Monday, November 8, 2010
Do Not Fear Dying, Fear not having Lived
Today we celebrate dia de los muertos – the day of the dead which coincides with all souls day. These Holidays have their origins as far back as ancient Egypt where they believed the spirits of the dead returned each fall to visit the living and they welcomed these spirits with lights and food. These traditions spread to Rome and eventually found their way into Christianity. The day of the dead, officially named All Souls Day in the Catholic Church, is celebrated on November 2, the day after All Saints Day. Although not recognizable as such in its current hyper commercial incarnation, Halloween – a time of visitation by the dead -- is part of this tradition.
Of course at the center of this tradition lies the dark and gloomy figure of death. Why should we invite this fearful figure into our midst, which we would rather not get to know? Why make Death more distinct and palpable? The poet Rainer Maria Rilke described the task of the poet this way: “to confirm confidence toward death out of the deepest delights and glories of life; to make death, who never was a stranger, more distinct and palpable again as the silent knowing participant in everything alive.” This is an invitation to befriend death to become familiar with the transition from this world to the next which is part of life and not to be feared.
In not so distance a time we lived with our elderly and our infirmed. They were in our homes and it was the younger people’s responsibility to care and look after their elders and or infirmed. When one passed the family was all around the person, offering prayers and mourning. The woman would then gather wash and dress the body for viewing. People from the community friends and loved ones would come to the home to pay their respects to the dead and the living. They would bring food to be shared and often drink as well. They would reminisce about the person’s life and have a good time all the while the body was in the living room.
Death was a common and expected experience. Nowadays death is often removed from us. It occurs in hospitals and or nursing homes. Yet when given the choice most people state they would like to die at home with loved ones around. We, as a society, have made death something to fear, to only whisper about. We often find ourselves at a loss of words. Many of us do not even like to walk into hospitals or nursing homes or even mortuaries for they remind us not of those we lost , but our own mortality.
Yet it is a fact of life and it is a part of life. It is the ultimate goal of life. I had a professor who would say “I hate to tell you this but it is not a matter of if you die but when.” You know for some young people that is a hard thing to hear. When you are in your mid twenties you are still of the mind set you are going to live forever. Well guess what . . . you are. Just not the way you feel you will.
The Day of the Dead is a creative response to one of the most important questions in human life: what does my death mean? This is a question born of fear -- our fear of the ultimate unknown. What brings this fear, of course, is our experience of the deaths of those who populate our lives. Each of us wants to know not only what one’s own death means but also what meaning to make of the deaths of those others. We ask these questions from many different vantage points in relation to death – young or old, healthy or sick, working with death in our jobs or rarely seeing it, but no matter. Questions about death are something we all have in common.
The theologian, James Carse, tells the story of one family’s answer to these questions. He met them at a lakeside vacation retreat. They said they were attending a group meeting with a channeler of communications with the dead – that they did this regularly to be connected to a family member who had died, and who had been the central figure in the life of the family. They spoke of the missing member in the present tense, as if he might show up at the lake later in the afternoon to take a dip with them. Carse happened to ask them how long they had been doing the channeling with the one who died. Twenty-nine years, came the calm answer.
He was stunned by this distance, but for this family, their missing relative was as present to them as Carse’s nine-year-old child was to him --. He described the family this way: “These were people who had sought to have death taken away – and death was taken away. Death was now but one event in an unbroken cycle of events, and therefore no longer death. Death no more ended anything in their lives than a leap from the diving board ended the swimmers’ play. Life and death had merged into a timeless whole that nothing could disturb. I could not help feeling that when they got what they asked for, it was not death that ended; it was their lives that had ended. I could not know them where they lived. I could only look on with an indulgent smile. I sat next to them that afternoon – but twenty-nine years away. “
This family that Carse describes had not mourned. Had experienced no loss, no separation, no sadness. They were stuck, Stuck in the death of a family member for 29 years, never moving on, never letting go, never healing. There is a process that one must move through in order to remain healthy and sane. Dr. Kubler-Ross was the first to put the stages of grief into a context. The progression of grief is:
1. Denial – "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."
Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of positions and individuals that will be left behind after death.
2. Anger – "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"
Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.
3. Bargaining – "Just let me live to see my children graduate."; "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."
The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time..."
