“I know this happiness is provisional: . . . but ineluctable this shimmering / of wind in the blue leaves.”1— Denise Levertov
The shortest verse in the Bible and the favorite of middle-school children who are required to memorize a Bible verse. Why he wept can easily be conjectured: his friend Lazarus had died. An urgent summons had come, but Jesus dawdled, deliberately, it seems. He and the disciples were across the Jordan River, not far from where John had baptized Jesus. It was a prudent move: he had barely escaped a stoning outside the Temple for blasphemy. The crowds found him, hailed him as being everything John had said he was and more. “Many came to believe in him there.”2
When the messenger arrives, Jesus assures the disciples that “this sickness will not end in death; it has come for the glory of God.”3 So, although he loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he holds on, he stays in place for two days. This is either a consummate folly or a breathtaking high-wire act of faith.
When the devil took Jesus, famished and weakened, to the pinnacle of the Temple, and invited him to fling himself out over the city because the angels would bear him to earth as lightly as a feather, Jesus retorted that God is not to be tested. This life is not a circus act. But now, knowing that Lazarus will surely die, Jesus waits. His time is coming. If he would not tempt Death for himself, he is willing to defy it for a friend. After two days, Jesus says to the disciples, Let’s go. Time to waken Lazarus from sleep. Ah, they say, he’ll be alright then. No, says Jesus, he’s dead. This will be good for your faith. Let’s go.
But the disciples remember how close death came to Jesus the last time he provoked the powers that be. If he goes back this soon, those who want him dead will definitely finish the job. “Are you going there again?” they ask incredulously. Anyone can walk in the daylight, argues Jesus. The real test is whether you can walk in the dark without stumbling.
There was darkness ahead, without question. And Thomas, patron saint of doubters everywhere, breaks the open-mouthed silence. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem. They are there in less than an hour. “If you had been here,” says Martha sorrowfully, “my brother would not have died.”4 And some standing nearby wondered aloud why he could open the eyes of the blind but had done nothing to keep Lazarus from dying.
It is after Easter, but I am thinking about death. Not so much death as dying, the myriad of individual droplets of experience we call “life” spinning down into the whirlpool we call death. I am thinking of the violent, hallucinogenic dreams survivors of the coronavirus have endured. They were swept out in that riptide, far from shore; somehow, they find themselves once again emerging from the surf. I am wondering how they re-enter the life that has stuttered along in their absence. On their return from that hellish dreamscape, what will be most precious to them? How will they live with the gaps and absences in their timelines? These dislocations will change them—our friends, our neighbors, our families.
I stand pensively in the April afternoon sun, trying to memorize the tint around the back petals of the tulips in Brookside Gardens. I want to recall this moment years from now, when a scent or a certain cast of light brings it back. I want there to be a moment to bring back.
How strange it is to walk within a glorious spring day in Maryland, soft with yellow light and bright with flowers, while thousands of people fight for their lives—and thousands more risk their own lives for them. We have not seen such an indiscriminate killer in this country for years. It is “As if a man should flee from the face of a lion, and a bear should meet him: or enter into the house, and lean with his hand upon the wall, and a serpent should bite him.”5
We are in one of those social earthquakes that lay bare our fault lines, when the tectonic plates shift under our feet and upthrust the strata of neglect and callousness that future societies will judge us by. But we see, in addition to the sturdy bravery of our best—the nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors, and scientists—the quiet endurance of the grocery clerks and delivery people, postal and sanitation workers. The social divides and the rampant inequities are exposed; we see with new appreciation the people whose daily efforts define the normal we belatedly cherish.
Later, at home, I pick up a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story.6 I am wary, for she writes prodigiously—not just in the number of her books, but through the style and mood and the enveloping weight of her words. Her eye omits nothing, even as she writes of her confusion in grief.
She writes of how her husband died in hospital a week after being admitted with pneumonia. He seemed to improve, so she left his bedside to catch a couple of hours of restless sleep at home. They called from the hospital deep in the night; they were urgent but cryptic.
She races to his room. A doctor tells her there was nothing they could do. She is in freefall. She is in a parallel universe. She sees herself across the room, a sobbing figure, crooked with grief. Who is this person? When she crosses the threshold of his room, she crosses an equator to a hemisphere she will never leave.
I wanted to experience through her how she brought these two halves of her life, marriage and widowhood, together. How did she see them; first with one eye closed and then with the other? Like every person suffering the death of a loved one, she learns while grieving.
It seems to me that Jesus learns this too, that his confidence on Wednesday ebbs into grief on Sunday. No matter how we prepare, the death of one we love is a gut-punch.
Jesus stands before the tomb and weeps for his friend, already four days dead. He weeps for all humans who die and are dying. And he weeps for himself, for his own dying, which he knows is up ahead. He has meditated on his coming death since Lucifer promised him he wouldn’t die. He knows it will be public, violent, and humiliating. Raising Lazarus will be the last straw. The machinery to kill Jesus will whir into action.
If Jesus raised Lazarus, why can’t he prevent the COVID-19 victims from dying? Wrong question.
Raising Lazarus is a sign of wonders to come. Jesus does it as a warning and a blessing. In John’s Gospel, Jesus heals, forgives sins, feeds thousands—all signs that we might believe that God sent him. The raising of Lazarus is a sign too, a sign that death will one day be vanquished. It is a test case, a finger pointing to the moon, a “first-fruits” as the Bible says.
