Are we brave enough to contemplate our own deaths?

Psalm 69 likens death to flood waters. It opens:

Save me, O God, for the waters
have risen to my neck.
I have sunk into the mud of the deep,
where there is no foothold.
I have entered the waters of the deep,
where the flood overwhelms me (2-3).

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And these are the very waters cresting in Dame Margaret Drabble’s newest novel, The Dark Flood Rises. She asks us to consider that which many of us would rather not contemplate: our coming deaths. She writes:

She’s feeling low. She’s disappointed in herself. She’s tired of being ill. She doesn’t think that she’s afraid of dying, and she isn’t, for the moment, in much pain, restored by her latest chemical fix. She leans back on her high pillow, closes her eyes.
It’s not clear to her what she’s supposed to do, on a spiritual level, with the rest of the time she has left. She’s never much liked the language of struggle and battle, and anyway, she knows the battle is already lost. She hasn’t thought of her relationship with her cancer in terms of fighting the good fight, as some do. But the lines from Timothy come back to her, nevertheless: Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called
Lay hold on eternal life.Fight the good fight of faith.
She can’t do it.
Whereunto thou art also called.
She has known some who have lost their faith late in life, in their sixties, in their seventies, even in their eighties. Because the human story is so very disappointing, because the cruelty of it is so very great, and God’s care of his creation so hard to interpret.
The saddest case she had ever known had been that of an old woman of the parish, a sinless friendly kind old woman, a neighbor, a practicing but not particularly devout Catholic who had, in her last years, been plunged into a state of appalling panic and depression and guilt. It had seemed causeless, to Teresa and to the professionals. The old woman thought that she had committed the Sin against the Holy Ghost, whatever that might be. Perhaps she simply meant that she had lost her faith. She had been hospitalized, and then transferred to an expensive psychiatric home in North London, her stay funded, Teresa gathered, by the son who had done well in the City. Teresa had been to visit her once or twice and had been deeply affected by her condition. Mrs. Taylor (they were not on first-name terms, and Teresa was always Mrs. Quinn to Mrs. Taylor) had been in a state of abject terror. Each day had been an insurmountable and seemingly unendurable ordeal. Her refuge was in playing games of Solitaire—always the same game of Patience, never venturing on any other—again and again, again and again, on a little digital game device. Teresa had not thought much of the staff at the home, who could not work up any interest in so old and so dull a patient.
Once, exasperated, she had told Birdie that some of the staff couldn’t have run a Pets’ Parlour, let alone a psychiatric unit for the deeply disturbed (239-241).

How do we prepare for that which we cannot comprehend, much less acknowledge? Even to think about your own death is still to stand outside of it, at an imaginative distance, yet, when it does comes, death will indeed rise like a dark flood. It will carry away the one now thinking about it. Small wonder, we get nowhere. How do we think the utterly senseless? How do we think away the thinker?

Saint John’s Gospel was the last to be composed, long after the others. The church had had time to grapple with the mystery of Christ’s death, which even the resurrection did not undo. Did so much joy have to come from so much suffering? Was that the only way? Did the Christ have travel to the farthest point from God, from life, from hope itself, before he could ricochet back in resurrection?

St. John is sure of the issue. His Christ has come among us to die. Throughout the Fourth Gospel the Lord speaks of his coming hour; says that it has not yet arrived but that, when it does, he will be glorified. And then, his hour is revealed:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit (12: 23-24).

For St. John, we can pass through the dark flood waters of death only because Christ has fathomed their depths and returned to carry us over them. Of course it defies all sense. Yet, what else but the senselessness of resurrection can conquer the senselessness of death? Both are more than we can comprehend.

If you think of Lent as a retreat, one which the entire church makes, today we are asked to ponder death: Are we ready for our own hour of decision?

Unschooled in Catholic spirituality, her caregivers can make little sense of Mrs. Taylor, who worries that she has committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit, but we should know that she is asking if her long life of faith has failed her at the moment that it mattered most, in her time of trial, the day that death announced its advent.

Faith is how we live our lives; faith is how we prepare for death. The two are intertwined. If faith isn’t a strong ship that we have constructed through our length of days, how can we expect it to carry us over the waters of death?

St. John gives us a Christ who never takes his eyes away from his coming death. He has come among us to die. He knows this. He accepts this. He embraces this.

I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?

“Father, save me from this hour?”
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name (Jn 12: 27-28).

We can no more stare down our deaths than we can stare up at the sun. We must quickly turn away. Even when one whom we have dearly loved dies, we are only momentarily paralyzed. Then we quickly turn our attention to the demanding work of a funeral.

