On this Memorial Day, I found myself trying to make sense of death.
Every time I hear the laughs and babbles of my infant son, I am struck that the term "infant" is from the latin infans, which means, essentially, "incapable of speech." Yet, with gurgles and coos and nehs and wahs very present, he has a language all his own, and I am enthralled. It was the same way after the birth of my daughter, who just finished her first year in preschool.
All of this lets my mind drift to the kinds of experiences my children provide, most of which are a bit romantic, but sweet nonetheless -- pint-sized balls of curls and swaddling clothes asleep on my chest. Flirtatious smiles capable of melting even the hardest heart. Barely-there kisses. Tender touches from tiny hands that humble the spirit and wet the eyes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a gentle stirring in my soul beckons me to appreciate life a bit more. My sense is that this is some of that proverbial, "you just don't understand till you're a parent" business the old folks used to talk about.
All of this fanciful revering has lead to a good bit of more serious contemplation as well. I suppose it stands to reason. Death and life are, after all, intimately connected.
"...until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return."
Book of Common Prayer (p.485, Burial Rite 1):
"In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Ryan, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
The underlying message here isn't just written in the ancient texts or in the ritual processions of the religious. It is a common thread woven into the tapestry of existence. The seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years keep passing me by whether or not I protest. And all the while, the sirens' song is heard with increasing clarity: You are mortal. You will die.
That this fact is received as haunting and despair-worthy is seen in all of the imagery we use to conceptualize death -- the hooded, scythe-wielding Grim Reaper, for example. This imagery betrays just how much of our thoughts of death are centered on fear, which is understandable, and perhaps akin to being human. Even Jesus, before His Passion, sweat great drops of blood. It's hard to conceptualize this as anything but raw fear.
Yet, in 63 B.C., Seneca wrote, "You will die not because you are sick, but because you are alive. That end still awaits you when you have been cured. In getting well again you may be escaping some ill health, but not death."
So, to be alive, and indeed to truly live, is to die. But while we're alive, to do so wisely (see the prayers of Thomas Aquinas), in light of our imminent death, as if that death is in fact the most real part of our lives -- this is divine!
One purpose of the story of Jesus Christ is to acquaint us with what is possible if we are rightly related to ourselves, each other and God -- our deaths become a source of healing and life for others. If we have truly given ourselves to others, and ultimately, to God, something profoundly transformational occurs: our friends and family can gather together in a Eucharistic spirit of love in remembrance, and therein be healed.
Lives lived wisely in this way are marked by certain characteristics. We learn to laugh at ourselves. We learn to delight in seeing others preferred over ourselves. We learn that it is better to give than to receive. We learn that we have been shown much grace, and ought show it to others. We learn that it is good to forgive.
And in my case, I also learn to slow down, to understand myself spiritually and otherwise, to appreciate myself, and to appreciate with whom I've become myself, to smell fresh lilies, to rub ocean-foamy sand between my toes, to take my coffee with chicory, to play hooky from work to go on dates with my daughter, to love and be patient with my son, to enjoy the wife of my youth and what I hope is the companion of my old age.
But this is profoundly difficult. If I live life this way, I will experience, like Jesus, much pain, for to give myself to others is to elect to bear their burdens. I will surely experience more joy too, but still, much more pain. And that if my previous behavior is any indication, in response to that pain, life may at times take on a hazy gray quality, seducing me away from those to whom I've given myself because it just hurts too much.
But I dream that maybe I'll hear my wife's voice or hear my daughter's singing or my son's laughter, or I'll just feel the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit in my heart, and the yellows and greens and blues and browns and dashing violets and splashy oranges will come rushing in again and I will feel alive for the joy and the pain alike.
All of this will be subtle, however, which is what makes it real life and not some technicolor dream movie. And I will need God's help to be sensitive to the changing tides of myself and my world. But when I am most sensitive, if I am listening, a Voice will remind me: Yes, yes! Life is worth the living.
And perhaps, when life is worth the living, my imminent and unavoidable death, my mortality, can only serve to remind me how fearfully, wonderfully alive I am.
I hope so.
"Man fully alive is the glory of God." -- St. Irenaeus of Lyons, 185AD, Against Heresies (Lib. 4, 20, 5-7; SC 100)