So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor. 5:6,7 NRSV)
No matter how many times one reads John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud,” it still seems that Death is winning this round. In the aftermath of the Easter bombing of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, the mind reels (“The numbers are staggering,” said one official), especially as we hear it was in retaliation for the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. In miniature, this is the endless regression of religious and ethnic hatred. (I am aware, in an awful irony, that in singling out this specific atrocity I am simply underscoring my selectivity. There are many others to choose from. While writing this essay there has been another shooting, this time at a synagogue at the close of Passover. No matter when you read this, the number of mass killings will have increased. This is our world.)
One photo of a funeral in Columbo transfixed me. In the foreground, so close one could almost touch it, was the coffin. Just behind it was the priest, eyes closed in prayer, hands folded, robe crisply white and unstained. Behind him was the crowd standing stretched across the photo from side to side, some under the tent, others farther back under the overcast sky.
Studying each face, I saw on the front row the family in mourning. At the far left a young and stocky man stood rigidly, his face a masque of tension controlled with difficulty. An older man stood next to him, his shoulders and head bowed slightly, a hand up to his mouth, listening to the priest. At the center of the scene, seated next to the older man, was a young boy, probably thirteen or fourteen, whose face was contorted with grief, the head back, the neck taut with strain, the eyes hammered shut. His right arm stretched across his body to clutch the younger boy next to him.
That boy was the focal point of the scene for me. Although he was smaller, his arm was around his brother, bracing his head from behind. He reached for the older boy, but without looking, trying to puzzle out the scene before him. He stood awkwardly, unsure of his position, as if his brother had never needed him until this moment. His eyes were wide, his mouth caught slightly open. He wore the look of a child rooted to the spot as a tsunami hurtles toward him. For the first time in his young life, Death had become real.
Growing up means understanding that the world does not conform to our wishes. Becoming mature means we don’t hold that against the world.
British philosopher Simon Critchley writes about Augustine’s paralyzing fear of death in his Book of Dead Philosophers. Augustine, whose book The 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 his own death, not so much for himself, as for the final extinction of his friend from human memory. The death of his friend cut away part of himself, a violent slash of Fate’s knife that he almost could not bear. 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.”(Wills 205) 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 Adeodatus, his own precocious son by a long-time mistress, a fine young man of seventeen, 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 assures us, the fear of death diminishes the nearer they draw to God.
We draw on the resources we’ve got as we grieve the parting that death brings. Some think of death as simply part of the life cycle or a momentary interruption of our journey through time. Epictetus and the Stoics saw it as part of our natural cycle, something no more to be feared than going to sleep or changing one’s habitat. Don’t fear death or pain; fear the dread of both. “We cannot choose our external circumstances,” said Epictetus, in The Art of Living, “but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
But I was surprised—and touched—when my friend from college passed away and his brother announced that he had “finally won his six-year battle with disease . . . He slipped out of his enemy’s grasp and into peace and rest just seventeen days short of his 68th birthday.” It was a victory of sorts, and it brought a new height to the vantage point over the battlefield.
Dylan Thomas famously urged his dying father to fight to the end:
“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.”
We are trained to resist death in our culture. We regard it as the enemy, a Gorgon to be overcome through our tests, drugs, therapies—all the barricades modern Western medicine can throw up to slow the inexorable Terminator.
We resist death because we mourn the loss to the community of that person’s presence in our world, their experience and wisdom, the potential never to be realized.
“Any man’s death diminishes me,” declared John Donne, “because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The earliest Christians, harassed and martyred, also saw death as the enemy—the last enemy to be destroyed before the whole creation was put right. Physical death was inevitable; it was not to be feared, no matter how it finally arrived. What was at stake was the war, not the battles in which they lost their lives. In the realms where spiritual powers fought for justice in the universe, Christians had a part to play. They were to resist evil by standing for love in the face of hatred and brutality.
In this, love must play the long game, a muscular love that stands in the breach for others. We walk by faith, after all, not by sight. The arc of justice is long; we may not live to see it touch down, but in the moment there is only the way of Christ who humbled himself to be among us as one who serves.
To find the universal that encompasses all the particulars is to transcend the truism that all of us will die. It is even to go beyond the catalogue of differences about what happens to us after death. It is to recognize that in the deaths of those we mourn we are granted the choice to love and be trustworthy for those who remain.
“So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight.”