Living with Dying: An Autumn Reflection
By Sheila O'Handley,
The Hebrew Scriptures, Ecclessiastes 3:1-8, counsels that “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven…….a time to be born and a time to die." Autumn, of all the seasons, holds before us a two-fold lesson: first, the lesson of abundance in the fullness of the harvest, and second, the lesson of completion, of consummation, and of diminishment.
Autumn speaks quite poignantly of the natural rhythm in the cosmos, and in particular, of the natural rhythm in the human life cycle - living and dying. Death is an indispensable condition necessary for life so that new life can emerge. We live in an evolutionary universe which is marked by novelty, creativity, complexity and death, all of which are orientated towards the future. A future yet unknown...... therein lies hope.
The questions become, how comfortable are we in an evolutionary world? How comfortable are we as evolutionary persons? How comfortable are we with ‘living with dying’? And ultimately, do we live within an attitude of hope in the face of dying and death?
Contemporary society’s interest in anti-aging packaged products, such as creams, serums, supplements etc, plus our dependency on the modern benefits in technology, such as cell phones, internet, ipods , neuro - chips, artificial intelligence even artificial humans are indicative of an unconscious spiritual need. The innate spiritual need that inscribes the human is to be in right relationship, right relationship with self, others, God and nature. This spiritual need haunts the human heart with deep human/spiritual questions about individual existence, the meaning of life and of death, and in particular, self - continuity, in other words, will I live forever?
The major religious traditions underscore that the human is distinguished by its pursuit of self- transcendence, and of the Transcendent, the quest of the Other, the Mystery - God. In death we acquire self-transcendence, we are no longer subject to time/space modalities. In Christian terms, death is a time of transition, transition into God. Death returns us to the now presence of God’s inner life, ever open to new possibilities and making all things new, even death. It is to this hope that we give witness.
The 20th century mystic, Jesuit priest and scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), revealed in his reflections and writings his passionate love for God and of the cosmos. He saw life’s process of ‘living with dying’, and in particular the dying process, as the ultimate encounter, communion and transformation into God. In his book, The Hymn of the Universe, he speaks quiet poignantly of the dying process, of completion, of consummation and of diminishment. Here is his reflection.
‘ It was a joy to me, Lord, in the midst of my struggles, to feel that in growing to my fulfilment I was increasing your hold on me; it was a joy to me, beneath the inward burgeoning of life and amidst the unfolding of events that favoured me, to surrender myself to your providence. And now that I have discovered the joy of turning every increase into a way of making – or allowing – your presence to grow within me, I beg of you: bring me to a serene acceptance of that final phase of communion with you in which I shall attain to possession of you by diminishing within you.
Now that I have learnt to see you as he who is ‘more me than myself’, grant that when my hour has come I may recognize you under the appearances of every alien or hostile power that seems bent on destroying or dispossessing me. When the erosions of age begin to leave their mark on my body, and still more on my mind; when the ills that must diminish my life or put an end to it strike me down from without or grow up from within me; when I reach that painful moment at which I suddenly realize that I am a sick man or that I am growing old; above all at that final moment when I feel I am losing hold on myself and becoming wholly passive in the hands of those great unknown forces which first formed me: at all these sombre moments grant me. Lord, to understand that it is you (provided my faith is strong enough) who are painfully separating the fibres of my being so as to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and draw me into yourself.
The more deeply and incurably my ills become engrained in my flesh, the more it may be you yourself that I am harbouring as a loving, active principle of purification and of liberation from possessiveness. The more the future lies ahead of me like a dark tunnel or a dizzy abyss, the more confident I can be – if I go forward boldly, relying on your word – of being lost, of being engulfed, in you, Lord, of being absorbed into your Body.
Lord Christ, you who are divine energy and living, irresistible might: since of the two of us it is you who are infinitely the stronger, it is you who must set me ablaze and transmute me into fire that we may be welded together and made one. Grant me, then, something even more precious than that grace for which all your faithful followers pray: to receive communion as I die is not sufficient: teach me to make a communion of death itself.’
Death is an equalizer, irrespective of a person’s age, status or achievement. It has many faces within the human experience, such as failed relationships, loss of employment, abandonment, death of a loved one, suffocated creativity, big and small life changes, disappointments of various degrees, and finally physical death. Death, then, is a living reality, a reality which for the most part, society works overtime to deny, or to consign to the back burner until it touches home. Maybe we too keep the reality of dying and death hidden within the recesses of our consciousness.
Autumn’s gift offers the opportunity to witness to the hope that is within us, that God is a God of life and of new beginnings. Jesus is witness to God’s fidelity to life, ‘I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ He leaves us with the question,’ Do you believe this?’ John 11:25-26.
Summer Sabbath: A Reflection
There is an internal compass in each of us which gives direction to the true, the good, the beautiful, and the transcendent. We also know when we have found it and when we haven’t. The human story testifies that in response to the quest of these values people have sought ways in ritual, symbol, story-telling, and sacrament, to name and celebrate both the transcendent experience and the Transcendent – God. So they designed days, times, seasons, and places as holy, and in time conceived Sabbath. (Sabbath – the Old English word “sabat” as observed by the Jews, means “day of rest”, or Sabbath.)
Finally, after the long days of winter, and an exceptionally cooler spring , we are anticipating the warmth of summer: resting, relaxing, vacationing, celebrating with family, friends, and good food. We need these moments of shared gathering, shared life and community, as fleeting as they might be, to enrich and nourish the human spirit, and experience the heart as grateful. In essence we long for community, for in the presence of authentic community, our need for individualism slowly begins to disappear.
It is interesting to note that in the Christian Scriptures, Matthew 18:20, we have Jesus supporting shared gatherings – shared life, in the words, “Where two or three meet in my name I shall be there with them”. What is even more interesting is, he doesn’t limit his presence to the Church buildings. One gets a sense that these summer gatherings just might be centers of the holy as Jesus makes his presence felt among us in these moments of summer Sabbath. Let us enjoy and be present to the silent guest among us as we take rest to celebrate and gather with family and friends.