A WAY OF LIVING TOWARD DEATH
3 November, 2013
Homily for Roland Gray
“Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces . . .” — Jeremiah 9:21 – NRSV.
No matter how prepared we are for death, it is too soon, too stealthy, too final.
Today I want to tell you three stories about death.
The first is about St. Augustine. Simon Critchley writes about Augustine’s paralyzing fear of death in his Book of Dead Philosophers. Augustine, whose book Confessions, is the first and longest open prayer to God, pours out his heart about the death of his best friend, unnamed to us.
“Well it was said of a friend that he is the soul’s other half. My soul and his I considered one soul in two bodies—so my life was unbearable, to live with only half of our soul, but my death was terrifying, perhaps to see his remaining half of soul die in me whom I so much loved.”
Augustine fears death, not so much for himself, as for the extinction, finally, of his friend. Half a life is better than none at all. But that was when Augustine was a pagan.
Some years later Augustine has a different reaction to the death of his mother, Monica. She had been praying and weeping and beseeching for his conversion for years. When it occurs, as Augustine dramatically describes in The Confessions, her life’s work seems complete. Some days later she falls under a high fever and within nine days is dead. Augustine, in private, loosens the tears he had held in, “resting softly on my sobs at ease.”
He writes, somewhat defensively, “whoever wishes can read me and, as he wishes, decide whether I mourned my mother excessively, by this or that part of an hour, but not deride me for it.” He is asking us not to judge him too harshly for weeping over his mother’s death, even though his weeping was for less than an hour! His grief is doubled, he says, by the fact that he is grieving. Apparently, for a Christian, such grief is unbecoming. In his own eyes Augustine is condemned for not having enough reliance on God to tough it out without giving way to his emotions.
And yet later, when his own precocious son, Adeodatus, a fine young man of seventeen, his son by a long-time mistress, is suddenly struck down, Augustine is at peace, for both of them—father and son—had been baptized on the same day. He does not weep nor break stride as he goes about his duties. His son is with God. As he looks toward the Resurrection, Augustine foresees a Mother and Child Reunion—an event greatly to be anticipated.
For Christians, Augustine’s actions tell us, our fear of death diminishes the nearer we are to God.
But not everyone has seen it quite that way. Our second story concerns Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), Renaissance statesman, philosopher, part of the nobility in France at that time, and the father of the modern essay. When Montaigne was thirty-six, he had a near-death experience. He was riding in the forest with three or four companions, servants in his household, musing over something intriguing to him, when suddenly he took a tremendous blow to his back, was flung from his horse, and landed ten yards away, unconscious. It seems that one of his men, a burly fellow, had spurred his horse to full gallop to impress his friends, and had misjudged the distance between himself and his master, inadvertently knocking Montaigne and his little horse off the path.
Sara Bakewell tells the story in her book, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne. At the time, Montaigne felt himself to be drifting peacefully toward eternal sleep, although he was actually retching up blood and tearing at his belly as though to claw it open for release. For days he lay in bed recovering, full of aches and grievous pains, marveling at the experience he’d had and trying to recall every moment of it. It changed his life, which, until then, had been dedicated to learning how to die with equanimity and grace.
In an essay on death, written some years after the incident, Montaigne rather offhandedly sums up the lesson, “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”
Bakewell notes that this became Montaigne’s answer to the question of how to live. In fact, not worrying about death made it possible to really live. In an era in which a man of thirty-six could, by the limits of those times, see himself on the verge of getting old, the contemplation of death had been refined to a high art. Montaigne picked this up from his voluminous study of the Greek and Roman classics, his admiration for the Stoics, like Seneca, and the Roman orator, statesman and philosopher, Cicero, who famously wrote, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
Death was an obsession for Montaigne when he was in his twenties and early thirties. In succession, his best friend died of the plague in 1563, his father died in 1568, and in 1569 his younger brother died in a freak sporting accident. In that same year Montaigne got married; his first child, born that same year lived only two months. Montaigne lost four more children, only one of six living to adulthood. Yet, in spite of all that early sorrowful practice, he had grown no easier with death.
