In a 1956 letter, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies." O'Connor, who herself died of lupus at age 39, could not be accused of any naive romanticization of illness. At the same time, O'Connor was abnormal. Her stories drew their power from the peculiar light in which she viewed human experience and suffering. Many of her characters found their salvation in death (although it is interesting, in light of her quotation about sickness, to note that most of these saving deaths were sudden; she rarely portrayed sickness).
I fully believe that profound spiritual transformation can happen during illness and at the deathbed. Heather has been writing some great stuff on this, from her perspective at Hospice Africa in Kampala. But I suspect that most of us would have a hard time agreeing with O'Connor that sickness before death represents one of God's mercies. With friends whose parents have died after long illnesses, and with an aunt just beginning her own battle against cancer, I don't exactly feel like they're getting the good end of the deal. I envy the man whose passing is quick and peaceful.
The medieval study of the ars moriendi generally viewed the Good Death as one that involved minimal suffering, but sufficient time to prepare the soul, get one's affairs in order, and say goodbye. In other words, you have to know that the end is coming. Who doesn't want that? Yet, as she always tends to do, Flannery O'Connor haunts me. Her observation pulls back the veil on the ars moriendi, and asks a dangerous question: When we say that we desire God's mercy, do we mean it? Or do we actually desire only a small dose of God's mercy - just enough to wake us
up, and let us get things in order?