members have told me how reassuring it is to hear these same words of Scripture weaving together the last days of their loved one with the farewell at the funeral.

When I am dying, if I die in this way, I hope that someone will sit beside my bed and read aloud the Liturgy of the Hours that maintain the rhythms of my day. I hope they will pray the familiar words of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory be, in the gentle litany of the rosary, and reassure me with the words of Jesus as he prepared to leave his friends, “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you , a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27). It may be helpful to reflect on the words of scripture that you would like to hear as you prepare for that great encounter with the Lord. Write them down, share them with someone close to you so that if and when the time comes, they will have the reassurance of knowing what you would like and what they can do, and you can have the comfort of the living Word of God leading you and guiding you to the hope that lies beyond this earthly life.

References

Pastoral care of the sick: rites of anointing and viaticum (1982) London: Geoffrey Chapman

The Jerusalem Bible (1968) Ed. A. Jones, London: Darton, Longman and Todd. 

Lynn Bassett was a healthcare chaplain in the Diocese of Westminster from 2001 – 2015. She ministered in acute and palliative settings in four hospitals and two hospices. Her doctoral research explored the nature, meaning and value of silence as an element spiritual care at the end of life.