Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Too much death

A couple of years ago my son wrote that he was upset by the number of deaths that have occurred within our circle of family, friends and acquaintances. Between us both, I am sure that as many as eight people we know had died, one way or another. Within our own family, the two surviving grandparents finally passed away, first my father in late January, then my mother-in-law the following March. Two young people we knew of committed suicide, both young women, one of them being the mother of a six year old boy. It's one thing when the elderly pass away—two others were also aged grandmothers of friends—but when the young, or even the middle aged (like me!) pass away, it seems somehow tragic. In the case of the young because their potential was never realised, in the case of the middle aged, because they worked their whole lives and were cheated out of enjoying their ‘golden years.’

Of course, we can piously say, ‘God is in control, and He knows what He is doing.’ Of course He does, yet even God doesn't desire the death of anyone, as scripture says, ‘Death was not God's doing, He takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living’ (Wisdom 1:13). Myself, I have somehow escaped the feeling of grief when it comes to the death of my loved ones. I sometimes wonder, was it because I never loved them at all? That can't be it. It's quite possible that years of trusting in the promise of Christ that ‘If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26) has worn down any possibility of me feeling grief. Probably not. I think my prayers to God to protect and prolong the lives of my loved ones have been answered. To me, our God has been a truly gracious God, and though His blessings have sometimes contradicted my desires, He has never ‘left me lying in the dust of death’ (Psalm 22:15c).

I wrote my son that death doesn't have to be awful, that it can be beautiful, and that those who are truly alive have nothing to fear in death. That may sound alright on paper, and such an explanation may work for the dispassionate person, but I think, for most people it simply doesn't hold water. In fact, even for Jesus Himself, such an explanation doesn't work. How do we know? Because in the shortest verse in the bible, considering the death of his beloved friend Lazarus, scripture says of Jesus, ‘He wept’ (John 11:35). Yet this same God-man—though at the time He asked this question, no one knew for sure or exactly what or who He was—said to the sister of Lazarus, ‘whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ At the same time that He truly grieved and really wept for the death of His friend, He still knew that He could, and would, raise him.

Martha said, ‘I know he will rise at the last day.’ Well, to her that was no consolation, and by her words and tone she let Jesus know that that was not enough. She wanted her brother back alive, now, though she didn't say it aloud. Christ, knowing everything about her just as He knows everything about all of us, testified, ‘I am the resurrection,’ even though He knew that unless He demonstrated it, what He said was just words. People then and now had some kind of belief in the afterlife, though no one ever has a clear picture of it. Some say it's just an extension of life on earth, where we appear the same and know each other, and live forever, carrying on as we did on earth, only without end. Just as the resurrection on the last day was not enough for Martha, so this kind of imagination about the afterlife is not enough for me.

God is real. Jesus Christ the God-man is real. Paradise is real. Therefore, all that we can think about or imagine of the life hereafter is at best a kind of pill we swallow to keep our anxieties quiet. The fact is, we can't know, we can only believe, and so sometimes we let our beliefs carry us away into fantasy. Whatever else death is, it is without doubt the end of our lives on earth, all that we are and were is no more. We will be seen here no more. There is only one of each of us, and nothing about us or anything else in the universe really repeats itself or can continue forever as it was. I once wrote, ‘The perfection of anything solely human consists in the fact that it must end,’ and I meant what I wrote. We exist only to run our courses to the finish line. When we break through that line, our utter exhaustion from the final effort to finish sends us careening into ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ who catch us as we fall, completely out of breath and, if we were still alive, close to suffering a heart attack.

