About seventeen years ago I was in a class, in which we were asked for our immediate personal response when the lecturer wrote on the board Death. I don’t recall too many of the other responses but most of them were phrased in religious language, and indicated either acceptance, fear or anticipation. The man at the front of the room said my response gave him the chance, for the first time in his life, to write the words pissed off on the seminary blackboard.
I remember so well how I came to be in this state of outrage. A week or two before, I had been walking down a street, just an ordinary street in a dry northern suburb, when the sun glinted on the leaves of the tall gum trees planted along the foothpath and lit them into intense colour. The juxtaposition of this catch of beauty on a work day in an unexpected place suddenly shifted into the realization that I loved this planet, and I did not want to ever leave it for any reason whatsoever. I was quite clear that it was this life that I was loving, and its finiteness was both shocking and rude. No, I told the horrified pastor in the class, who was a lot older than me. It was not that I didn’t want to meet God. It was just that I wanted the meeting to be HERE – and I definitely didn’t want everyone else to go on living this exquisite life without me.
Now that I am (impossibly) almost two decades older, there is quite a bit of death around. Some have been a release from suffering, some a response to despair, some peaceful and appropriately in tune with life’s phases. Most recently, a dear woman died in the time it would take to snap your fingers, bringing memories of ‘You know not the day nor the hour when your soul may be required of you’. What was once the terrifying threat to a primary school child, now is spoken of as ‘What a wonderful way to go’ by those left to grieve.
I have had more time to process the effrontery of being required to one day make room for someone else. I still don’t like it but I do understand that I am getting closer to the top of the line, and sometimes the wind blows cold out there in front. This season of my life has returned me to these questions but as it were, from a different angle of glance.
I know now that as a younger woman my outrage was responding to the human longing for the infinite, that desire to hold and absorb every single thing. It is the longing for something that I can’t describe when I look at the sea on a day when the water just fills itself to the brim. It is the point of intimacy in making love, where there are no borders and you can’t tell which one is you and which is the other, but which always ends up with a small sadness because it has to end. Left to drive us without being understood and shaped, the search for transcendence can turn into destructive greed or the lust for power or insatiable addictions.
The older me ponders whether this longing is totally incompatible with our lives that exist within limits of time and space, or if it is the key to what is deepest and most central to us, the deep throb of the heart of the matter, that is beyond matter. I am learning to understand freshly that my restless heart can only be satisfied by the Thou that is infinite.
I have found that I can in part accept (at least theoretically) the challenge set by Rosemary Radford-Reuther, who saw death as the surrender of the small ego-existence, returning all of the physical self and our precious uniqueness, to the Matrix of all Life for the creation of future beings and eco-systems, leaving only traces of our existence, for a time. Brutally confronted, this abandonment is perhaps the ultimate trust and gift of one’s whole known self. It is this end-point that makes the living of each moment so precious, with such poignant intensity. It is why the deprivation of another’s human life, or the quality of it as it is lived, has such implications.
Although science has taught me to accept that there is no bodily existence after the moment in which we cease breathing, my whole life’s experience and wisdom also brings me to reject the possibility that there is consequentially no further delight and joy and experience beyond what we already know. It seems to me now, that this hunger is there for a purpose, giving us glimpses of the Infinite that draw us forward. It is no accident that all religions and cultures have fashioned some sort of understanding of continued existence, however varied.
I am tired now of the questions. That is the blessed release of the ‘threescore and ten’ looming ahead. I cannot know whether it will be surrender or embrace – the total embrace when drawn into the infinite Compassionate Heart at last and into a new way of being ? Meditating in the darkness brings the sense of peace that makes the answers irrelevant. Either way has its own beauty.
Last week a friend told me how she had sat with a man who was dying and had been comatose for several hours. As his breath was slowing, he startled her by lifting his head and looking to the far side of the room, His face broke into a wide smile and he just said ‘Wow!’ He was dead in the next instant before his head had even settled back on the pillow.
Call me naive, tell me I am wish-fulfilling – but I reckon I can go with that.