The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Dying in peace

Posted by Ron George on July 2, 2011

The shore

The shore No. 2 - Blue Noon, by Wynn Creasy

More than 50 years ago, I learned to “pray like a Catholic” with my cousins. We gathered in a bedroom of the house on York Street in Corpus Christi and recited the rosary at bedtime with only a nightlight in the dark. I was a 6-year-old Methodist kid, and I was so smitten by these devotions that I asked only one thing for Christmas in 1953  — a rosary. I was awed by my cousins’ recitation of what sounded like wise, complex, adult prayer. One prayer in particular leaped out at me: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” It was the first time I recall thinking about my own death. The prospect was awesome. I wondered, What’s it like to die?

I’ve had that question in the back of my mind ever since. It’s the question that seemed to make me aware that God was present in my bedroom, in the dark, at a particular moment on a particular night in my eighth year. It’s as though, as I became aware of my inevitable death, I also discovered that I was in the hands of the living God. I wouldn’t have said it that way at 8 years of age, but I know for sure that’s how it felt. I’d been formed in a Christian way of thinking about God, so it was logical that I would make the leap from awareness of mortality to the presence of God. I didn’t have to be reminded that I was alive in “my father’s world,” but something in me had to click on the notion that even in death I was in God. I don’t have a clue how to get there right now, but perhaps this insight lies near the roots of the resurrection myth of our faith. As the prayer book says, In the midst of life, we are in death.

So, what is it like to die, and where is God in that?

I’ve found it takes a certain level of praxis to ponder that question in personal terms. I’ve had to learn not to flee from the question, to stay with the fear of the moment and let it penetrate my awareness. At some level, I’ve prayed my way along The Shore where I’ve imagined that life ends and death begins. I’ve tried to get my mind around the prospect of ceasing to be alive. I’ve sought to calm my heart with faith in the presence of God in death as in life. I’ve learned to hope that there’s love in dying as well as living – and that I have nothing to fear. I haven’t arrived at the peace that surpasses understanding, but I believe it’s somewhere within. I’ve concluded that it takes practice to die in peace and that regardless of the stripe of one’s faith, it’s worth the effort.

Holy ground: Requiescat in pace, by Peter Stax

If dying in peace takes practice, then one way to practice dying is to participate in the death of others, to behold the mystery of someone ceasing to be alive – and perhaps it is best if it’s someone we’ve known and loved. A parent, a grandparent, a friend or – God forbid – a child. We’re given these opportunities, and to the extent that we embrace them, death becomes less fearsome though not less awesome. To the extent that we flee, however, we become even more frightened of death, and we may grow into a continuous state of denial, which is a form of despair, the sickness unto death.

Our culture makes it hard to practice dying. Critics have long noted our death-denying way of whistling past the cemetery as though dying were something that happens only to someone else. Only when we or a member of our family become seriously ill do we begin pondering the inevitability of our own demise – and when we’re caught unawares, as we are so often, our first impulse is fear then denial. Whew! It’s them not me. Someday, however, it will be me. The question is, How do I want that to be? I understand that my death may not conform to my expectations – in fact, it’s likely that it won’t. So, maybe the real question is, How I am disposed toward my dying; what do I believe about the phenomenon of human death and will it have some effect on whether I “die in peace,” whatever that means?

I don’t believe that some disembodied part of me will go somewhere else when I die. I’m made of second-generation stardust, heavy elements distilled out of a vast universe, congealed upon this planet and animated by biochemical processes. I’ve acquired a spiritual sense of myself in space-time, conceived a way of understanding myself in the universe as being connected with it personally through the agency of God who creates. I’ve received a spiritual tradition that connects me with God through one like me who became God indeed, who is said to have risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. These stories have no basis in scientific fact, but they are meaningful, somehow, especially as they relate to the matter of my own inevitable nonbeing. This creature that I am will pass away into the elements from whence I came – dust to dust – just as all we humans have made one day will be incinerated – ashes to ashes – by the sun, which has been essential in the development and sustenance of my and all other life on Earth, one star among billions in a galaxy among billions in a universe unimaginably large.

