Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dust and Ashes: A race towards death

And therefore it is agreed among all Christians who truthfully hold the catholic faith, that we are subject to the death of the body, not by the law of nature, by which God ordained no death for man, but by His righteous infliction on account of sin; for God, taking vengeance on sin, said to the man, in whom we all then were, "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

* * *

For no sooner do we begin to live in this dying body, than we begin to move ceaselessly towards death. For in the whole course of this life (if life we must call it) its mutability tends towards death. Certainly there is no one who is not nearer it this year than last year, and tomorrow than today, and today than yesterday, and a short while hence than now, and now than a short while ago. For whatever time we live is deducted from our whole term of life, and that which remains is daily becoming less and less; so that our whole life is nothing but a race towards death, in which no one is allowed to stand still for a little space, or to go somewhat more slowly, but all are driven forwards with an impartial movement, and with equal rapidity. For he whose life is short spends a day no more swiftly than he whose life is longer. But while the equal moments are impartially snatched from both, the one has a nearer and the other a more remote goal to reach with this their equal speed. It is one thing to make a longer journey, and another to walk more slowly. He, therefore, who spends longer time on his way to death does not proceed at a more leisurely pace, but goes over more ground. Further, if every man begins to die, that is, is in death, as soon as death has begun to show itself in him (by taking away life, to wit; for when life is all taken away, the man will be then not in death, but after death), then he begins to die so soon as he begins to live. For what else is going on in all his days, hours, and moments, until this slow-working death is fully consummated? And then comes the time after death, instead of that in which life was being withdrawn, and which we called being in death. Man, then, is never in life from the moment he dwells in this dying rather than living body - if, at least, he cannot be in life and death at once. Or rather, shall we say, he is in both? - in life, namely, which he lives till all is consumed? For if he is not in life, what is it which is consumed till all be gone? And if he is not in death, what is this consumption itself? For when the whole of life has been consumed, the expression "after death" would be meaningless, had that consumption not been death. And if, when it has all been consumed, a man is not in death but after death, when is he in death, unless when life is being consumed away?

- St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei


Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

I don't understand "not by the law of nature, by which God ordained no death for man". How are we to reach heaven if we don't die?
And wouldn't The Creator abide by His own laws across time?

Please clear this up for me.

Love from


Ed said...

I really appreciate this post, Matthew, and perhaps more so in that it is posted by a doctor.

What does this make you think of your calling, then? Is it perhaps your lot to, in often subtle ways, image the Christ who "heals all our diseases?" Is this the purpose of Christian doctoring, then, to be an icon of the Great Physician?

What I'm also trying to get at is, do you think that the inevitability of death somewhat detracts from the "secular" value of medicine? I must confess I've not recently thought much on this subject, but no doubt you think about it quite often. Any thoughts?

Matt Perkins said...

Hey Scarlet,
Sorry about taking a while to respond - busy week. It would be interesting to study more in depth the question you asked. At this point I am content to go with orthodox thought and St. Augustine who, a little before the section I quoted, simply states, "For the first men would not have suffered death had they not sinned." And I don't see anything in the first chapters of Genesis which makes me think Adam and Eve and their descendants would have died had there not been the fall. When it comes to getting to heaven without death, what about Enoch and Elijah, who both must be in heaven without ever having died. And Christ Himself ascended to Heaven with a physical resurrection body so there seems to be no reason why a physical body cannot go to heaven without death. The Apostle Paul himself may have physically ascended to heaven at one point and then returned (2 Corinthians 12:2).

I don't think God failed to abide by the laws He created in death arising. He was certainly abiding by the law of the universe, "the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)." Also, as Creator, I don't think God is constrained to abide by any law He has made. As Luther pointed out a few posts ago, God isn't good because He abides by some standard, instead whatever God does is good simply because it is God who is doing it.

Hey Ed,
I'm glad you liked the post. Thinking of the healings which Christ did during His earthly ministry is certainly the greatest inspiration I find for being a Christian doctor. Christ always seemed willing to heal in the gospels and therefore I am happy to be part of a profession which should always be seeking to heal, albeit very imperfectly.

When it comes to a secular value of medicine, I don't think the inevitability of death must detract too much because much of medicine is about improving the quality of a person's life even if it isn't necessarily prolonged, although they often do go together. Whether a person is some kind of secular humanist or a religious person I think most people find value in improving a person's quality of life or giving a person more time with family and friends even if all of our medicine and skill is in the end futile in actually defeating death altogether.

Ed said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Matt. I think you are probably right about the secular value of medicine. I suppose one must address oneself to the problems that one can indeed handle. There probably is a certain humility in this, and no doubt watching patients die is one of the most horrifying aspects of certain types of doctoring - that is, it is a moment in which the doctor realizes that he is now helpless.

Matt, I don't know how much of the news you read, but please pray fervently for Japan. There are two nuclear reactors there that are in great danger of spinning out of control.