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Holy Dying

October 10, 2011

St. Jerome, by Caravaggio

These past two weeks, the broader St. George’s family has experience a number of deaths – some sudden, some expected; some tragic, some a blessing.  For the families of those who have died, there are a number of costs, and the least of these is financial.  There is an emotional cost, an energy cost, and a spiritual cost.  Those who attend the services and grieve with the families experience some of those costs as well.  As I have reflected over these past few weeks, on the deaths of friends and strangers alike, I am reminded of John Donne’s famous words, “Any man’s death diminishes me…”  So, it doesn’t really matter that I knew some of these folk quite well and some not at all:  the fact that I, as a member of a Christian community, participated in their requiems, their burials, and their family’s grief, or really even just participated in hearing their name read during the prayers of the people, means that I have been affected by their death.  Their death has diminished me.  In other words, I have paid an emotional, a spiritual cost.  And so have you.

The above picture is a famous painting of St. Jerome.  You see on his desk there a human skull.  Jerome was neither morbid, nor obsessed with the occult.

Rather, he had a healthy appreciation for the fact that he was mortal (as did many of his era and beyond who kept similar “memento mori” –remember your mortality– objects on their desks).  Remembering his mortality encouraged him to live his life in a very intentional way, not wasting even one minute.  A funeral, or in this case, a series of funerals, can and should have a similar effect on us as we consider what it is to die.

Anglican Divine, Jeremy Taylor, writes in his famous 1651 book Holy Dying, that the person “…that would die well must always look for death, every day knocking at the gates of the grave; and then the gates of the grave shall never prevail upon [them] to do [them] mischief.”  What in the world does that mean?  That we should always be looking for death, or even be seeking it?  No, but that we should treat death, our own mortality, in such a way that when it is imminent (if we are afforded such an opportunity) that it does not shock us.  I remember sitting at my desk in March of 2004 as I prepared for a trip to the Holy Land reading the news reports of violence and mass death on both sides of the green line.  Before I could go on that trip, I had to be ok with my own mortality, with the fact that I could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time and die.  I had to consider that.  To think about it.  It wasn’t easy, fun, or comfortable, but it was necessary.

For the Christian, death is not the last word.  If we treat it like it is we do a disservice to the Gospel at the least and we deny the power of the Resurrection at the extreme.  “For it is in dying that we are born into eternal life,” wrote St. Francis in his famous prayer.  You know who gets this?  Those that have been forced to face their own death.  A person like the cancer patient.  A person like the soldier.  But are they dying any more than those of us not suffering with cancer or living in a theater of war?  No.  Just in a more visible way.  They don’t have the option of ignoring their own mortality.

Culturally, we don’t like to think about death.  We like to privatize it, to hide it, to shield ourselves from it.  This is vain, because “all of us go down to the dust.”  We pull mauve curtains across hospital room doors, and when someone asks us how we’re doing with whatever is going on behind that curtain, we politely respond, “I’m fine.  Well, you know, as fine as I can be.”  Which is one of the biggest lies I have ever had the pleasure of hearing repeatedly.  Just like we hide death from ourselves, we prevent ourselves from feeling the grief of losing a friend or family member.  Because we don’t like emotion and when someone asks us how we’re doing nine times out of ten they don’t really want to hear the answer.  They don’t want to hear, “I feel awful, like a pit is opening in my stomach.  I am going to miss ____ so much I just can’t stand it.  I feel so helpless…” and then to have that dissolve into a teary heap of crumpled kleenex.  Generally, we don’t know how to deal with that.

But, we are getting better.  The advent and growth of hospice care is performing a modern miracle, not just with their patients, but with their patients’ families and friends.  We’re not hiding death behind that mauve curtain as much as we once did.  More and more of us are dying in the comfort of our own homes, surround by family not by physicians; arms wrapped in blankets, not plastic tubing; comfortable in our surroundings and not frightened.  We’re learning, slowly I think, not to fear death as much as we once did.  And this is a good thing.  Because as Jeremy Taylor writes, if our “minds and resolutions [become] capable of death and [we] thought it a dishonorable thing with greediness to keep a life that must go from us, to lay aside its thorns, and to return again circled with a glory and a diadem,” they we are living more fully into what it means to be a Christian than ever before.

None of us should ever die suddenly and unprepared, as our Great Litany prays.  Remembering our mortality is important.  The health department won’t let you keep a human skull on your desk anymore but you shouldn’t have to.  Particularly in a time like our church has just experienced, when we’ve lost four of our own so close together.  Our mortality is ever before us, and because of that, our hope is also ever before us.  I want to conclude with another quote from Jeremy Taylor:

“This should teach us to value our time, since God so values it, and, by his so small distribution of it, tells us it is the most precious thing we have.  Since therefore, in the day of our death we can have still but the same little portion of this precious time, let us in every minute of our life, I mean in every discernable portion, lay up such a stock of reason and good works, that they may convey a value to the imperfect and shorter actions of our death-bed, while God rewards the piety of our lives by his gracious acceptation and benediction upon the actions preparatory to our death-bed.”

Laying up that stock of good works isn’t hard and can begin right now.  Tell your spouse you love them.  Push back your meeting and go to your kid’s ball game.  Come to church on Sunday morning.  Tell a friend what they mean to you.  Buy a homeless person a cup of coffee.  You get the idea.  Value your time…every discernable portion.

Fr. Ryan+

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