When Death Comes

We’ve been seeing a stream of commentary over the last day or so about the death of Robin Williams, an actor beloved by so many people. I was shocked and saddened when I heard the news.

Death always saddens us, and particularly so when someone takes his own life. I think that for those of us who do not suffer from deep depression, it is inexplicable that someone would feel so bereft as to take his/her own life.

We can say many things in tribute to this particular man – and much has already been said. I will simply add, in the words of Mary Oliver, Robin Williams did not “end up simply having visited this world.”

Here is Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

It has been a very difficult few days. As I describe, you’ll understand why you’ve seen no posts for a couple of days.

Friday the movers brought our furniture over from the old house (for which we still don’t have a buyer) to the new one. By the end of the day I was exhausted from running upstairs and downstairs, first in the old house to make sure the movers brought the right things over (since some things were being put in the garage to be donated) and then in the new house to show them where things go. We were all too tired to do too much unpacking, although I did manage to get dinner on the table.

During the night Friday, my husband collapsed and had to be taken by ambulance to the Emergency Room, Elena and I following behind. The whole experience was terrifying, but fortunately tests ruled out life-threatening problems and he was released yesterday afternoon with the need for follow-up tests.

Saturday was exhausting, but I ended the day with profound gratitude to our friends. Mark showed up at the hospital in the morning, just to be with me for a while, since he knew how stressed I was feeling. Later in the day, when I took a break from the hospital to go do some cleaning at the old house (since we need to have it ready to show prospective buyers – and you know what it looks like when you move furniture that hasn’t been moved in 7 years), his wife Anne showed up to help clean – after she had worked most of the day. Phil stood ready to pick up Dave at the hospital on Sunday if I needed to be elsewhere. (We were expecting delivery of a bed at the time I thought Dave would be released.) Gene offered to drive four hours from his home to help in any way he could, and helped me settle my emotions during a long phone call. Dave’s siblings were in contact throughout the day.

And Elena was amazing. In the ER with me from 4:30 am, she drove to the old house to do several hours of morning cleaning before going off to sing at a wedding. After the wedding, with no rest, she went back to the hospital so I could go do some more cleaning. Then, getting home before I did, she had everything prepared for dinner.

It is hard for me to ask for help. It is not all that easy for me to accept it. But I think truly embracing love and relationship means being willing to accept as well as give help. This weekend I was on the receiving end and I am enormously grateful to the friends who were there for us.

Perhaps because we are in the process of moving (a process I hope will soon be completed), this poem by Norman MacCaig struck me when it arrived in my inbox this morning as Inward/Ourward’s daily reflection.

In this moving process, we’ve thrown or given away so many things, yet we still seem to have so much “stuff.” I read this poem, titled Small Boy and thought: perhaps my fingers are not unclenched enough.

He picked up a pebble
and threw it into the sea.

And another, and another.
He couldn’t stop.

He wasn’t trying to fill the sea.
He wasn’t trying to empty the beach.

He was just throwing away,
nothing else but.

Like a kitten playing
he was practicing for the future

when there’ll be so many things
he’ll want to throw away

if only his fingers will unclench
and let them go.

Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a high mountain where “he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” The disciples are granted an incredible vision of Jesus in all of his divine glory, getting a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus And they hear the voice of God, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

You would think that experience would clearly mark the dividing line between “before” and “after.”  That nothing could possibly be the same for the disciples after an experience like that.  Yet, afterwards, James and John still worry about whether they are going to get to sit at Jesus’ right hand, Peter still denies him and they still all run away when Jesus is crucified.  At some level, they still don’t quite get it.

How much like our own experience!  I’ll go on retreat, have the most incredible experiences of God, marvel at what God has revealed of Godself, feel like nothing could possibly ever be the same. And then, I come home from retreat and I’ll think or do something that seems to me utterly inconsistent with the revelations I’ve experienced.  And I wonder, have I made any progress at all on this spiritual journey?

