The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
In this post we conclude our Lenten journey through life's five hard truths. These truths are explored in more detail in Richard Rohr's book Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. Last week, we talked about the truth that you are not in control. This week's final truth is that you are going to die.
No one likes talking about death, particularly our own. Two of the most important liturgies we do all year revolve specifically around death, and unsurprisingly those services--Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which bookend the season of Lent--are not as well-attended as some other days of special observance. I've talked to some people over the years who specifically avoid those liturgies. People have told me things like, "Why would I go to Good Friday? It makes me too sad." or "I don't see the point of spending that much time talking about death." There are certainly instances where I can sympathize with the avoidance--maybe, for instance, you've recently lost someone you love, and the pain is too acute. On the other hand, I've also encountered people for whom these days are incredibly meaningful. For many the observances help connect them to their own grief, help them see more clearly where they seek change, or help them experience God's solidarity with them in their own suffering even through the tragedy and reality of death.
The two things we have in common with every other human being who ever has or ever will grace this planet is birth and death. Death is simply a part of life, and it connects us with everyone in the world, past, present, and future. Death is something we can spend time being anxious about, or we can accept it in order to gain the freedom truly to live. There it is. Yes, I am going to die. You are going to die. BUT. Not yet. Which raises a big question for us that the poet Mary Oliver pointedly and beautifully asks in her poem "Summer Day":
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"--Mary Oliver, "Summer Day"
Accepting the truth that we are going to die sets us free to ask this question of ourselves: I've got one life to live to the fullest. What will I do with it?
Richard Rohr makes a point about death that had never occurred to me in quite this way before. He writes, "If God is so patient and merciful and forgiving and accepting with us day after day in this world, which most religions teach, then why not believe the same is true after death?" We believe that "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 4:16). Why wouldn't a God who is love continue to show us love even after death? Rohr continues, "Yes, we are going to die, but we have already been given a kind of inner guarantee and promise right now that death is not final--and it takes the form of love. . . . Love knows love; it completes the circuit. Only love in us can see love over there, which is why God commands us to love. It is not a test or a trial; it is just that until you love yourself, you will not be able to see or allow or enjoy love over there. I call it the principle of likeness. Like recognizes like." In other words, as Rohr later says, "Most simply when we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds."
Maybe this is something like what Jesus means when, in his final discourse to his disciples before he dies in John's gospel account, he says, "“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you" (John 15:9-12, CEB). Jesus commands us to love, always to love, because love is the bridge.
It's also something like what Paul means when he wrote to the Romans, "I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created" (Romans 8:38-39). The beloved (you and me!) cannot be separated from the Lover.
To quote another poet, W. H. Auden, "Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die." Acceptance offers perspective on what is truly important. It allow us to say to ourselves, "Yes, you are going to die. BUT. Not yet! You now know what to live for!" Our lives are meant to be lived for one purpose and one purpose only--to love.
"LIfe is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die."
Let's do a quick recap of the five hard truths, and their corollaries which Richard Rohr calls "the common wonderful":
Now that you know the truth, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"