Cosmic Peace Whispers, by Stephen Kelly

There is no afterlife, no resurrection from the dead, but these myths do have some bearing upon the meaning of life in the religio-spiritual tradition I have received and by which, for most of my life, I have interpreted its meaning, understood its purpose, supposed its truths and falsehoods. As I ponder the end of my particular life, what have these myths to do with my experience of dying and, finally, being dead forever? A breakfast buddy said the other day that I am God, a son, that I have God in my DNA. Perhaps, insofar as God may be that which or within which life – an unlikely outcome – occurred in space-time. That’s not the personal God of Judeo-Christianity, but it is a concept of God – pantheism – that seems to rhyme with science, even though there is no evidence whatever of God in the space-time structure of the universe.

The subject of death brings on all manner of theological meanderings. Dealing with the end of life became a theological matter of some kind early in human history. It may have been a concern of our Neanderthal cousins. God-talk doesn’t take the subject off the table, but it does take the edge off our fear. Nowadays, we know a great deal about how and why death occurs, but we’re on the same page with humanity 25,000 years ago when we find ourselves in the presence of death: We’re awed when a human body is becomes lifeless – and we wonder what it’s like.

My father died in peace at home, in his bedroom, doped against the pain of lung cancer that had attacked his spine and emphysema that had ravaged his lungs for years. He simply stopped breathing on Jan. 6, 2002, and lay still as can be. Nothing about his appearance suggested he had gone somewhere else, “to a better place,” as we’re wont to say. He hadn’t ceased to be but had ceased to be alive. What we did with his body was not a matter of indifference, but it certainly made no difference to him. He had left explicit instructions, which we followed to the letter. We scattered his ashes on my grandparents’ graves in Salado, Texas. It was meaningful for him to instruct us; and it’s meaningful to us to have done as he wished. The family plot in Salado is holy ground; and if there is a God, we feel close to God when we’re there; and if not, then at least we feel kinship with the dead, close to each other and perhaps more in touch with our humanity and mortality. Life-death has made the cemetery special to us, and almost everyone is respectful of that. It’s part of the agreement we have in our culture and all human cultures that hallow the graves of their dead one way or another.

Star Dust, by Anamae

Death is an opportunity for love – the receiving of it, the giving of it, the general acceptance of love as an antidote for our natural fear of the process of dying and, perhaps, death itself. Love remedies the despair of fearing death; love, not the tiresome, sentimental kind that permeates our culture, but the real, earnest seeking for what’s best in someone else’s life and the willingness to live sacrificially into that knowledge and belief with caring acts and true acceptance. It takes faith of some kind – in something or someone – and it is the ground of our hope that human life has purpose and meaning. We may or may not conclude that it’s all grounded in theos and the stories we tell to interpret its meaning.

If there is a God who creates and sustains the cosmos and who is all in all, then whether we live or whether we die, we are in God, of God and – maybe my breakfast buddy is right about this – becoming God ourselves by faith, by letting ourselves understand this relationship as one of love, not fear but of being itself poured out to become human flesh. In the end, my flesh will be emptied of the gift of life to become something cosmic and other than I once was; not a disembodied soul but what I’ve always been – second-generation star dust, heavy elements once composed, perhaps by God’s grace, to exist as being alive and empowered to reflect upon human existence as having meaning and purpose in an unimaginably large universe.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Rest assured, die in peace.

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2 Responses to “Dying in peace”

  1. Patsy Durham said

    What a blessing to find this truly thought-provoking post in my mailbox this morning. It comes at a particularly opportune time for me, since I have recently made musical offerings to honor the lives of those who have “passed to the other side”, in Aransas Pass yesterday and on Normandy Beach just 10 days ago. I continue to marvel when I suddenly find myself in one of those “thin places” where the two draw near. (Also, as always, your art work selections are a special gift for my journal. You have introduced me to so many wonderful artists that I would not have found on my own.) Thank you, Dear Friend.

  2. Ralph Willis said

    A naked soul is joy to encounter. Thank you for “surprising” me with a moment of joy. I pray for this special gift of honest uncertainty. Ralph

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