Marion Montgomery and Dying Well
God in his omnipotence might have saved mankind by fiat, by a divine “Let them be saved.” God instead chose to show love by saving us in a manner costly to himself: by entering the fallen world for us men and our salvation and by living a perfect human life in this world. The perfection of the divine human life could only be seen finally after its completion: which is why Christ had to die as well as live in obedience to his Father. The quality of a life cannot be known finally until that life is over. While lives tend to follow the trajectory established by choices and decisions made in time, a very good death can alter an indifferent or evil past, and a very bad death can mar a good life.
Christians used to know this and so would pray often for the grace of good death. The Anglican Missal with which Marion habitually worshipped contains not only prayers for the dead and for the dying but also for a good death: “that in the hour of their departure from this mortal life, they may be found worthy to be presented by the hands of thy holy Angels pure and without spot before thee.”
I was Marion’s parish priest for a quarter century and friend for almost 30 years. In the times of his health he lived well, as is best known by his wife, known very well by his large flock of children and grandchildren, and known in more partial but very important ways by his students, neighbors, friends, and fellow parishioners. There was often a reserve in Marion. He was not the same with everyone he encountered, in that he measured out his self-giving in proportion to his obligation to others and in proportion to their particular need. But the depth of the loyalty to and affection for him on the part of all sorts and conditions of men was remarkable. To Cleanth Brooks or Andrew Lytle Marion was a fine poet, a warm host, the comfortable sharer of many mutual friends. To parishioners he was the man unfailingly present on an usher’s bench ready in a grey suit or a white sweater, with a bulletin in one hand and, not uncommonly in warm weather, with a fly swatter for the wasps. Most parishioners did not see Marion 30 minutes earlier filling up the holy water stoups or helping old folks into the building. Most also did not see him veiling his face to the Presence at the consecration. To Crawford, Georgia, Marion was the man on the front porch with the cigar or in the old Ford truck or the helper of Dot who, as Marion put it, “keeps half of Oglethorpe County going.” He could also be the demanding teacher, the perceptive reader, the wry critic, and even the stringent rebuker. Others will no doubt write more, and better than I could, about many of these matters. I know enough, though, to say, again, that Marion lived well.
And, to return to my original point, Marion died well. Very well. Only a few months came between the first diagnosis of mortal illness and its fulfillment. Those months brought occasionally severe pain, but they were filled with a radiant, palpable joy at the prospect of death into eternal life. The joy was evident to everyone in the Montgomery family and to all of the clergy who visited. It was not mainly joy in an anticipation of the cessation of pain or of the end of effort. Marion enjoyed life and even near its end would have been glad for more of it. Fulton Sheen once said that hospitals made him sad: not because of the suffering that they contain but because of the wasted suffering. Marion did not waste his suffering, but neither was he greedy for it. Still, the main reason for his joy was that heaven came more and more into view. Marion seemed to see its light, and that light was visible in some measure even for others through the increasingly ravaged face of one particular wayfarer.
On a visit near the end when I came into his room Marion said, “Oh Father, I am so happy.” He did not mean happy to see me. He meant happy that he was close to the life of the world to come. Again, everyone who saw him sensed this hopeful joy. Reductionists will tell us about alterations in brain chemistry near death. And wouldn’t we all, Marion’s friends, enjoy hearing him tell us what he thought of such foolishness? Scientism, a second order phenomenon built on unexamined, third rate philosophical presuppositions. An instance of the genetic fallacy.
Those who were closest to Marion at the end, who sat with him at night, know that his end was not without profound and costly struggle. The old Adam may not win, but he will at least press the thorns and thistles of our penalty down as hard as possible upon our dying heads. But in the new Adam that penalty becomes a crown and “take and eat,” the verbs of our fall, are transformed into the verbs of our salvation. Marion took and ate, died and lives.