We choose our relationship with Death, much the way we choose our relationship with Life; is it going to be about taking or giving, fear or love?…
Recently, late at night, I passed out twice. The first time, I wondered why my eye was suddenly in sharp contact with the edge of the bathroom counter; the second time, I woke my daughter when I ricocheted off the wall. I need to lose some weight; I’d like to fall like a soft, quiet leaf, or like Ingrid Bergman sliding down elegantly on some Paris sidewalk in the rain. I bounced like a wrecking ball.
At any rate, in this rather minor way, I again looked at death. Death, that almost personified reality, has tapped on my shoulder a few times in the last ten years, has whispered sharply by my heart’s ear. The first was a car accident that should have been fatal; the next, a miscarriage that could have been; the next, a prolonged illness, Death blowing in my ear slowly and persistently.
I related to Death like a person you want to avoid and narrowly succeed in doing so, like a warning for repentance, like a door you must go through, like a boxing opponent, like static electricity you must ionize away, like the final obstacle in the course, like a punishment.
Once, in the trailing anxiety of that mysterious, unknown illness, I opened the Bible and read about Hezekiah, the king who was “ill unto death” and asked God for healing; God healed him and gave him a few more years. I prayed this prayer, and indeed I was given a respite from the anxiety and suffering, from the maddening hum of death. But I have retained the trauma of those who’ve had health problems: Life is never quite the same. It is sweeter, more precious; the gold of family and simple freedom is brighter—yet you are never allowed again that blessed ignorance of youth and health. You never again fill your lungs with golden air in that complete receptivity of confidence; you will never fly through life again unburdened by the knowledge of your absolute temporality in this life. You actually see, with the heart and the passions, people who are suffering, who are sick, who are now traveling that blood-soaked road, on which life flows out into deep ruts and cracks and uselessly waters parched dirt. You begin to notice Death less on the periphery, and more as a focused presence.
You see that some die in their relative innocence, young, or holy, or almost unknowingly. Death must come to them like a suitor who whisks them from the crowd and into the Great Dance. Some innocents suffer greatly and must face a battle the biggest and bravest and wisest of us quail before. It is a mystery, and another face of Death we, left behind, must face.
I also, like many my age blessed enough to have living parents, see the shadow of death around my Dad and Mom. I remember my intrepid Dad, my china-lovely Mom, when they moved like whips and laughed like lions; now they are more like paper flowers, and I know I must begin to grieve now, even as I rejoice at every day they are given.
Death breaks your young child’s heart.
So, as the year itself was dying, I passed out and felt again my wings clipped by the knowledge that Death is still in my life. As I sat in the doctor’s office, and at home with a little heart monitor on, I realized that I wanted a new relationship with Death. I needed a new relationship; there must be another kind. I thought of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, who said that we should meditate a little on our own death each day; I asked him what that was all about, because in my youth when I first heard that, my mawkish heart crooned in its ersatz wisdom, “Yes, of course.” I did not know Death as well then; it was still a gate, a static thing that we somehow chose, a concept far removed from my burgeoning and dancing cells, a far-off second cousin I’d never met.
St. Alphonsus didn’t say anything, but I felt he heard me and that my desire to relate differently to Death was a good one. I thought about Adam and Eve, suddenly putting themselves under the law of Death. Their young child-hearts were broken, too, when they found their son Abel with his head smashed in. They had to learn to relate to death, and they have had to learn it also through all their progeny through time.
But God is Good; He is Love. Any discipline He gives, whatever He allows, has Love behind it; I believe that our very temporality in the body is part of preparing a soul capable for eternity, that even Death serves the will of God. But how, how? When Death comes near, pat answers and rational thinking are blown about like leaves in the path of the wind; when Death whispers, all our strings come suddenly untied. The answer to this is not in the mind, but the heart—or rather, the heart and mind integrated. Death can only be related to well by the whole person: body, mind, and soul.
Listening to a talk on contemplative prayer tonight, I heard the words, “self-renunciation.” The speaker said that this was our journey; it is a quest to leave ourselves behind, our ego, our little projections of self upon the world, our morbid, legion attachments and opens us up to the present moment, to God, so that we may, as the Orthodox so rightly put it, enter theosis. This is simply union with God. Unlike Buddhism, this Christian self-renunciation does not end in a subsumption into prime matter, or nothing; rather it is a fulfillment or a return to one’s absolute Source, a kind of nostos, a kind of return to Ithaka, not the same Ithaka one left, but one’s true home where every cell finally knows its name, is named, is loved as God loves Himself.