But we are dead—thank God!—and so a heart attack is simply out of the question. We made it to the finish, but we're no longer what we were, not at all. As we lie there dazed for a moment in the arms of the heavenly host, for a moment we remember what we were on earth as one almost remembers the figments of a waking dream, and then, as we come back to ourselves, we are as different from our earthly identity as uncreated is from created. Where once we were contained in our bodies, now our bodies are contained in us. It would not be an exaggeration to say we are no longer human, but only as we say that an oak tree is no longer an acorn. Lord have mercy! Here I go imagining the afterlife and what we will be just like the next guy! And after all I just said! What I really wanted to write was something I just feel, something I just ‘know in my knower,’ but there aren't any words for it. Holy apostle Paul writes something that gives me the same feeling, ‘We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed’ (1 Corinthians 15:51).

It's that word ‘changed’ that comes closest, without defining, to what it is that we are, after we have expired in the body of flesh. But, back to grief. We are right to be sad, to mourn, the death even of an aged parent or grandparent, just as we grieve for the death of a child or still-born. Why? Well, again, because He who created all, who knew us all before we appeared on earth, and who by knowing us after we have disappeared holds us forever suspended in a new and unknowable life, He too grieved, He wept, He was sorry that His beloved friend had to physically die. And did He weep knowing Lazarus was just dead, or even more so, because He must raise him temporarily again so that he must endure that same disembodiment and transformation again? Only God knows all, including the answer to this. ‘Memory eternal,’ that hymn with the haunting melody, tingeing the air of purply pre-dawn with expectation and transformation: ‘Awake, my soul, to the real life!’

God became man, that man might become God. We can say the words and even imagine, but there is nothing we can say truly, until happens to us what holy apostle Paul wrote, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).


GretchenJoanna said...

I am tuned into this subject because my husband of 43 years fell asleep in the Lord three months ago. Even though I know in faith that he is "safe in the arms of Jesus," or the cloud of witnesses as you say, I feel in my core the wrongness of death and the thousand holes where we were intertwined and he is removed. Writing about this makes me start to weep, even though most of the time I am happy in the confidence of the Resurrection for him and me, and I'm trying to get used to my new life.

A new thing for me are these doubting thoughts, now that he is beyond the veil, of "Is he really somewhere?" I'm glad you let yourself imagine life after death "like the other guy," because the images of oak trees, and falling into the arms of the heavenly host, are vivid and encouraging, and as they come out of your faith and love for Christ and Holy Tradition, there is probably some kind of truth to them. Thank you!

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Beloved sister, I am sorry for your loss, and in spirit glad for your husband's gain. I know it is a strange thing to say. I have not known the death of a loved one of my generation or any of my children, thank God, but my parents and their generation are now all gone, and I was with some of them at their departing. The utter certainty of the majestic tenderness and mercy of God towards mankind was never clearer to me than at my father's repose. When he departed, it was as if his body itself wanted to be dragged with his soul into the heavenly places, his eyes looking upwards, he sat up and almost lunged forward into 'those galloping arms' open to receive him, then the chrysalis fell backwards to the pillows, and the winged being he always was, was gone. There was no priest or congregation, and I blessed his remains myself with a handful of family members, and sang the Greek memorial service in the presence of his body, laying my hand gently on what was once his head. It felt cold and small (my dad was bald) and childlike. In fact, by the time of his repose, his body had shrunk down to the size of a child, he, a man 6 feet tall in his active life. In the hours before his passing, he spoke breathlessly so I couldn't really hear, to me and then to others unseen that were in the room and raised up. I felt the presence of the ancestors that his eyes seemed to be focused on. When we are states like this, they are so rare, the seal of God's love impresses on us more deeply, and stays with us. No, death is not God's doing, but Christ has taken even death and, trampling it, yes, He also has transformed it into the final stage in His new creation of the old man, transfiguring flesh to spirit. Our lifeless bodies are like the molds that must be broken in pieces, so that the gleaming creation hidden inside can emerge and be what it was always meant to be.

Quiet grief, the letting go, after so many years of shared life. This is all part of the training we undergo to be rendered capable of eternal life. I am getting closer every day, and I know it. May your loved ones comfort you, and your memories sustain you till you and your husband meet again in the heavenly country. Meanwhile, grace and peace in Jesus Christ, our life, and our resurrection.