A short reflection on dying well, by Augustine

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Answering the concerns raised about why many Christians were killed in the persecutions by the Roman emperors, Augustine (354-430) points us to an essential truth about death itself. This excerpt is from his classic work The City of God.


But, it is added, many Christians were slaughtered, and were put to death in a hideous variety of cruel ways.  Well, if this be hard to bear, it is assuredly the common lot of all who are born into this life.  Of this at least I am certain, that no one has ever died who was not destined to die some time.

Now the end of life puts the longest life on a par with the shortest.  For of two things which have alike ceased to be, the one is not better, the other worse—the one greater, the other less.  And of what consequence is it what kind of death puts an end to life, since he who has died once is not forced to go through the same ordeal a second time?  And as in the daily casualties of life every man is, as it were, threatened with numberless deaths, so long as it remains uncertain which of them is his fate, I would ask whether it is not better to suffer one and die, than to live in fear of all?  I am not unaware of the poor-spirited fear which prompts us to choose rather to live long in fear of so many deaths, than to die once and so escape them all; but the weak and cowardly shrinking of the flesh is one thing, and the well-considered and reasonable persuasion of the soul quite another.  That death is not to be judged an evil which is the end of a good life; for death becomes evil only by the retribution which follows it.

They, then, who are destined to die, need not be careful to inquire what death they are to die, but into what place death will usher them.  And since Christians are well aware that the death of the godly pauper whose sores the dogs licked was far better than of the wicked rich man who lay in purple and fine linen, what harm could these terrific deaths do to the dead who had lived well?

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