It is Easter time, and it would be appropriate to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection in the Christian scheme of things. However I want to do something different; I would like to approach this from a purely personal standpoint, not from theology, or scripture, or philosophy, or anthropology, but start from the fact of death, my own death, not death as an abstraction. I am in my late 70s, and I see so many of my contemporaries dying around me. The reality of death is not some far-off experience for someone like me, even if I live into my 90s.
It fascinates me to see the different attitudes/visions of death, its meaning, its approach, that people have. Consider the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who wrote these lines as his father was dying:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And then there is the New Testament, Pauline cry: O Death, where is thy sting?
There is a striking difference in the emotion behind each statement, but what is more striking is the commonality underlying the surface difference. In both cases death is envisioned as something of an “enemy,” something which is at war with you…. In the first instance, it is kind of despairing, you go down “fighting,” but you do go down. In the second instance, death is defeated or its seeming victory is manifested as a fraud.
These are pretty much the views present in Western Civ, both secular and Christian. Of course, the majority of this population does not care to reflect on the reality of death; diversions of any kind, even the most self-destructive, are preferable. And modern culture is very, very capable of providing these. However, this majority group is still basically in the same camp: death is something to be feared, something definitely negative….don’t even think about it.
Now I myself never fit in with any of these camps. I remember very well standing next to the body of my dead father when I was four years old. It was a wake; there’s a photo of that moment. My father was killed in an accident, a sudden shocking event in my life. I am only 4, but I am not crying and I am not shielded from the reality. In the photo I am standing next to the open casket looking at my dead father. Yes, there is a certain sadness in the young face, a sense of loss. All natural feelings. But the dominant feeling in that sad gaze is that I am looking at something that is totally opaque to me; there is nothing here that I can grasp in any way, that I can have any hope of understanding. There is an absolute finality to death, a door that can’t be opened, a wall beyond which you cannot see. That young gaze is encountering the Mystery of death, a great, profound, universal mystery which every human being encounters in one way or another.
So begin the stories, the speculations, the theologies, the myths, the diversions….it all begins when we gaze upon that impenetrable Mystery…death. And it is amazing, all the interpretations we try to give to this Mystery, the different attitudes, the varied visions…. At the heart of Christianity is the Resurrection of Christ; he endures death, but it is ………and here you can fill in a lot of different words: overcome, defeated, transcended, and the phrasing can be changed in a lot of ways, from the pop, superficial, filled with our ego-fulfilling fantasies, to St. Paul’s (in some passages) truly profound respect for the unspeakable nature of this death/Resurrection.
But from early on I began to feel something lacking, something not quite right with the usual Christian “read” of death/resurrection. Not that it was fundamentally wrong, but that it seemed a stifled vision of things, due mainly to the fact that even our deepest theological, and should I also say “mythic,” vision was impoverished by the limitations of the religious mindset of the Semitic and Hellenistic cultures. Recall the profound change of vision in Abhishiktananda and even Merton as they encountered the deepest traditions of Asia. For me it all began about age 14, in faltering steps, as I started reading ancient Taoism and Zen. To make a long story short, I eventually developed a rather different vision and approach to the Mystery of death. And if your vision and interpretation of death changes, so will your vision and interpretation of resurrection.
Death is not my “enemy,” something to fear, not because it has been “overcome,” but because it never was that. I see myself as a member of what Gary Snyder calls the “Community of All Beings,” like in those ancient Chinese paintings, where human beings are a small part of a great Whole. Gary Snyder, one of my favorites and someone who has strongly influenced my vision, as a kid dropped out of Christianity. Why? In Sunday School he was told animals don’t go to heaven. As Snyder put it, “The moral engagement with the nonhuman world was nonexistent in Sunday School.” Already as a kid he had a different sensibility and a different vision…probably due to his spending a lot of time in the wilds of the Northwest as he was growing up. For Snyder, the human community was only one of many.
St. Francis’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” so rare in Christianity, is a hint of all this—too bad that most Christians take this as a pious sentiment. So I see myself as part of this Wholeness in which death is a normal process, really a process of transformation. And all beings can be said to participate in this process. (We have to pause to point out that we are focusing on the simple reality of death, not its surrounding circumstances. If someone is tortured and dies, there is nothing “natural” about that torture and suffering, and it’s obviously quite different than dying in old age. The injustice surrounding the former can truly be said to be “overcome” in the Christian read of things called the Resurrection.) And all beings can be said to participate in this process.
So what does Resurrection mean in this light? Maybe it points to the Divine Presence within this Community of All Beings. But more than that, it makes the Mystery of death into the greatest adventure and revelation of all existence. Death seems to strip us of everything, all we have, all we achieved, all we know, all our credentials, all our images, everything that we think we are, that’s why from the standpoint of our ego, it seems like oblivion and nothingness, an absolute poverty of being, symbolized so well by the authentic sannyasi. Christ’s Resurrection means that we can yield and surrender to this process. To echo St. Paul, what we shall be, we cannot put into words; but we will not be without that Wholeness which is the real fabric of our being, only now totally illuminated by the Mystery of the Divine Presence. And perhaps the very special Christian contribution to this vision is that the Reality you surrender to in death is Absolute Love and Compassion, Infinite Mercy. And if death is seen as some kind of impenetrable veil , well, let us again borrow from that great Sufi, Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi, :
“It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted, but of knowing God in the veil itself.”
As a kind of “Ps.” To this reflection, here is a quote about St. Francis from a Benedictine website!
“Francis invites us to embrace rather than battle Sister Death, to love not to despise Sister Death, to welcome not to shun Sister Death. Saint Francis’ invitation not to live in fear of death or with hatred toward death opens our life as it did that of the saint to the joy of eternal life. Someday Sister Death will greet us and we will go home to our God who created us, loves us, and redeems us through Jesus our Savior.
As Francis lay dying in a small hut built for him near the chapel of San Damiano where he had heard God’s call for him to rebuild the church, he wrote The Canticle of Brother Sun, considered to be the first poem written in the Italian language and certainly one of the most profound. The poem of praise to God for all of creation concludes: ‘Praised be my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death, from whom no living person can escape.’”