Sunday, March 25, 2007

On Death and Dying

In my recent reading of Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Journals, I found that he had quite a lot to say on the subject of death and dying. This has always been of interest to me as well, and has been somewhat on my mind in the last few months. I have been curious to what extent people really think about death and dying. In our culture, at least, it seems most everyone is in full-fledged denial, rushing madly to occupy every waking moment with activity--doing everything, anything to avoid the essential reality of their existence. So much so, that when the time comes, some seem actually surprised by it all, and surviving family members may act as though fate has played a cruel and unusual trick on them.

Our avoidance can even be somewhat comical. I purchased my first home when I was 22, in what was characterized as a transitional neighborhood. A, shall we say, "colorful" Pentecostal widow lady lived next door. She tied dozens of artificial red flowers to a shrub in her front yard, so that it would "bloom" all year long. She also fashioned a commode into a planter for her petunias. That too, in the front yard. You get my drift. Anyway, at the drop of a hat, she would testify that she was Heaven-bound, ready to go, right now! Her commitment to leaving, however, was somewhat suspect, for in almost the same breath, she was just as apt to tell you about the time when she was having a heart attack and prayed to God to deliver her--and He did!

One often hears the complaint--particularly as people age--how life is going faster and faster, the years slipping away from them, so to speak. And of course, this is true in light of God and eternity--In the morning they are like grass which grows up: In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers. And yet, I wonder if the people who harp on this theme are in fact those most disconnected with the rhythm and routineness of death? For the fracturing of our communal, familial and tribal ties is a legacy of our modern (and now post modern) world, as is the resultant disconnect with death.

I have never really felt this, and still do not. In my mind, the years of my youth and early 20s seem like ages and ages ago. I recall a quote from Donald Davidson, the Southern writer, who said "life is long enough to live." This actually seems much a paraphrase of Seneca's axiom, "life, if well lived, is long enough." There is wisdom here, and I find it more in keeping with an authentically Christian view of reality.

Fr. Schmemann had keen insight into our society's attempted dismissal of death and dying. His characterizations from 30 years ago are even more accurate today.

Fear of death comes from bustle, fuss, not from happiness. When one bustles around and suddenly remembers death, death seems totally absurd, horrible. But when one reaches quiet and happiness, one contemplates and accepts death quite differently....In happiness, in genuine happiness, one always feels the presence of eternity in the heart, so that happiness is open to death. (p. 33)

And later:

Death is in the center of religion and of culture, and one's attitude towards death determines one's attitude toward life. Any denial of death only increases the neurosis (immortality) as does its acceptance (asceticism, denial of the flesh). Only victory over death is the answer, and it presupposes transcendence of both denial and acceptance--"death consumed by victory." The question is "What is this victory?" Quite often the answer is forgotten. Therefore one is helpless in dealing with death. Death reveals--must reveal--the meaning not of death, but of life. Life must not be a preparation for death, but victory over death, so that, in Christ, death becomes the triumph of life. We teach about life without relation to death, and about death as unrelated to life. When it considers life only as a preparation for death, Christianity makes life meaningless, and reduces death to "the other world," which does not exist, because God has created only one world, one life. It makes Christianity and death meaningless, as victory; it does not solve the neurosis of death. Interest about the fate of the dead beyond the grave makes Christian eschatology meaningless. The church does not pray about the dead; it is (must be) their continuous Resurrection, because the Church is life in death, victory over death, the universal Resurrection. (p. 45)

This is a particularly powerful passage for me, for in all my earlier years as a Protestant, I never, ever heard it articulated quite this way. Of course we heard countless exhortations for hope after death, innumerable sermons about Christ's atoning sacrifice on the Cross, and a myriad of allusions to the beauties and wonders of Heaven. Yet, despite it all, in some sense we were unsure what to make of death, swinging from "super-assurance" to doubt. But what Fr. Schmemann describes; this over-arching view of death as victory and triumph, this trampling down of death by death and the view of the Church as life in death, I have only found in the fullness of the Faith.

Fr. Schmemann also thought that people have not so much abandoned belief in God, but rather they have lost their fear of God and knowledge of the reality of death.

People have stopped believing not in God or gods, but in death, in eternal death, in its inevitability--hence, they stopped believing in salvation. The seriousness of religion was first of all in the serious choice that a person considered obvious, between death and salvation. People say that disappearance of fear is good, although the essential experience of life is facing death. The saints did not become saints because of fear, but because they knew the fear of God. The contemporary understanding of religion as self-fulfillment is rather cheap. The devil is eliminated, then hell, then sin--and nothing is left except consumer goods. But there is much more fear, even religious fear in the world than ever before--but it is not at all the fear of God. (p. 63)

Fr. Schmemann pinpoints one sure proof of our death-denial--the shuffling off of the dying to the realm of hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, etc. His portrayal of a nursing home visit to an aging bishop is especially poignant.

The impression is not only of a death cell, but precisely of the devilish absurdity of such a gathering, of every "settler" condemned not only to his decay and his dying, but also to the sight--life in a mirror--of the same decay and dying all around. Man must die at home! There must not be this awful isolation, this multiplication of dying, of disintegration. But there is the question: How does one resolve this situation in practice in this frightening and unfeeling world, totally dependent on economic possibilities and impossibilities. (p. 239)

I also appreciate what Athanasius wrote, in his On the Incarnation, on Christians and death:

...instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead....death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.

And finally, thumbing back through an old common-place book, I found the following by Malcolm Muggeridge:

Like a prisoner awaiting his release, like a schoolboy when the end of term is near, like a migrant bird ready to fly south...I long to be gone. Extricating myself from the flesh I have too long inhabited, hearing the key turn in the lock of time so that the great doors of eternity swing open, disengaging my tired mind from its interminable conundrums and my tired ego from its wearisome insistencies. Such is the prospect of death.


audrey said...

Thanks for sharing. I read his book "O Death where is thy sting?" and I loved it.

s-p said...

Nice passage, John. I've wanted to be dead for a loooonnnggg time. Most people think its morbid. I see it as freedom, the last "Great Escape". :)