This monthly celebration of the Eucharist for the deceased gives us monks the opportunity to engage the monastic practice of contemplating your own death.
In a less obvious way, I found some of the retreatants already engaged in that exercise when they arrived for this retreat. I heard from some as they introduced themselves, I am in a season of life where I am more conscious of not having that much time left. I want to make the most of this autumn season of my life or even facing the December season.
I thought I would build my homily today around a few bullet points that may be worth considering while contemplating death. First, can we see death not as an enemy that comes to rob us of life but as an experience that brings us to the fullness of life. The day we are born is the day we begin to die. Kathleen Singh the author of The Grace in Dying tells us that Death is the ultimate Contemplative experience. We spend most of the first half of life accumulating and the second half of letting go of all we have accumulated. The process can be hastened by a diagnosis of a serious illness. Death is the ultimate letting go and coming onto the ground of our own being, as Christians we would say falling into the arms of God or the Christ.
Cynthia Bourgeault, a prominent author on Contemplative Practice and the Wisdom Way of Knowing tells that dealing with the mystery of death is one of the most significant issues that will determine our future. The social scientist and theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu in his book, When the Disciple Comes of Age: Christian Identity in the 21st , Century confirms her intuition.
He writes, “Creation’s evolutionary unfolding is endowed with the paradoxical interplay between creation-cum-destruction, and the unceasing cyclic rhythm of birth-death-rebirth.” He goes on to say that every major religion views death as an evil to overcome and eliminate. Coming of age very much involves embracing and befriending death as an essential feature of all growth and development. It is the human denunciation of death and our addictive drives to get rid of it that cause enormous amounts of meaningless death throughout the world today.”
He sites earthquakes as a useful example of this. In scientific terms an earthquake is a shifting in the earth’s tectonic plates, which among other things involves a clearing away of excess wastage, thus facilitating the earth-body to function in a healthier way. If we had no earthquakes, we would not have the viable planet we have today, with its vast array of life-forms and living systems. Earthquakes are essential-absolutely crucial- to the viability of planet earth.
We cannot look at the ashes or corpse of a loved one without contemplating death. One of the best contemplations of death that I have found is Piere Teilhard de Chardin’s Aging/Dying Prayer that I would like to conclude with.
When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);
when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;
When the painful moment comes
in which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am ill or growing old;
and above all at that last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;
in all these dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is You
(provided my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within Yourself.
Piere Teilhard de Chardin
From The Power of Grace by David Rico.
For some of us, family and friends who were dear to us and have died sometimes seem to be present to us in an accompanying way. Since accompaniment is a quality of grace, we can say that their life was a grace to us. Their giving to us did not end with their demise; it goes on. We may carry a felt sense that somehow those who loved us and whom we loved so much did not abandon us totally but live in our hearts in a companionable, sometimes guiding way. When this is our experience, no one can convince us otherwise.