Memory of Death

“Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you” (Saint John of Sinai).

Francisco de Zurbáran  St Francis  (c. 1660)

Francisco de Zurbáran St Francis (c. 1660)

We would do almost anything to push the actuality of our death further into the distance, to that place where ‘bad’ things do not happen. We will not die, death is for others, we tell ourselves. The noise and distraction we introduce into our lives makes it difficult to reflect, to go into the heart. And nowadays, too, the ‘spectacle’ via our connection to the electronic ether dulls us to the reality of our mortality even further. To paraphrase a spiritual writer, “It [death] is always nearer than you think.” We also try to remove traces of death in physical ways as well. We look to do this, for example, by attempting to banish the proofs of decay and death which surround us. We commit the elderly, our Mothers and Fathers (the reservoirs of wisdom and of magnificent stories) into exile, and we makeover our faces in futile efforts for eternal youth. Technology is seen as the solution to this dread that our walk upon this earth will one day come to an end. Those who argue we can live ‘forever’ (depending on the definition of existence) place their faith in the ingenuity of human beings. But does not nature itself, the laws of the physical universe, teach us that to all things there is a beginning and an end? Perhaps the key here is that to all things there is “change”.

It is not unnatural or ‘unhealthy’ to reflect upon and to have memory of death. It is one of the common lessons of the great religious traditions and even of our most profound humanist philosophies, to keep in mind that we shall die. It has not meant to go about being sad or morbid or raising the fist to heaven. In the Scriptures our mortality is considered one of the Creator’s providential miracles, that following in the example of Christ’s triumph over death, we will be raised up into new life which will be eternal and no longer subject to disease and corruption (Rev 21:4). The famous funerary text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is effectively one long reflection on death and why we should prepare for its inevitability with "examination" and "scrutiny". Nothing of this means that death is not ‘real’ or that its pain and horror should not touch us. It is in fact, precisely on account of its dreadfulness and inescapability that we should reflect upon it, and make it a daily exercise to confront and indeed to befriend it. So why should we have memory of death?

Whatever our goals or successes in life, it is the shadow of death which ultimately hangs over everything. For both ourselves and all we create, however beautiful or profound, will one day vanish. Great men and women have no immunity over mortality, and great civilizations have gone and are lost forever. And yet death need not be that awful and terrible ogre that we reckon it to be. What is common to those belonging to believing communities who hold to an afterlife but also for those who do not (yet who have reflected profoundly on their own passing), is the ultimate meaning of life. Our response to death in many ways determines how we understand and go through life. It defines the sanctity and purpose of our life goals, behaviour, and reactions to obstacles. And yes, our comprehension of transgression and sin. More directly, reflecting on our temporality gives meaning to even the simplest actions and fills them with a deeper significance. Though it is not possible for many of us who live in the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city, we still can experience something of what the spiritual masters have long understood and have attempted to put into daily practice: the recognition our lives are fleeting presences, “Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4). For some of these spiritual masters every breath is precious, the very air we inhale and exhale. Earthly possessions and attainments are understood as temporal and illusory as the hours themselves which turn into years and then into centuries. And so paradoxically it is here, in this very fragility of our existence that our uniqueness and significance is to be discovered.

To rise up in the morning and make every effort to live that day as if it may be our last, is one of the mysteries to a rich and fulfilling life. All things are imbued with a more vibrant colour, the song of the Olive-backed Thrush is even sweeter, the rain upon the flesh and the water of the ocean about the feet inspire gratitude, great music and art and literature penetrate our spirits in new and unusual ways. We strive to perform turns of charity in secret. More importantly, we love almost to the point of a sweet and unbearable pain and we forgive with an ease of spirit, each and every contact with a fellow sojourner can be an encounter of consequence. My children and wife too, I see them in a different light. This does not make us dumb or unresponsive to the horrors which are unleashed about us daily, violence and poverty and disease. We find that we become more quickly compassionate and responsive because we have come to understand life is indeed rightly precious. Whether here, in this place, or before the judgement seat of God, there will be accountability for our deeds and actions. Saint Gregory the Theologian echoes the greatest philosopher of all time, Plato, when he counsels that the present life should be a “meditation upon death.”

And so when it is time for us to leave we hope for our acts, big or small, to have been positive and worthwhile. We pray that our contribution and legacy would have inspired and given aspiration to others. All this and more on account of our learning how to die, as did Saint Paul who “die[d] daily” (1Cor 15:31). Ultimately, this is true memory of death. If I was to die today  am I close or near enough to the man or woman I was meant to be.

“Dear Lord, grant me the priceless gift of the memory of death, allow for me to reflect daily on my mortality that I might discover the hidden wonders which surround me. Permit for my heart to rejoice in the everyday miracles of the small but beautiful things, and for my mind to comprehend that all things touch upon the eternal, that nothing is insignificant. Oh, how I pray, for that knowledge which goes beyond the physical eyes to reveal that in every day there is a lifecycle to be lived.” 

The Tremendous Mystery of God

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” (Job 38:4-5).

Saint Basil the Great   St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Saint Basil the Great  St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Atheism is, of course, not new. Though the word can be traced to the sixteenth century (lifted from the Ancient Greek to mean “godless” or to “deny the gods”), its history is as old as some of our earliest materialist philosophies and indeed, religions themselves. But there are two particular periods for us ‘moderns’ that are especially noted for the argument that religion is a superstition with adherents who do not exercise reason, and who for the better part, are fanatics.  At the same time natural science renders any literal belief in the Bible indefensible. What is common to these eras, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (late 17th and 18th century), and our present times is the great progress in the sciences. Religious have responded in various ways to such titanic movements, some plainly wrong. There have been those, however, who set the good example. They have done so by entering in to the debate, by accepting correction where correction was required, and acknowledging that the tremendous mystery of God rather than being extinguished by the huge strides of science, is made all the more profound and astonishing.