Do you wonder what Lazarus was thinking when consciousness returned? As a dream fragments on waking, slipping through our fingers as light and sound envelop us, so he must have struggled at first in panic when he found himself bound in a winding-sheet. Then he is surrounded by faces—his sisters, Jesus, his neighbors and friends. He is confused, somewhat embarrassed, but he cannot prevent the upsurge of surprise and relief and then joy unabated. When our loved ones die, when we are dying, Lazarus is a living pledge of wonders still to come.
“This is the heart of this story: the essence of all things became part of existence—subject to change, decay, and death, just like us.”7 As much as the die is cast and his fate is sealed, Jesus sees beyond his own death. He bows his head and weeps again for relief, gratitude, love abounding.
“Here we discover the answer to perhaps the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is, because essence—or God, as we usually say—always intended to be our companion, to be with us . . . Jesus is the whole meaning and purpose for existence in the first place. Jesus is the reason we exist.”8
Agnostic as to the how, of the resurrection, I am all in for the why: it is God’s way of making sure we’ll be with him forever. And although my imagination bleeds out when I think about the afterlife, I’m going on record to say it will be a feast for the senses and a jolt to the mind. To say nothing of love and friendship. And when dying inevitably comes between us and this Narnia, God will see us through it with equanimity.
Levertov, Denise. “Of Being,” in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 5. ↩
One of the surprises of growing older is to realize, on days that are bright, cold, and clean, that we feel younger than we really are. I don’t mean how we measure the occasional absence of aches and pains, but rather the mental image of ourselves that we carry, as if our present self looked with affectionate amusement upon our younger self, dressed in raiment three decades back and striding purposefully into the day.
We might want to say to that younger self, “Be mindful; listen to the sound of your footfalls; be dazzled by the choreography of birds overhead; allow yourself a smile directed nowhere in particular. Consider generosity with your time.” This private image we regard subjectively, as if we are watching a group that includes our younger self.
When we are young we think we’ll live forever, but that’s a characterization that only the old make of the young. The young might think in the abstract about death now and then, but for the most part they are just getting on with life—as they should. Perhaps we older folk confuse their attention to the present and the near-future with indifference to the terminus point for all of us. There’s time enough to think about death, much more time than one so young would think.
But time runs on and we run to keep up and much of what we grasp about life is learned breathlessly as we run. In the midst of going to college, first real jobs, raising children, seeing our parents age and become infirm, divorces, loss of jobs, switching careers, and retirement—we may have our moments of reflection waiting out the light at the intersection. Or we may wake at four in the morning, trying to puzzle out the riddle of our lives.
For many, religion is what they turn to when suffering overwhelms. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha, a simple statement of fact in his lexicon, and he went on to offer examples. Pain, obviously, was suffering, but so also could happiness be suffering, if by that we indulge in desire before arriving at it, and bitterness when it’s gone. It was not so much the particulars within the general condition, as it was the general condition itself.
When I would introduce the Buddha’s statement to my Religions of the World classes, there would be puzzled looks and a shifting in their chairs. Almost invariably, someone would take exception by stating how good life was—or could be—if we would just quit moping around and be happy. It was almost an affront—almost unAmerican—to admit to anything less than the best of all possible worlds. But others, those who would speak up hesitantly after others had had their say, would ask if the loss of innocence was suffering or if the pang of never arriving at a place one could call home counted as suffering.
Epicurus, working his garden and discussing philosophy with his students in Athens in the fourth century BCE, took the long view. “Death,” he said, “the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.”2 Serenity in the face of the inevitable contrasted vividly with Dylan Thomas’ anguished cry to his dying father, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”3
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.”4
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.”5 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, he believed that 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. But we grieve because we love and a love that is not grieved is less than love.
And yet later, when his own precocious 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. And as he looks toward the Resurrection, missing Monica, Augustine foresees his own Mother and Child Reunion—an event greatly to be anticipated.
For Christians, Augustine tells us, our fear of death diminishes the nearer we are to God.
But not everyone has seen it quite that way. Consider 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.6 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.”7
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.
Lewis Lapham, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, parses the difference between how he was raised to think about death as a young man in the 50s, and today. He says that several thousand years of art, literature, and religion raise the question, “Why must I die?” And the natural follow-up question is, “How do I live my life?” Our question today is, “Why can’t I live forever?” And that, says Lapham, consigns the custody of one’s death to powers that promote the fear of it, among them the church, the state, the biochemical engineers, and those who will profit from our endless war against terrorism.8
If religion functions as a device (and I use the word deliberately) to ingratiate us to an absent god or to palliate the pain of our swollen egos, then it belongs in the medicine cabinet alongside the opiate of the people. But if it is so engrained in our being that it is first about being and only then about doing, then we have something that can see us through the valleys of suffering on the way to death.
“Religion is not the answer to the unknowable or the unfaceable or the unendurable,” says Peter Gomes in The Good Book; ”religion is what we do and what we are in the face of the unknowable, the unfaceable, and the unendurable. It is a constant exercise in the making of sense first, and then of meaning.”9
As a person of faith, I am grateful for the insight of Eamon Duffy who says of the Christian’s way, “Our dignity and our burden is to be that part of creation which is conscious not only of itself but of its finitude,” and, “We sing to the light in the midst of a darkness which we know will one day devour us.”10
We may sing, not because we are indifferent to death, not because we resent the encroachment of death upon our absolute right to endless life right now, but because “This is eternal life: to know thee who alone art truly God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”11
Thomas, R. S. Selected Poems 1946-1968. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 13. ↩
In Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly. “Memento Mori, ”Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 2013, p. 15. ↩
Thomas, Dylan. Miscellany One. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1963, p. 31. ↩
Saint Augustine, Confessions. Translated and with an introduction by Garry Wills. New York: Penguin Books, p. 68. ↩
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.”