A few nights ago, I woke with an unpleasant start, confused by unusual physical discomfort, and a surge of panic that the hour you know not”was upon me. “Is this what Dad experienced,” I wondered, “as he began to slip irretrievably into it ?”
The prospect that my father knew what was happening yet was powerless to stop it or, in some consoling sense to put things in order, is an aspect of his throes that has worked me over for decades.
At this point, actuarial tables say my life is more than half done. Poised to cross from the old age of youth to the youth of old age, I am now two years older than my father was when he died.
The claim that death uniquely focuses the mind seems solid enough to suggest that the distracted state of our culture may well reflect a kind of collective inattention to our shared mortality. In a similar vein, Jung described neurosis as an attempt to avoid genuine suffering. If death could be identified as the matrix of such suffering, we may have yet another insight into the role our estrangement from it plays in this confused and increasingly medicated culture.
Christianity, by contrast, is often alleged to be death-obsessed . Certainly, in the rich world of Christian symbolism, the cross stands perennially central. To look upon it merely as an instrument of torture and degradation, however, is to miss its significance.
The fact of the matter is, the cross remains in human consciousness for one reason the resurrection that succeeded it. Just as there is no resurrection without it, the cross itself would be long forgotten without the experience of the resurrection.
If you’ve ever hiked Mt. Tabor, you know it can sometimes involve climbing through clouds. What was glimpsed on its heights in the Transfiguration is what was subsequently realized in the triumph of Pascha. Thus, in a compelling sense, the Christian narrative —indeed all of history—is a story appreciated most fully when read “backward,” in the exegetical light of that resurrection.
While I believe these things are beautiful and true, they are the experience of those who lived with Jesus that, re-presented in the Eucharist, have passed through the ages to our own day. I recognize that, to an important degree, they are things to which I assent intellectually and that there is a danger in this namely, that something akin to auto-pilot slowly displaces the necessary and ongoing gut-check of existential ratification.
Absent that, assent can become brittle when someone we love dies. When that death comes suddenly, assent can turn instantly to dust.
There have been three such shocks in my adult life the sudden death at age 54 of actor J.T. Walsh who was to me big brother, uncle, and friend wrapped in one ferocious package. Most recently, there was the saintly Thomas King, SJ Georgetown University’s Man of the Century whose friendship was an irreplaceable treasure. June 23rd will mark the third anniversary of what monastics would call his “birthday.”
The last, who was first, was my father William who passed to me some of the genes that in him formed a charismatic compliment of skepticism and playfulness. He awoke in pre-dawn darkness never to see the sunrise. My dear brother called to report he’d been rushed to the hospital. An hour later, he called again. “He’s gone,” he said, pausing to steady himself. “Dad’s gone.” Writing those four words, after all these years, still triggers almost numbing incredulity.
Needless to say, I survived my recent episode. In the early morning darkness, once my heart calmed and breath eased, I looked beside me to the silhouette of the precious one who took a sacramental leap of faith when marrying me. In that moment, it was not my life that flashed before my eyes but a tableau, revealing the ingrained patterns of my long practiced selfishness.
A gentler mercy followed in which pulse and breath joined in the kind of visceral, somatic prayer that felt upheld by the grace St Paul renders, “The Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words . . . ” And, in awe, it occurred to me that my very breath proclaims the presence of the God who breathes me.
Sometimes I joke that the relationship of velocity to time demonstrated by Mr. Einstein helps to explain why for kids, a month can seem a year while for their entropy-yoked elders, years whiz by.
As I age, and time seems to pass with increasing speed, I feel prompted to attend more closely the rhythms of my body, acknowledging that each pulse and breath is intrinsically a prayer, each a bead in a living rosary, at whose center are the Royal Doors that open to the glory of the unending Kingdom.
This article first appeared in First Things Magazine June 29, 2012