It is indeed right to admit as believers in an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, that we do not know everything, and there is nothing whatsoever to be lost in acknowledging that we can be enriched by others outside our own particular belief-system. Most of us are familiar with the Enlightenment and with its revolutionary contribution not only in the sphere of the sciences but also in the broader area of the humanities. The medieval world-view was effectively put to death and so the idea of the modern world came into being. But what is this ‘new atheism’ so prominently espoused in our days by some very famous and very passionate people?

New atheism is not so ‘new’ after all. It has roots in the cultural Marxism of the 1920’s, though it often claims to be “carrying out” the work of the Enlightenment. This movement above all strong in the 1960’s understood Christian religion as a force which blinded people, particularly the working class, of its true nature and purpose. And so the religion had to be destroyed. But not everything about this school of thought which understood culture as a tool of oppression, is so damning, for instance, its critique of unequal social relations. Nowadays however, the rapid advances of scientific exploration and the modern-day marvels of technology have added an additional prestige to this increasingly popular new atheism movement. Moreover, the open and free access to information has allowed for the abuses of power in some parts of faith-based communities to become exposed… and rightly so. This has further eroded in many minds the beliefs and claims of religious. So how do we respond to these solid attacks on those very things which we hold to be most precious, that is, our belief in a personal Creator, who is not only interested in our lives, but who also continues to act in history. It is not easy in the face of especially eloquent and persuasive arguments in support of the ‘death of God’, often by persons like the incomparable author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens or the charismatic and highly qualified astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Not all of us have the knowledge and the abilities of an Ernan McMullin or a William Lane Craig to answer back to the first, or of a Sir Robert Boyd or a J. Richard Gott to get back to the second. Most of us would fall down, flat on our faces. So what is it that we ‘lesser lights’ can do?

We can accept and learn. And then testify to whatever little shards of the Light we, ourselves, might possess. Sometimes we might surprise with words and insights we never knew we possessed- the legacy of Pentecost and those tongues "as of fire" (Acts 2:1-4). This is to accept it is natural for individuals to disagree on the ‘big’ questions and that people respond to evidence, whether documentary or physical, in different ways. We each possess diverse gifts and we should admire these talents in others without anxiety or fear that this would somehow diminish or weaken our faith and strengthen the arguments of those on the other side. The new atheists can teach us to be more determined and much better read when presenting to the world our principles of faith, and indeed, to consider what example of moral exemplars we are who claim our ethical foundations from divine revelation. Whether we are Christians or members of other faith-based communities let us not fear those attacks from high places. They are not all misplaced. Let us take what is good and profitable to the spirit, rather than becoming unduly defensive and fretful. We should allow for these strikes to make us more sensitive to our responsibilities as faith bearers, but also to understand that science is a discipline which can only bring to us a greater amazement at the wonderment and mysteries of God, or as others might prefer, primum movens, the ‘Prime Mover’.

It does not mean that we too, cannot take offence at arguments or positions which are either not correct or scientifically prejudicial. We can and should take offence when Saint Paul’s, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11) is flagrantly taken out of context, suggesting that the Apostle to the Gentiles outgrew his faith. This is not only patronizing to readers of the New Testament but also showing that even the best intellects are not immune from an arrant misinterpretation of sources. And also we need not remain silent when elite scientists tell us that religious are “wired” to believe as if that is some sort of crime or evolutionary deficiency. Are we then also to believe the reverse, that those who are “wired” to dis-believe are somehow superior? This position whatever the neurological or biochemical proofs, is not only arrogant but also a terribly dangerous ideology, with consequences too horrible to consider here.

Ultimately, let us go about our own business of trying to become better men and women, and if we believe in a Creator, fear nothing and hope for everything. There is a synthesis here, and it is good to finish in this way. Albert Einstein, who incidentally was not a believer in God- and religious do themselves a disservice by claiming as much for his private correspondence makes it very clear he was not- spoke of his “sense of god” as his “sense of wonder” about the universe. This truly limitless fascination should be a place where we can All meet allowing for the overwhelming awe which grips the heart of the other to inspire our thoughts and to excite our souls. Next to Einstein’s evocative reflection, we can as a community of believers point to a similar declaration from Saint Basil the Great in his Hexaemeron commenting on the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1: “I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story?”

The Truth

“Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).

Vincent van Gogh  The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix  (1890)

Vincent van Gogh The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix (1890)

Many of us are determined for our Truth to be the ultimate expression of the “supreme reality.” After all, we have invested so much time, and effort, and sacrifice to its defence. We have built our dreams and hopes on its sure foundation. One of the most difficult things is to faithfully hold onto this truth and to go about our life quietly, spreading a little of its light along the way. The danger is when we think we are the exclusive possessors of the revelation which has graciously come down to us. Often enough it is precisely that, our own personalized truth, and not even that of the church or religious community to which we profess to belong. Ever since Pontius Pilate asked the one who was about to be Crucified, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38), we have been challenged as to how we ourselves might respond. Ultimately, it is not so much by our confession that the truth we hold is revealed to the world, but more so by our practice of the virtues. This is wonderfully paradoxical given believers come to truth through faith. The most erudite and inspired theology in the world or indeed the profoundest comprehension of the various dimensions and expositions of truth in mathematics and philosophy, will not quench the thirst of a dying child nor heal the wounds of our neighbour. Often times, the only truths are visceral and come from our agonizing cries for help. The truth will, indeed, set us free, but only to the measure that we extend to it the same degree of grace. And so let us go about our own business of practising compassion through unqualified love, and permit for the Holy Spirit to go about his own simple work of saving.