In today’s scriptures, the church asks us to look at death, our death, for as long as we can, before our natural abhorrence of the absurd forces us to turn away. The hour is coming. It is our hour. It comes for us as surely as it came for Christ:

Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honor whoever serves me (Jn 12: 25-26).

Again, from Drabble:

But now, thinking of Mrs. Taylor arouses a wave of panic which rises helplessly up in her like an acid reflux. It rises up through her gorge and sours her throat. She needs to be rescued. It is a terrible thing, when God, who should comfort us, who should give us wings, becomes our jailer and our persecutor. It is terrible when His eye stares at us in anger.

Her right hand cradles her mobile phone. She waits for it to bleep or buzz or flash or ring. If only somebody would ring or text, someone, anyone, someone from out there, from the world of the living. Even that false and endlessly repeating recorded message purporting to be from her bank would do. She wills her little gadget to speak to her.

Any sound would rescue her (241).

Readings: Jeremiah 31: 31-34 Hebrews 5: 7-9 John 12: 20-33

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Bruce Snowden
9 months 1 week ago

As a child, contemplating death was scary, I think having to do with what Sister told us in class, that we were like flowers in God's Garden and whenever He picked a flower we died! At about eight or nine years old I caused my Mother a lot of grief, refusing to go to sleep because I didn't want to die in case God picked me from His Garden. Mom had to tell the Sister to be more careful in she said, as some children like me were very impressionable. They were "believers" as I am to this day. My fear of death continued for many decades, but now in old age (I'm 86) death no longer terrorizes me. In fact I'm very curious to know where the Door of Death leads and exactly what lies behind that invisible and impenetrable wall that separates the here-and-now, a wall as far as the fling of cosmological creation goes, through which we enter the Homeland called Heaven. My big question is, once there what do we do for endless eternity? Certainly we don't just sit around doing nothing, not very "heavenly" for me! So, I find excitement in pondering Paul's words after a visit to the Homeland, "Eye have not seen, nor have ears heard" the wonders that await us! Just thinking about the wonders to come makes my heart go "bumpity-bump," the only reservations being leaving behind family, friends, and Minestrone Soup!

Carol Cox
9 months ago

I was born to Catholicism. It was my family's faith. I went to Catholic school for 12 years. When I entered the work world, I rejected my faith. I am 69 years old and five years ago God cleared a path for me to renew my faith. On an invitation from my sister, I attended Mass at our childhood church. The Pastor's homily touted the fact that just as God forgives us our sins, He expects us to forgive others. As he spoke, I began to weep. Father set a spark in my soul, God's wake up call to me, to put my faith into practice. I went to Father after Mass and asked if he would hear my confession. He agreed. This changed the course of the rest of my life. The following week Father had placed copies of the parish Ministries in which parishioners could participate more fully in the life of the parish. As a retired teacher, I immediately signed up to teach CCD to 4th graders, become a Eucharistic minister, joined ARISE (a group that met over 18 months) that discussed scriptures and required that we make a commitment to find ways in which to reach out to our parish community and put our faith into practice. I also joined The Book Club which read the works of Catholic saints, prophets, trailblazers, social justice advocates and many other fine Catholic novels. My life became filled with new friends, new experiences, new intellectual pursuits and in the process, I became a better person. While my physical well-being has declined considerably due to breast cancer, heart disease and chronic pulmonary obstruction, my spiritual life has soared! The anxiety that I once felt about dying has vanished. While I have no expectations that God will welcome me into Heaven straight away, I know suspect that I might be able to get to the mid-level area.. And, then, I know that there is no other direction but up. God willing!

Sandi Sinor
9 months ago

Religious faith supports many people who are facing imminent death. But having faith for comfort while contemplating one's own death does not seem to require exceptional courage. It provides comfort.

Many who do not have religious faith also face death with serenity, and that seems to require more bravery than facing it with faith that physical death is not the end, that one will somehow enter God's presence and be 'happy" for all eternity.

Facing a void, facing annihilation of one's essence without that faith is a different matter. That takes courage. And many of those who are faith-less demonstrate this courage.

It's also a bit sad that the author chose to make the woman who lost her faith late in life suffer so through her fear of having "sinned against the Holy Spirit".

It seems that the old woman in the story has not lost faith that there is a God, but has come to believe through her life's experiences that this God is not good, not love. She was apparently raised to believe that this God is a angry God, a harsh God who would condemn an old woman because she has witnessed much horror and tragedy and injustice, and that witnessing these realities raised the perfectly rational questions that eventually caused her to doubt that a god that would allow this to happen is a God of love. The church bears some responsibility for inculcating these ideas. How tragic that "a sinless friendly kind old woman" would have been taught to believe that she might go to hell because of her late in life doubts about the nature of God.

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