4. Depression – "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die... What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"
During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.
5. Acceptance – "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."
In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with his mortality or that of his loved one.
One moves back and forth jumping through these stages at various times it is not a simple progression but a process never the less. It is interesting to note that toward the end of her own life Dr. Ross stated there should be another stage. Frustration when one is ready to go but remains living.
These stages of grief apply to any and all kinds of loss whether it be for the family home due to a catastrophe, loss of a pet or the ending of a friendship one moves through these stages in one way or another for they are all a form of death. Which brings us back to the question: To ask what our death means is to ask what it would be like to live life as if there were always an ultimate deadline on the horizon – because in fact there is.
We would treat time as precious and the perishable commodity called being alive as something of great value. Our experience of mortality thus focuses our attention on the question of the value of our lives. We want to know, do our lives make a difference? Do they matter? What we long to know is not whether they matter just for the fleeting few moments – historically speaking – that we are onstage. But rather, do they matter in a way that is lasting. This is a question not only about what is valuable, but more importantly, about how our lives become valuable. If having a life that matters means having a life that is valuable, where do we get the value? Certainly part of the answer is that we create it from within ourselves.
Yet the greatest value came more than 2000 years ago. There is a song that is a favorite of mine it tells the story of as a child one enjoyed imaginary friends and walking and playing with them but as the man got older he had lost his way. The song of “Christopher Robin” by Kenny logins, in which the lyrics say help me if you can I need to get back to the house at pooh corner by 1. But I've wandered much further today than I should and I can't seem to find my way back to the Woods.”
I like this song for it reminds us that we must have that child like wonder. The child like wonder to believe in the words of today’s Gospel. When Christ says I am the bread of life that is a direct reference to the covenant of the last supper. Christ stated I live because of the creator so whoever eats this bread will live because of me. That is the Value of our lives. So valuable that Christ allows us to participate in life through him and the creator with the spirit.
Christ is our way back to the woods. We have to shed all disbelief and often what we do believe to get back to the message of Christ’s salvation through the table and through our lives.
It is Jesus’ assurance that there is new life a new covenant to be given by him through his resurrection. It is through his resurrection this promise is fulfilled! This covenant so strongly made in the love and the life that he poured out that it snapped time.
Hear me, Time itself was changed. .the laws of physics broken for each time . . . wherever, whenever we enact this simple meal of bread and fruit of the vine, we are there. We are there and Christ is here renewing that covenant.
We have to put away our adult hood; we have to put away our skepticism we have to get back that childhood awe and amazement and take on a simple belief. Jesus loved us so much that he made a promise in a small upper room. He willingly handed himself over to the roman guards and allowed himself to suffer and die only to rise again on the third day.
They say the earth shook, the curtain in the temple rent, the light was so bright that when the stone was rolled away the guards fled in fear.
Time snapped and the promise made at a simple meal 3 nights before now became alive and transcendent in the ressurection! It carries on constantly day in and day out around the world; the love that was promised is promised again manifested and made real. It is the value of our lives and our transition. For through the Bread of life, through Jesus the Christ one day we transition from this life of faith into a life of knowing.
Do not doubt it. It is really a simple thing to believe. In Mathew 18:3 it says we must become childlike. That simple faith, that simple way of believing must become true in us again. Santa, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, yes even Winnie the Pooh; we rationalize and outgrow these tales. But I tell you the tale of the last supper the redemption of the cross and the resurrection we cannot afford to outgrow. We need to believe in a love so great that it can fill us sustain us and carry us through any adversity, any disappointment and the heart ache of loss of loved ones.
Today day we celebrate all souls day, the day of the dead, all saints day. We honor those who have honored us with their lives. By living with the Christed one we are called to live life to the fullest for when we transition from this life to the next we will be prepared to know love and life in the fullest of the covenant of the bread of life that is Jesus the Christ.
Listen to this poem and pray with me;
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom goes on as fruit.
Let this poem be a candle that your soul holds out to you, requesting that you find a way to remember what it is to live a life with passion, on purpose. There is only enough light to take the journey step by step, but that is all any of us really needs.
When you have the courage to shape your life from the essence of who you are, and who God is in you, through you, you ignite, becoming truly alive, alive in the Love and Life of Christ.
I pray these words today find their way to your heart and comfort your soul, amen.