I’ve had death on my mind lately.
I had a long conversation with someone close to me a few nights ago about, among other things, the afterlife and whether speculating about what it will be like is helpful. This person asked me about the post I wrote last week on the promo video Rob Bell made for his new book, which deals with questions of heaven and hell. That’s part of what has sparked my thinking about death. A much more poignant and visceral part of the story is that a classmate of mine died two weeks ago. I hadn’t been to a funeral in years. I attended Sonny’s this past Saturday.
The last time I saw Sonny was in the foyer at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne. We were riffing about our respective internships. A week later he had a heart attack. When I found out that he had died and that his funeral was going to be held at St. Paul’s I was reminded of something that the congregation is invited to do each week during the time for corporate prayer that comes before the celebration of the Eucharist. They pray for the dead.
I’ve only gone to St. Paul’s a few times, and as someone who is quite new to the Episcopal liturgy that invitation is one of the things that’s struck me as most foreign. What does it mean to pray for the dead? Does it mean that their fate is not certain, not a foregone conclusion? Would my petioning Christ to have mercy on my friend’s soul have any effect on whether or how warmly he is welcomed into “the high countries?”
Over the last several years, three close personal friends of mine have experienced the death of a parent. All were 25 or younger. When I got the phone call from each of them, I broke down and started crying on the phone with them. The sense of loss and heart-rending grief overwhelms my cognitive faculties. I don’t think in those moments as much as just feel. We all get that. We all get what it’s like to feel a loss so great that our powers to comprehend are not strong enough to surmount it, to break it down into measurable, consumable pieces. Then, in that weakened state, as the grief ebbs to a numbing, but less tsunami-like level, thoughts do rush in. The thoughts that often come first for me go something like this; I’m going to die someday too. What does that mean? What will that be like? Am I ready?
In light of the prayer for the “repose of the soul of the departed” that I’ve been exposed to at St. Paul’s another question now comes to me; What is my responsibility to the dead, if any?
A month ago I went to see the film Biutiful. Towards the end of the movie the main character, Uxbal, has a strong intimation of his own mortality. He fears he may die soon. Sensing this, he pulls his daughter aside into the tiny bedroom they share. Kneeling in front of her with tears in his eyes, he speaks with a broken voice. “Don’t forget me, my darling. Remember me, my love. Don’t forget me when I’m gone.”
I will remember the dead. I will remember them because they speak to me of the hope that I have, and remind me that one day I will stand where they stand. Whatever happens when we die, they’ve gone through it and one day we’ll all have to as well. Perhaps there’s a sense in which we’ll GET to.
Despite the sense of sometimes not knowing how to deal with the pain and difficulty of life, every day that Sonny has been gone feels like some kind of gift to me. I move through a world that he no longer experiences. As much as I believe that he is at rest in the arms of Christ, I still find it strange, even sad, to think about the things that are going on without him. He will not sit for licensure exams, or start a private practice, or celebrate another anniversary, or feel cool rain on his face as he dashes from the car into the warmth of his living room. Yes, a part of me is glad that he’s slipped free of a world so fractured that the life of those forced to dwell in it sometimes seems one endless string of broken promises. But I lay on Lydia’s bed last night with the rain pounding on the window and her head on my chest and felt a contentedness so complete that the river of time seemed to coagulate and slow to a drip. I think of Sonny’s wife. She’s had her last of those experiences with him.
Last Monday we held a small time of rememberance in the chapel at our school. At the end of our time, before serving communion, our Abbott, Paul, read from John’s gospel. Jesus is talking to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Paul paused and looked up at this point. “Thomas, thank God, said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ ”
I picture Jesus looking back at him with eyes that could see everything Thomas, Uxbal, Sonny and the rest of us would have to experience, but which could also see beyond.
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way.’