John Chapman on death: filling in the blanks

Returning to John Chapman’s Spiritual Letters (see previous posts), Dom Chapman writes a remarkable letter to a Benedictine nun who, it seems, had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The whole letter is worth reading, and I’ve typed up it up as a PDF.

“It is only human” to be afraid of death, Chapman reassures his correspondent:

St Teresa describes her mental and even bodily sufferings, caused by her violent desire to die and to “be with Christ”. And yet, she says, she still had the human fear of death. And our Lord chose to suffer this fear of death for our sakes. The separation of body and soul is a wrench.

However, this nun had a deeper fear: the fear that in fact there was nothing beyond this life. Chapman explains why we get this feeling:

The reason is plainly because one cannot imagine it. One tries to imagine a pure spiritual imagination of the soul without the body; and naturally one imagines a blank. And then one feels: “There is no life after death”; and then one says to oneself: “I am doubting the faith, I am sinning against faith.”

The problem, Chapman continues, lies in “trying to imagine what can be intellectually conceived, but not pictured.” Instead, he advises, we should “think of death naturally, not unnaturally”:

To die is a violence (as I said) from one point of view; but from another point of view, it is natural. And to most people it seems natural to die, when they are dying. Consequently it is easy to imagine yourself on your sick bed, very weak, and faintly hearing prayers around you, and receiving the Sacraments, and gently losing consciousness, and sleeping in God’s arms. (This is actually the way death comes to most people – quite easily and pleasantly.)

And looked at in this way, it does not feel like an extinction, the going out of a candle; it seems, on the contrary, impossible to feel that this is the end of one’s personality. But what comes next? We leave that to God – we do not try to imagine it.

Only in prayer can we get anywhere near to what this state after death is like, “if the world ever falls away, and leaves you in infinity”.

As for the physical terror of death – prompted by the sight of a dead body, in this nun’s case – this is merely because it is “unaccustomed”, Chapman suggests. An undertaker or a nurse does not feel it. Nor does anyone who (like Chapman, as a chaplain) had lived through the battles of the first world war:

[Y]ou can get accustomed to seeing pools of [blood], and people blown to bits, and be cheerful and joking, and pass by taking no notice. It is all a matter of habit.

As Chapman observes, “These are gruesome subjects!”. His view is that death is better neither ignored nor dwelled upon morbidly: “it is much better to be accustomed to them, and to take them as a matter of course”. He continues:

The worst of death is really the blanks it leaves in this world. But it often fills up blanks in the next world; and we must rejoice when some one, dear to us, takes the place prepared “from the foundation of the world”, as our Lord tells us, for that soul.

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2 Responses to John Chapman on death: filling in the blanks

  1. Laura says:

    This puts me in mind of a conversation I had with an airplane seatmate several years ago. In the course of our polite small talk, which veered slightly toward the theology degree I was working on, he revealed that his wife was dying of cancer. I mentioned my belief that the reason we instinctively hate death is that it’s unnatural, that it separates two things that were never meant to be separated — namely the soul and the body — and he got a very strange look on his face. He had been struggling to see death as a normal part of life, just something to be worked through as a person passes on to some vague higher plane or some nonsense, but I could see that what I’d said had resonated with him. I think it says something that all humanity dreads death instinctively. Yes, we leave all that to God, and it sounds very holy to say one doesn’t fear death, but I think Christians ought to have a sort of horror about death because it’s a situation that was never meant to be.

  2. John,
    Thanks for alerting us to the value of these letters by Chapman; they would appear to be full of pastoral wisdom. I had heard of him but had never read him, now I have a second-hand copy on order.

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