It is the people who have not yet begun to live who fear death the most. Fr. Richard Rohr
Tragically in the era of coronavirus death is a daily feature of our lives. How then can we integrate this reality towards a deeper spiritual life when we struggle to get our arms around it?
Life lived to the fullest is learning how to die. Amidst the continual suffering around the world we find ourselves in solidarity with all humankind. As an astronaut commented on his view from space at planet earth, “There are no borders”.
I often tease my aging friends that out conversations slowly turn into “organ recitals”. We seem to have a preoccupation with our physical ailments. Sometimes these discussions border on hypochondria. That reminds me of an inscription purported to be on the tombstone of the hypochondriac “See I told you I was ill”! In my opinion, I feel that a lot of this morbid preoccupation with our aches and pains is the denial of death.
Today death is no longer theoretical. The existential reality is not “if’ it happens but “when”.
In North America we still have a lot to learn about death and dying. We push death into the background of our consciousness, have few rituals to process the experience, try to get it over as quickly as possible, and generally remain in denial.
This year the reality of death has been front and center in my life.
Several months ago I was diagnosed with a rare but progressive disease. Eventually as the disease progresses I could have a heart attack or a stroke. It is more or less under control by medication but the thought of “if” I die has become “when”.
Then came Coronavirus. Silently and unannounced is crept into our lives. Now the floodgates are open in our consciousness. We have to patiently sit with death’s reality. We cannot fix it. We cannot dodge it. How then can we allow death to be our wise teacher?
This crisis led me to contemplate with more seriousness my mortality. The current reflections added to my growing awareness on death and dying received while living in Mexico. While we lived there for seven years we were introduced to the celebration of El Dia Del la Meurtes (The Day of the Dead). This festivity highlighted a huge difference between the Latin and North American perspectives on death.
In the USA we are obsessed with youth and are uncomfortable with death. We have few rituals and mechanisms to deal with a terminal event. An illustration of our discomfort with our passing is seen in a recent memorial service we attended where the deceased was not mentioned by name. By contrast, in Mexico, there is a very thin boundary between this life and the next. The “departed” are always here (in spirit) with the family. Death is an integral part of living.
Some time ago I met with a friend facing his own terminal disease. In his early years he used to work with the political activist Caesar Chavez. Six months before Chavez died he visited my friend, and knowing my friend’s interest in Yoga, introduced him to the “death” yoga position. At that time Chavez had a knowing of his imminent death and incorporated his yoga position as a way of preparing for death. What is our level of knowing?
I am aware that I have few rituals like the Day of the Dead or Yoga positions to keep me mindful of my mortality. I am also becoming more mindful of the gratitude I feel for life, relationships I have, and the significance of work that I am doing. If I knew for sure that I only had three months to live I would not change what I am doing right now. Another ritual in the Christian calendar is Easter. It is the transformational journey from death to resurrection. In the light of this reality death is not longer scary but the outflowing of a life lived fully and at its center.
I was told of an order of nuns where each Sister placed a simple wooden casket in her room as a reminder of her mortality. I don’t need to be that dramatic. But the reality dying is now beginning to inform the quality of my life. Where I go and what I am after I die is not the focus of my life right now. Living gratefully in the now is a growing reality.
Playwright Dennis Potter (who was dying from cancer) remarked during his last television interview that he was living so intensely in the present that he noticed the beauty in ordinary things that he’d hardly paid attention to before. He captured this beautifully in his comment:
“The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.”
How few of us achieve that level of awareness and appreciation for life!
How do you rise to the challenge of being wide awake to life as well as to death?