The best I can say sometimes is that, if I look at my prayer journal and my life now and compare it to my prayer journal and life a year or two years or three years ago, I “get it” more now than I did then.  The image that sometimes comes to me is a spiral – even if I’m sometimes covering the same ground, I’m a little deeper in the spiral than I was before. 

That’s not always satisfying – there is something nice about the idea of a single flash of light changing everything all at once.  But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Our occasional glimpses of Transfiguration do mark us, and they do impel us forward. But we still need work.

Yesterday, I attended Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, where I do a lot of adult faith formation and RCIA, and where Elena sings at Mass when she is in town. The presider at Mass was my friend and colleague Fr. Dan Griffith, pastor of the parish.

The Gospel for that Mass, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, was St. Matthew’s account of the feeding of the multitudes. When Jesus’ disciples encourage him to send the people away so they can go to the village and buy food for themselves, Jesus replies, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food themselves.”

Fr. Dan suggested these words – “There is no need for them to go away” – are ones we should heed in connection with what is being referred to as “the US border crisis.”

These children who are fleeing violence in Central America, he said, are not “immigrants,” but are “refugees.” The UNHCR report “Children on the Run” released in March, as well as interviews with the children conducted by other agencies, reveals that many of them would be in extreme danger if they returned to their home countries.

As Catholic Christians, he preached, we are bound to hear Jesus’ words, which he paraphrased as “There is no need to send them away; give them some shelter yourselves.”

Fr. Dan acknowledged that we need immigration reform. But that, he said, should not help us from meeting the need of these children in need.

His words were not ones some people wanted to hear. But they are ones that needed to be said.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius summarized his approach to discernment of spirits in two sets of Rules for Discernment. The rules address ways to interpret states of consolation and desolation that we typically experience as we pursue our spiritual path.

In the rules, Ignatius identifies two types of persons: Those who are growing in their spiritual life, striving to serve God, and those whose orientation is away from God. What Ignatius calls the “angel of light” (or the spirit of God) and the enemy spirit each produce a certain movement and those movements are different depending on which type of person we are talking about.

In the case of those who, in Ignatius’ words, “go on earnestly striving to cleanse their souls from sin and who seek to rise to the service of God our Lord to greater perfection,” the enemy spirit disturbs, causes doubts, encourages weakness, makes person feel unworthy, creates anxiety and the spirit of God encourages and supports those moving in this direction with confidence, joy, delight.

In the case of those who, in Ignatius’ words “go from one mortal sin to another,” the angel of light stings the conscience, trying to shake up the person, making him uncomfortable so as to change his ways. In contrast, the Enemy spirit works to encourage such a person to stay in sinfulness.

Today’s Gospel provides a good illustration of this. Matthew gives us the familiar account of Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist. I once discussed with a Jesuit friend of mine that what troubles (and frightens) me about this passage is that it seems like Herod knows there is something special about John. He sees something in John and is drawn to him. And when the daughter of Herodias comes to Herod with her request to give her the head of John, he knows killing John is wrong but does it anyway.

My Jesuit friend helped me to understand the passage it in terms of Ignatius’ rules of discernment. Ignatius says that when one is moving away from God, the tactic of the evil spirit is to keep one going the same way, but the good spirit tries to disturb one. Herod married Herodias and, secondly, imprisoned John for telling him it was wrong. Clearly moving from wrong to wrong – moving away from God.

The words of the Baptist were the sting of the good spirit, trying to change Herod’s orientation. But Herod ignored them, and remained married to Herodias and kept John in prison, still moving from from sin to sin. The temptation of the enemy spirit continued to pull, and with lust for the daughter of Herodias and a desire not to appear weak before his guests after making his public pledge, Herod could not stand up for what was right.

It is useful for us to recognize how the angel of light and the enemy spirit operate at times when we are moving toward God and times when we are moving away from God.


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