Friday, May 27, 2011

Sister Death

In the desert tradition, death is a companion, a friend. St. Francis of Assisi called death "sister." He was a believer of extraordinary power, at home with the desert way of believing. Death, far from being the terror we encounter at the end of our earthly existence, is the companion and friend who walks with us now. Sister Death is with us always. Her shadow marks and influences every moment.

To live our life from the point of view of our death is not necessarily a capitulation to despair, to withdrawal, to passivity. Rather, it can become the basis for our being and doing in the world. The more we refuse to look at our own death, the more we repress and deny new possibilities for living.

Alan Jones, Soul Making

We don’t talk enough about death. We talk endlessly, in a kind of grim voyeurism, about killing, but we try hard not to mention death, our own death. Even we Christians tend to shy away from the subject.

If we avoid the subject of death, we avoid the subject of dying more. I know the feeling. As I get older, the time of my own death, my own dying, draws nearer. I am now much closer to the end of my life, whenever that is to be, than I am to its beginning. Since I enjoy life, the love and company of my fellow creatures, the delights of nature and art, I don’t like to think of leaving them. Besides, there is no guarantee that my dying will be peaceful, or pleasant. It might be violent; or it might be messy and protracted, bereft of dignity and intelligence.

Yet our dying is not something outside God’s mercy. By the grace of the Incarnation our Lord went this way before us, making clear the path through the sacrifice of the Cross. There is no moment that we are without Christ’s mercy, for in Julian of Norwich's words, “the sweet eye of pity and love is never lifted off us.”

I keep coming back to last Sunday’s Gospel reading from John 14:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

The way leads through death to eternal life. It did for Jesus; it will for us, if we love him. Of course Death is our Sister. It is she who will lead us home, to the place our hearts have been longing for all these years. I truly believe, from my own close experience as well as from everything I’ve read, that Death is gentle, however un-gentle may be the means of our dying. We are far from perfect, even the best of us, and yet Christ’s mercy is everlasting, and without limit; mercy triumphs over judgement.

But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in
the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 1.20-21)

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him. (Psalm 103.17)

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever. (Psalm 136.1)


  1. "I truly believe, from my own close experience as well as from everything I’ve read, that Death is gentle, however un-gentle may be the means of our dying."

    Yes. I wish to read more about this, because I my suspections are that this is true.

    I do, in some ways, very much look forward to dying, in a lifewish kind of way.

  2. Interesting, Mike, Death... Like Sue I do believe death is gentle and I too am looking forward to dying -- until I go to my yearly checkup to find out whether I am still cancer-free and then, then, I enter a familiar now twilight zone, filled with scary shadows.

    Having to say goodbye, having to leave, having to cry over the separation, bits of me that still don't want to let go...

    Death has been kind to me, however. By having cancer, I have had the time to prepare myself for it...

    Isn't it strange that death was not scary when I thought of committing suicide, but frightening when it came to me of its own...

    Still, I have this feeling of boundless freedom exuberant with light waiting for me on the other side of Life's wall...

    Basically, talking of death is good for it clarifies what it is I like about my life and what it is I do want to change...

    Thank you for this.

  3. Have you ever read "Grace and Grit" by Ken Wilber, about his wife's death? It is excellent.

  4. Wow, Claire, that is some fascinating comment, especially the part about how death did not seem scary when it was through a suicide lens, but now is scary through a cancer lens.

    I've never quite thought about it in that way before ...

  5. Thank you, everyone! Yes, I can see what you mean a little, Claire. I have myself found it much easier to contemplate the possibility of a violent death, than a creeping one by means of illness. I still do!

    No, Jan, I haven't read Grace & Grit - I mist look it out.

    Sue, I think there is more to be written about all this. It's just finding a place to start, like looking for a flaw in a rock to make the first chisel cut...

    Thank you all again!