It wasn’t until his near-fatal accident that he began to understand how little his own death need affect his life. His memory of it was one of peaceful release; he had almost kissed Death on the lips. From that experience he gradually migrated from the fear of dying to the love of life.
Sometimes, we may be so concerned with dying that we forget the point is to live.
BONO AND U2
Our third story takes places in an era far less sure of itself with relation to God than those of Augustine and Montaigne. It is about our time and it concerns the Irish band U2 and its lead singer, Bono. Throughout its more than 30-year career U2 has addressed subjects usually dodged by rock n’ roll. ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is about heaven; ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is about faith and doubt; ‘Stuck in a Moment’ about the suicide of a friend, and ‘Grace’ is about, well, grace. The band’s spiritual roots go back to a religious revival they experienced as teenagers in Mt. Temple School in Dublin. Their catalogue of songs is a tapestry of a pilgrim’s progress and regress, turnaround and redemption.
But there is one song in particular that confronts head on the death of a loved one—a child, a father, a friend—a song simply called ‘Kite.’
Bono, the band’s lead singer, was spending some precious time at home with two of his kids, down on Kilkenny Beach, below their house in Dublin. They were trying to fly a kite, and as a Daddy-time venture it ended pretty quickly. The kite went up, the kite came down, plunk, in the sand and that was end of that. ‘Daddy, can we go home and play on the Play Station now?’ But the idea for a song was born, a song about mortality and fatherhood and being a son to a father and being a man who is no longer a child. ‘Kite’ was dedicated by Bono to his father, Bob Hewson, as it became clear that Bob’s health was failing.
Every night on the European leg of their ‘Elevation’ tour in the summer of 2001, Bono would fly back to Dublin after the concert to be at his father’s bedside. Their relationship had been strained after Bono’s mother had died when he was fourteen.They didn’t see eye to eye about much of anything. The home had become a house with two teenage boys and a silent father. Maybe it was the fact that all the band members had passed the liminal age of forty, maybe it was that most of them were fathers now too, maybe it was that friends seemed to be dropping dead all around them, but the song emerges as the clearest statement of the band’s view of life and death so far.
I’m not afraid to die
I’m not afraid to live
And when I’m flat on my back
I hope to feel like I did
And then midway through the song Bono sings powerfully,
I’m a man, I’m not a child
A man who sees
The shadow behind your eyes
With maturity comes the recognition that death must be faced. As Paul says,
When I was a child,
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
When I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways (I Cor. 13.11)
Growing up means understanding that the world does not conform to our wishes. Becoming mature means we don’t hold that against the world.
Who’s to say where the wind will take you
Who’s to know what it is will break you
I don’t know which way the wind will blow
All our great ideas about longevity, about prolonging our days, become like chaff in the wind. We just do not know which way the wind will blow. The kite will soar on the wind but eventually it will fall.
‘Kite’ ends with self-reflection:
Did I waste it?
Not so much I couldn’t taste it
Life should be fragrant
Roof top to the basement
Did we waste our lives? Would we know if we did? This is the question of life which God will ask of us one day. ‘I gave you life, show me what you did with it.’ Won’t we want to make of it the very best that we can in the time we have?
And in this life we recognize that we’re not going to get it right every time. But those glorious moments when we feel as one, when we know as we are known, when we truly have communion with others—those are the moments when we can taste it!
Roland brought many such moments to us. After a heated discussion in Believers and Doubters would eventually flicker and die down, Roland would quietly offer some insight. It might be from history—he was a man who knew the meaning of world events—or it might be from Scripture — he ran with ease up and down the paths from the prophets to the Gospels. Wherever it came from he would deliver it with grace and dignity. And then he’d smile, his eyes crinkling up with his laughter.
Life should be fragrant
Roof top to the basement
Since 1985 our class has met under the name of Believers and Doubters. A couple of times in those years I’ve asked the class if they have an inclination to change the name. No, they’ve always said, ‘that is what we are and shall remain.’ We’ve always thought of doubt as the left hand of faith, companion on the journey, always an ally, never an enemy. So in sickness and in health, in belief and in doubt, in good times and in bad, til death us do part, we are still together on the journey.
Thank you, Lord, that we were blessed to have Roland for part of the journey.
— Barry L. Casey