Friday, May 22, 2009

Intimations of mortality

Some half formed observations...and a pretty huge dose of naval-gazing. You might prefer to wait for the Friday Five.
If not, "let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs"

During the Easter holidays, on one of our philosophical dog-walks (gentle reader, tis the walks and not the dogs that are philosophical), Hugger Steward and I were discussing the golden invulnerability of youth (particularly, perhaps, of Oxbridge youth).
We agreed that his peers were, for the most part, secure in a bubble of immortality, that however bright they were, none of them would be likely to imagine themselves ever becoming middle-aged accountants, or, of course, would ever entertain even the faintest possibility that the world might one day have to carry on without them.*
That's what youth is all about.
You KNOW you have answers to all the things your parents struggle with.
You KNOW you will live forever.
Then Hugger Steward turned to me and asked
"But do you REALLY know that you're going to die one day?"
and there he had me.
Because, for all my familiarity with death, both at close quarters (2 parents at 18, several lost babes in my 20s) - death remains out there.
And it's almost impossible to imagine a world that doesn't include me, because of course, my own perspective is the only one I really know.
So while my reason is fully appraised of the fact that I shall one day die, it's still in no way real for me emotionally (and as an F, emotions are the deepest reality).

Then, just yesterday, Hattie Gandhi (home for post Finals R&R) took a phonecall.
Someone wanted to speak to me & when HG told the caller that I'd ring them back when I got in from a funeral, the caller said
"Oh no - I'll phone back tomorrow. She'll be tired after an emotional experience like that"
HG reflected that, as a vicar's daughter, she has to be careful not to see funerals as every-day events, that if a uni friend mentions attending a funeral it is probably a really Big Deal and not something that happens at least once a week in their working life. And we wondered what impact that regular exposure has on clergy...I once worked with a priest who was terrified of death. She worked in a setting where funerals were rare, and that only worsened the situation. Each funeral became a crisis, part of her own on-going struggle against the dying of the light. I so wanted to change that for her, but for all her faith, fear was stronger. I wondered if I was strange, not sharing that huge angst. I wondered if I would feel different if my time came to be as involved in these liminal stages as she was.
Now I am, and I've learned that actually I love taking funerals.
They are a time of the utmost reality.
Nobody messes about, nobody pretends, hides behind what they think the vicar would want to hear. Rather, people are utterly real in their grief, anger, thankfulness, staggeringly generous with themselves, their feelings and stories.
And to me falls the task of weaving those stories into the Great Story of love and transformation that is the gospel. Mind-blowing privilege. And sometimes I'm told, and sometime I can feel, that it makes a difference. Staggering!

But in a way that familiarity with death does nothing to increase its reality for me. I know it happens (9 funerals since Easter) but caring for others as they deal with it increases the feeling that, whil
Align Centree it's no more threatening than other physical characteristics that I don't share (blue eyes, long legs, golden hair...) it is quite definitely other. Still not really anything to do with me.

Is this healthy self-preservation, or dangerous delusion? I honestly don't know.

The final catalyst for trying to collect my thoughts in this post was a visit to the ever-thought provoking Digging a lot. Graham too spends alot of time in church-yards and produced this comment, that brought me up short
I’m looking round the graveyard- where I once saw stones, I now see people

I've yet to bury anyone I know well, but in a settled community like that of the valley, it can only be a matter of time. I wonder if that will change my perspective...
Of course I don't WANT to wake up suddenly afraid of death.
I don't want to be halted in tracks by a sudden paralysis as I confront its reality, any more than I want to be on a sort of professional automatic pilot, that disengages me emotionally even as I seem to empathise..
But I would like to be reassured that my confidence around issues of death and dying stems not from denial of death's reality but from a deep conviction of the truth of resurrection.
Perhaps I won't actually know that until the death that confronts me is my own.
But Donne's Hymne to God the Father, which became real for me on the day that my own father died, has never yet let me down. I think actually, it's all OK.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.

* Just read a report of a Theos poll that suggests that Hugger Steward and I were wrong in our estimate of the attitude of his contemporaries


Bad Alice said...

Hi, thanks for stopping by and saying nice things about my post.

I'm pretty scared of dying. It seems remote to me because I can't imagine not having a consciousness. The process scares me because I've seen how it can be, when my mother died. And hers was a relatively peaceful death. But the potential suffering is frightening. Saying goodbye to others and knowing that I won't be part of all the wonderful and painful things that happen to them is heartbreaking.

An afterlife isn't something I can imagine, either. I guess all I can imagine is the sorrow of parting.

Chris said...

Thank you, Kathryn. Profound - and profoundly human. For me too, this is a privileged part of ministry, but I also struggle with the professional detachment / self-preservation issue.

HS's question and HG's observations are illuninating too.

Every blessing, as you carry on making a difference.

Song in my Heart said...

I can't remember thinking I could answer many of my parents' struggles, though "no, not like THAT" was certainly foremost in my mind for a long time.

I don't know when I learned about death. I'm not sure how real it seems to me; most of the people I have lost in my life were people I didn't keep in touch with when we moved from one city to another. Many of them are surely dead now, but far more are presumably still alive and I sometimes entertain the hope of seeing some of these ghosts again... of course the ones I've found on FaceB0rg are not the same ones that I spent months writing letters to as a teenager, getting no replies (with one notable exception) and wondering if they had ever cared at all. But there have never been bodies, graves, physical markers for me to visit. I had some of my grandfather's ashes for a long time; I've replaced them with sand from beside the lake where his and my grandmother's ashes were scattered, and whenever I start a new garden a small pinch of that sand goes in. I'm not sure how much that's about my grandfather and how much it's about a little tiny piece of somewhere that was, sort of, home.

I have spent hideous amounts of time thinking the world would be better off if it did just carry on without me, and even wishing that would be so. I'm glad now that I was always too apathetic to really do anything about it.

I've also spent a lot of time anxious and frantic because there just doesn't seem to be enough lifetime to do everything I want to do, learn everything I want to learn, teach everything I want to teach. Even if I were quicker on the uptake, even if I had several lifetimes, I don't think I could ever take in all the shinyness of the world, pass on all the truth I want to pass on, heal all the hurts that cry out to be healed. The work I do is to enjoy things, create things, show such things to others and, hopefully, in doing so communicate just how shiny the world is and how beloved are the creatures in it. I can't clearly imagine that work being done, finished; heaven on earth is too big a concept for me to grasp with any bit of my brain except the bit that sings, and then only sometimes.

I don't think we have to be cowed by death, ruled by fear of it, to acknowledge the reality of it.