Not Afraid to Die

Today is the seventh anniversary of the death of my cousin Bobby, who was a firefighter.  He lost his life fighting a house fire. It wasn’t the kind of fire that usually takes lives, but this one did. A ceiling collapsed on my cousin, knocking off his mask and air supply as he battled the fire from the second floor of the house.

On an earlier anniversary of his death, I shared a journal entry Bobby wrote when he was in eighth grade titled  Life and Death!  As we move from the end of one liturgical year to the next, having been listening to the “end time” readings the last few weeks, I thought it worth sharing again.

The post began “I’ll tell you right now, I don’t plan on dying for another seventy years.”

Isn’t that how most of us live our lives? At one level,  we know we can die any time, but we live our lives with an expectation that we can plan for things that will happen next year….when we retire…when our children have children, etc. We don’t plan on dying – and we certainly do not plan on dying young.

Bobby went on to say talk about how he hoped to live to be 80 or 85 because “life is the most precious gift God ever made, and it should not be taken advantage of.”  He also (breaking my heart) expressed his hope that he would “die in [his] sleep, because it is painless and peaceful.”   I’d like to think Bobby’s death was painless, but it is hard for to me to imagine that possibility given the circumstances. In any event, it certainly wasn’t peaceful.

But even then, Bobby realized that his hope was only just that – a hope.  He went on to acknowledge “I can’t control when or how I die.”  An important realization, but one we have trouble acknowledging.

How did that lack of control make Bobby  feel? The final line – the last thing he felt he needed to add to his journal entry – gives all the answer that is needed:

There is one other thing too, I am not afraid to die.

The words of an 8th grader. How deep was his theological understanding of resurrection of the dead when he wrote those lines? I don’t know. But I hope as he grew he continued to know that the God who gifted him with life would also be there holding him when he died.

“I am not afraid to die.” May we all have the security of God’s boundless and eternal love, the security that allows us to face death without fear.

RIP cuz.


For Lost Friends

On this fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, many of us will be remembering lost family members and friends.  As we do, we might pray s blessing from John O’Donohue’s  To Bless the Space Between Us.  He titles it For Lost Friends.

As twilight makes a rainbow robe
From the concealed colors of day
In order for time to stay alive
Within the dark weight of night,
May we lose no one we love
From the shelter of our hearts.

When we love another heart
And allow it to love us,
We journey deep below time
Into that eternal weave
Where nothing unravels.

May we have the grace to see
Despite the hurt of rupture,
The searing of anger,
And the empty disappointment,
That whoever we have loved,
Such love can never quench.

Though a door may have closed,
Closed between us,
May we be able to view
Our lost friends with eyes
Wise with calming grace;
Forgive them the damage
We were left to inherit;

Free ourselves from the chains
Of forlorn resentment;
Bring warmth again to
Where the heart has frozen
In order that beyond the walls
Of our cherished hurt
And chosen distance
We may be able to
Celebrate the gifts they brought,
Learn and grow from the pain,
And prosper into difference,
Wishing them the peace
Where spirit can summon
Beauty from wounded space.


Death and Life

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.  One hundred sixty-eight people lost their lives that day, in what was, until 9/11, the deadliest terrorist act in the United States.

One one of my visits to the home of my friends Michael and Maria Scaperlanda, they took me  to visit the memorial of the bombing.  Here is the statue that stands across the street from the memorial entrance (which you can see in the background).

Part of the memorial is the Field of Empty Chairs, on which is placed one chair for each person killed, in the approximate position of where the person would have been in the building at the time of the bombing.  Large chairs for the adults and smaller ones for the children.

As we pray for the victims of terrorist acts….and for those who commit them, there is one other thing we should keep in mind, and that is what we celebrate during this Easter season: that death is not the end.  Although I didn’t take a pictures of it, there is something else on that memorial site I have never forgotten: an American Elm called the Survivor Tree. The tree withstood the full force of the attack that day and there is no earthly reason it is not completely dead and gone. Yet it continues to stand and to grow. I felt its life and its power when I stood touching it during my visit to the site. You can literally feel the life pulsing through it.

Dom Helder Camara writes, “in those most critical, most agonizing of moments, we Christians have no right to forget that we are not born to die; we are born to live. We must hold on to hope, to inner peace, since we have the deep certainty of having been born for Easter, the everlasting Easter Day.”

Here is the reflection my friend Maria Scaperlanda wrote for the fifteenth anniversary of the bombing.  It is worth reading again today.

Help Me Accept Partings

Today is the 11th anniversary of my father’s death. It is hard to believe it is that many years. Sometimes it seems like yesterday, especially during those times when the feelings of loss rise so powerfully. The prompts are varied: I listen to my daughter’s recital and think how much my father would have enjoyed hearing her…I am invited to give a talk somewhere and think of how proud he would have been at it…We celebrate a family event together and I miss his laughter – or his sarcasm. This November will be the first wedding of one of his granchildren and I know the pain of loss will arise fiercely then.

I’ve talked about death before. The only real solace is my conviction of resurrection. But that conviction doesn’t take away my missing my dad.