What does this self-renunciation mean, day to day? We come into this world with nothing that we have not received; the ensuing years, long or short, are moments of choice, fundamentally, about taking or giving, about fear or love. We learn early the lesson that everything, everything can be taken; our response to that is our journey. Some learn early that our very identity can be taken, warped, damaged, in a second; some learn slowly through small chips of the axe. As we age, we begin to decide if life is, at a basic level, cruel, a heedless parent who gives and then takes randomly. We grieve with each other, and as Aristotle puts it so well, we recoil in shock and pity at the horrors plaguing others; literature is basically how to deal with it via imitative artistry: We can look at the thievery of life as one looks at family life through a doll house, or a puppet show. We banter about Death from our cushioned theater seats.
But Death is the final blow, the final thievery; or, perhaps, it is the final self-renunciation.
St. Alphonsus answered me through a speaker on contemplative prayer: We choose our relationship with Death, much the way we choose our relationship with Life; is it going to be about taking or giving, fear or love?
If we lived forever, as Adam and Eve expected for themselves, and we chose the way of taking, of fear, of the self-isolated and fortressed from the needs of others, from God who, because He loves perfectly, desires complete union with each soul, each cell, what would be the result? What if we lived a life in which complete, utter, absolute self-renunciation was perpetually a choice, something we never necessarily had to face? What if we were never required to give—everything? We can, most of us, live our lives without ever having to give everything, to renounce it all: We can have friendships that are really more about our own egos; we can do jobs or serve others, or go to church, or marry, or have children, and have it all more-or-less serving our own, isolated image of ourselves.
But Death is much, much too powerful for our paper walls, our membrane-egos, our fancy or clear or erudite thinking skills, for our petty poetic genius, our fine clothes and accents, for our steely science. Death is like a tidal wave, or the inexorable glacier, or the torrent of a flash flood; Death is a fire no earthly water can quench. Death either takes everything or gives everything; there is no lukewarm middle-ground. It is the murderer’s knife, or it is the sword of God.
I think about the Christian martyrs, ancient and contemporary, but especially I think about St. Lawrence, St. Edmund Campion, St. Maria Goretti, and St. John Paul II. St. Lawrence met Death as a fire; he was roasted alive because he would not keep himself isolated, safe, from the consequences of his love for God. As he was roasted, as he was meeting Death, he said, “Turn me over. I think I am done on this side.” He is now the patron saint of chefs. His relationship with Death was flippant and humorous, as is, delightfully, his patronage, because he had already given himself away to Love, completely; he had already died.
St. Edmund Campion met Death as a knife that sliced out his bowels, and as a rope that hung him. He met it with open eyes, with a mind aware, with a heart already given away to God, to the Church, to those he served in secret as a priest in Reformation England. St. Maria met death as a knife in the hands of a lustful neighbor; her subsequent forgiveness became the catalyst for her murderer’s own self-renunciation to Love. St. John Paul II met Death as a slowly encroaching guest, a warping in the cells, as a slow paralysis. He wore death like a t-shirt and became the icon for those who are in danger of being called “burdens” and euthanized. He was able to wear Death, to embrace it like a guest for years, because he had given himself away already; there was nothing for Death to take. So, Death becomes a servant of God in the lives of those who have already learned its lesson, those who have looked upon Life on the Cross, and understood that Death itself is overcome by God’s own absolute self-renunciation. Death then becomes the last, greatest, most beautiful shard of glass in the creation of a soul free of itself, and totally God’s.
I am nowhere near self-renunciation; I still veer hourly into that way of taking, of fear, of self. I see now that Death is truly my final, severe mercy; if I do not totally renounce self before he arrives, he will invite me once more, and like a good doctor, he will do it regardless, and he knows I know that. So I will be culpable; either I will be a taker, taken, or a giver, given.
*The concept of “severe mercy” is taken from the profound book of the same name by Sheldon Vanauken.
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