Monday, October 24, 2011
Dancing, Death and Denial
I suspect that death is to our culture what sex was to Victorian England. It goes on all the time (after all, where did all those little Victorians come from?) but no one talks about it. Death is the ultimate taboo reality. But of course the irony is that death is the one thing we will all have in common, the fate that unites every single one of us.
This reality has become very concrete this last week at the monastery as we have experienced three deaths in the last couple of weeks as well as another death only a little over a month ago. Whatever denial we may have been able to maintain has been quickly stripped away in a flurry of farewells and funerals.
As this denial is stripped away we are left with the deeper understanding of St. Benedict’s invitation. “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” (RB 4:47) Contrary to modern sensibilities Benedict did not have a morbid fixation on death, rather he knew that we have to face death head on, without flinching, if we are to truly live and appreciate life. When we remind ourselves that we are going to die then life becomes less of an entitlement, something we deserve, and more of a wonderful, temporary gift to be rejoiced in every day.
When we remind ourselves daily of death we are more aware that life and death cannot be separated, we only know life because of the reality of death. Death is not something to be denied but held and celebrated as the culmination of life. Perhaps death is the final gift from God. Benedict calls the monastery “the school of the Lord’s service,” and maybe it is in death we finally graduate from this school. Like the other graduations we have known death is a hope-filled, fear-filled leap into the unknown. In death we face the final letting go of all that is familiar into the hope of a new reality.
Of course what makes death so difficult and denial so easy is that death is the ultimate loss of what we know, what we control, of who we are. Part of our denial is the way we fast-forward to our expectations of eternal life and fail to be honest that most people fight death, that death is not pretty or nice, it is seldom easy and painless. We embrace the hope of eternal life but perhaps our hope is too facile, superficial and easy. Paul said: " ….Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (Romans 8:24-25) As we affirm hope in the midst of death perhaps we need to admit that our hope is something ultimately unknown, it is the deep, profound hope of letting go into a reality none of us has seen. Death is letting go of all that we have ever known. It is jumping into the darkness based on a promise.
But of course we will all have to make that jump eventually. All of us have the remarkable gift of this life as we walk along the edge of the cliff. On this journey Benedict reminds us not to pretend that there will be no end to the journey, that somehow we won’t have to look over the abyss, but he says keep that reality of death always in mind. Embrace it, walk with it, hold its hand. It is only in death that we have the gift of life. As we walk along the cliff let us dance because we have been give so great a gift, the gift of life, the gift of death that gives meaning to our hope.
This week in the monastery as we remember Aelred, Josie and Mercedes we know that they have entered into the darkness in hope, dancing with death as they are lead into new life. Their death, our death, which is daily before our eyes, is an invitation into the fullness of life.