Monday, November 24, 2014

On Death and Our Daily Lives





Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,



In the Orthodox Prayer Book under the heading "Before Sleep," we find the following:  "A Prayer of St. John of Damascus, said pointing at the bed."  This particular prayer begins in the following manner:

    O Master Who lovest mankind, is this bed to be my coffin?  Or wilt Thou enlighten my wretched soul with another day?

As St. John was a monk we could, of course, dismiss or ignore such a prayer as "monastic excess" or even as a morbid and medieval fixation on death.  (It seems that whenever our contemporary ears  encounter anything  strange, unfamiliar or jarring from the past the label of "medieval" allows us to disengage from any thoughtful consideration of what is being said).  If we are sleepy, but essentially healthy, as we prepare for bed on any given evening, then it seems quite unlikely - thank God! - that our bed will serve as our coffin as we prepare to enter into it. The inevitable seems safely postponed for the moment and we feel confident that we will rise with the sun the following morning.  And yet a moment of serious reflection on our common destiny - that great equalizer that we call death - should alert those who are spiritually vigilant, that such a prayer cannot simply be dismissed as either monastic or morbid. Understood in the over-all context of how and for what we may pray before sleep according to the Prayer Book and our personal prayers, it is an open-eyed, and hence realistic, reminder that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  (GEN. 3:19)  Perhaps a bit more poignant for those of us who are working on a second half-century that will most assuredly not be completed.

This theme comes to mind on this Monday morning because of yesterday's Gospel reading at the Liturgy:  the short parable of the "rich fool" as found uniquely in LK. 12:16-21.  Short but devastating.  The foolish landowner is far-reaching in his plans for the future.  He will tear down his old barns, now inadequate to store his abundant crops, and build "larger ones."  Anticipating the enjoyment of a life of ease based upon his accumulated wealth, he says:

    I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."  (LK. 12:19)

However alluring, this was not to be.  For the very next thing we hear in this parable are these frightening words:

    But God said to him, 'Fool!  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure
    for himself, and is not rich toward God.  (LK. 12:20-21)
Such planning is mere foolishness in the eyes of God.  (As Tevye the dairyman said: "The more man plans, the harder God laughs").  The brevity of life and the uncertainty of our end has - although containing a timeless and universal truth but perhaps because of sheer repetition - often been reduced to the level of a pious cliché or religious platitude.  For that reason, spiritual vigilance is essential.  In the Church's spiritual tradition we are exhorted to cultivate the "remembrance of death." And yet our highly-secularized society convinces us to practice the "forgetfulness of death."  Which is more realistic? Or true to life?  Try as we might, we cannot forget death, of course.  So, as living human beings "go for it" in terms of life in this world the unwanted "remembrance of death" is there to trouble the mind.  In his book, God With Us, Fr. John Breck, in a chapter entitled "The Thought of Death" captures this underlying and unresolved tension:

    A great many people actually do chastise their soul with the thought of death.  They suffer acute anxiety at the thought that their life will come to and end,
    that they will die and be buried in the earth.  They fear death because of the unknown.  What lies beyond the threshold behind that veil?  Heaven?  Hell?
    Nothing?  The dread of death, which provokes questions like this, can, with tragic irony, push a person over the brink and into suicide. (p. 101)

The "remembrance of death" taken in isolation, especially among those who "have no hope" (I THESS. 4:13), can have a horrible effect upon the soul. It only makes sense to forget about it!  The Christian practice of the "remembrance of death" needs to be the result of a lively faith in Christ, the Vanquisher of death, for it to be the spiritually positive practice it is meant to be.  St. Paul has said it with an unmatched clarity and eloquence from the very dawn of Christianity:

    If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have
    hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a
    man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  (I COR. 15: 17-22)

From an intolerable reality that leaves us as creatures to be pitied, death itself becomes a passage to life in the risen Lord.  St. John Chrysostom could therefore write: "what was the greatest of evils, the chief point of our unhappiness, what the devil had introduced into the world, in a word death, God has turned into our glory and honor."  With the powerful words of both the Apostle Paul and St. John in mind, we can fully understand what Fr. John Breck further relates in his chapter about the thought of death:

    Our physical death remains before us, certainly and inevitably.  But is has been emptied of its power.  For those who are "in Christ," true death
    occurs at baptism, when we go down into the baptismal waters, then rise up from them, in a mimesis, or reactualization, of Christ's own death
    and resurrection.  Baptism effects a "new birth," but only because it signifies the death of the "old Adam," or former being. (p. 101)

The daily practice of the "remembrance of death" is a Christian practice that - besides its realism as mentioned above - allows us to further meditate upon the overflowing love of God that has been poured out for our salvation in Christ, the "Coming One" whose death has overcome death, fully revealed in His glorious  resurrection.  It may not be the most timely subject for dinnertime conversation or the banter of the workplace; but it has a crucial and time-honored place in our prayer life and in our "search" for those essential truths that we meditate on throughout the course of our lives. Imbued with a Christian realism that we embrace with open eyes and the virtue of hope that leaves the future open-ended, we can consciously avoid the foolishness of the rich man of the parable, but rather heed the teaching of St. James:

    Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain; whereas you do not know
    about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall
    do this or that."  (JAS. 4:13-15) 


 


 

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