OK, it is time to speak of the unspeakable. When I first came to the monastery I noticed something very odd and frankly rather disturbing. I first saw it working in the archives. For a while I was working on scanning old obituaries. I noticed that it seemed like whoever wrote them had an obsession with death. The obituaries didn’t tend to say a lot about the life of the sister but rather seemed to dwell on how she died. Interestingly enough everyone apparently died a wonderful, happy death full of faith, just waiting to leap into the arms of God. Admittedly I am cynical by nature but I thought “yeah, right!” When I entered the community I certainly didn’t have much experience of death or dying but I knew that there was nothing nice about death even if you were a person of great faith. I thought these sisters were either seriously naïve or had some strange, romantic idea of death.
Well it is now fifteen years later and I have seen quite a few sisters die and even written a few obituaries (although none of them described anyone’s death). That, together with the fact that today we are celebrating the death of St. Benedict our founder, makes it seem like a good time to reflect on a subject that is unmentionable in our society, namely death.
We live in an odd society that seems to have no trouble talking about sex, the beginning of life, but seems unable to talk about the other constant in life which is death. If someone were to drop in on our planet, at least on the developed world, they would probably think we were either massively deluded, massively in denial or just plain dense. We spend huge amounts of money on health care for people in the last days of their life, as if somehow with enough extraordinary measures the person will not eventually die anyway. The industry of death, mortuaries and related services, seem to be based on a fundamental need to deny reality with making everyone seem “life-like” without any sense of irony. Even the awful trauma of violent, unexpected death of all sorts is treated with a sense that it should never happen, as if we all have a fundamental right to be free of death in general or at least certainly from violent or traumatic death.
So where does Benedict fit into all this? According to tradition Benedict died on this day, March 21st, in the year 547 which was Holy Thursday. In the only source we have about his life, by Gregory the Great, he is depicted as foreseeing the moment of his own death and then he goes to prayer one last time before “…supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.” This tradition then led to Benedict being a patron of a “happy death.” And to commemorate this event the modern followers of Benedict celebrate him (and his death) today with readings that talk about his glorious passing into eternal life.
So which is it? Is death something horrible, to be denied and resisted at all costs? Is there such a thing as a “happy death? Are those the only two choices, complete denial or Disney-esque romanticism?
Perhaps an honest look at Benedict’s death might provide a third way. Even in the 6th century account Benedict’s death can’t be mistaken for “happy.” As soon as he predicts his death he was said to be overtaken by a terrible fever which completely sapped his strength. He had to be held up by his monks at community prayer for the last time. Death did not come easily, but in weakness and dependence. Benedict didn’t welcome death with open arms, he simply saw it coming and accepted it in faith. There was neither fear nor denial, simply an open recognition that death is no easier than life, but we are born in hope and we die in hope. Neither birth nor death is easy, they involve suffering and pain but both are enfolded in hope of new life, on earth or after this earth. For Benedict, for all believers, death is an end and a beginning. It is not to be resisted at all costs and it is not to be embraced before it is time. Death will not be easy or pain free or fair. It is simply what happens and the best we can hope for is to die in the midst of our community while praying to be received into the arms of our new community, the life-giving Trinity of love. So perhaps today we remember Benedict as the patron saint for accepting death with grace, with hope, with peace.