When I think of hid death, I think of the prayer in Clarence Enzler’s version of stations (Everyman’s Way of the Cross) at the Thirteenth Station (Jesus is Taken from the Cross). In our response to Jesus at this station, Enzler has us pray:

I beg you, Lord, help me accept the partings that must come – from friends who go away, my children leaving home, and most of all, my dear ones when you shall call them to yourself. Then, give me grace to say: “As it has pleased you, Lord, to take them home, I bow to your most holy will. And if by one word I might restore their lives against your will I would not speak.”

When I pray that prayer, it is difficult for me to get the words out. When I pray that prayer, I half shake my head, especially at that last line because there are times I’d give just about anything to have some more time with my father.

But I know I can’t ask that. So I pray, let me grown in my acceptance so that I am able to pray those lines more honestly and fully, to more and more bow to God’s most holy will.

Still, I miss my dad.

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.

All is Well

Yesterday morning, I learned that my dear friend John Palenberg had died the Monday evening. In October (while I was on Camino), John had emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor; the diagnosis was glioblastoma – one of those things that rarely, if ever, comes with a good prognosis.

I am heartbroken, as are all of John’s many friends. (Also still a bit in shock; none of us expected the disease to progress quite this quickly.) I have shed many tears in the last twenth-four hours and doubtless will shed many more. John was one of the kindest, gentlest, funniest, amazing people in the world, and was a wonderful husband and father to his wife and two children. (He was also an incredibly intelligent and phenomenal lawyer.) He will be sorely missed.

John was a man of deep Christian faith. He and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago about our confidence in the Resurrection. He told me he had no fear of death, because he knew death is not the end of life.

I thought of that conversation John and I had when I came across this piece yesterday written by Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918; canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral). I think John might have written something similar.

DEATH is nothing at all.
I have only slipped into the next room.
I am I, and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone,
wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just round the corner.

All is well.

John: Rest in peace, my dear friend. My life is the richer – and always will be – because of your presence in it. Love, S.J.

To Conquer Death

On the drive to Appleton yesterday, one of the things Elena and I listened to was Jesus Christ Superstar. We both know the lyrics to the entire show (I was in a performance of it in high school and Elena – well, Elena seems to know the lyrics to everything). And we enjoyed singing our way across Wisconsin.

In one of the songs, Simon the Zealot is assuring Jesus that the crowds love him and that he will rise to great power. Jesus responds by telling Simon that neither he nor anyone else “understands what power is, understands what glory is, understands at all.” Jesus’ final line to Simon is: “to conquer death you only have to die, you only have to die.”

Seems a bit strange at first blush – to get past death, you just have to die.

The first thing the line brings to my mind is Jesus’ image of the grain of wheat. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground, it will never be more than a single grain; it will not bear fruit. But if it falls to the ground and dies, it produces a rich harvest.

At one level, Jesus was presaging his own death. And certainly Jesus’ death is an example of a death that conquered death, that gave rise to new life.

But each of us must also die to conquer death. The more we try to protect our small egoic self, the more vulnerable we are to death. When we die to self, however, we truly live in Christ.

Dying Before You Die

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

What does it mean to lose one’s life for Jesus’ sake. Certainly he is not talking about physical death – most of us will not be killed for our faith. So Jesus must be speaking of another form of death.

In Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr writes:

In one way or another, almost all religions say that you must die before you die, and then you will know what dying means – and what it does not mean! Your usual viewing platform is utterly inadequate to see what it real. It is largely useless to talk about the very ground of your being, your True Self, or your deepest soul until you have made real contact with these at least once. That demands dying to the old viewing platform of the mental ego and the False Self. There is just no way around that….Anything less than death of the False Self is useless religion. The False Self must die for the True Self to live.

I have to die to myself to rise in Christ, to be able to say as Paul does, that it is no longer I but Christ who live in me. (Galatians 2:20)

Images of the Crucifixion

The first thing I noticed when I walked into St. Thomas Apostle Church in Lenior City, Tennessee (where I am visiting family) yesterday morning was the crucifix.

Two thing struck me. First the absence of nails holding the body of Christ to the cross. I had an immediate positive reaction to that (as I have had when I’ve seen other crosses lacking nails), since it brings together death and resurrection. Jesus died, but he also rose, and each is a central aspect of our story.

I had a less positive reaction to the second feature of the crucifix I noticed: the absence of wound marks on Christ. To me there is significance to the fact that the resurrected Christ still bears the marks of the crucifixion; the resurrection does not erase what came before it. So it was jarring to not see those wounds.

After Mass – a celebration of the feast of St. Ignatius, during which the pastor gave a nice sermon on Ignatius’ conversion which included brief instruction on Ignatian contemplation – I took this picture of the crucifix. I’m not sure my picture conveys it well, but here it is:


Between Death and Resurrection

Today is Holy Saturday, the day on which we wait at the tomb.

This is the time during which Jesus “descended into hell,” as we proclaim when we recite the Apostles’ Creed. The morning prayer in the Magnificat comments in respect of this proclamation that “God does not redeem from afar. The Word descended into our humanity; the Lord descended into the depths of our suffering; Christ descended into the very realm of death itself in order to set free its captives.”

In a meditation on Holy Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI said this:

Holy Saturday is the day of the ‘death of God,’ the day which expresses the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakes, no longer speaks, so that one no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him….Christ strode through the gate of his final loneliness; in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.

In between preparations for our celebration of the Resurrection, take some time today to honor this day. Be with the Holy Saturday experience.