The medievalist C. S. Lewis could not shake the idea of purgatory—the place of final sanctification before the judgment. He believed it, though not (he said) in its full Roman Catholic panoply. This came partly from a seriousness about sin: surely none of us thinks we can stand before a holy God after death without some sort of cleansing! But the deeper grounding of the doctrine for Lewis as for the medievals is this: Our life is a breath; a blade of grass; a brief, transitory phase between birth and death; a twinkle in time compared to eternal life with God in heaven, or eternal damnation without God and with Satan in hell. You want to live it as well as you can, and when it comes time to die, you want to be as prepared as possible to meet your eternal destiny. While we moderns covet a quick, painless death, the medievals prayed that they would not be overtaken suddenly. Deaths were very public, social: you died surrounded by family and friends—people came, talked to you, you settled grievances with them and wept and prayed with them. How different from the modern desire to hide death behind hospital curtains, extending its sterile solitude with fluid flowing down tubes. For medievals, death was the culmination of life—the launching or entrance into the eternal world. All this was explained in an important late-medieval genre: the plentiful manuals teaching the “art of dying well”—the Ars Moriendi.
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