Category Archives: death

When suffering and death come.

I almost broke out of my “cage” last week to visit my husband’s grave. My priest would meet me there, and we would pray on the memorial of my beloved’s repose, five years ago. But we changed our plan and had a virtual gathering with him praying in the church and more of us praying along via Zoom than would ever have been able to come to the cemetery. Before we had conceived the graveside plan and given it up, we had planned for me to bring a koliva to church to serve after a service there. I know people everywhere have been accomplishing many and various quick-change feats lately.

The Zoom meeting/service was a little odd; I’m certain it was the first prayer service ever held that way in my parish, but under the circumstances it was the best, and I was really glad we did it. More than 21 people were able to be with me that way, and some of you were among them. I could see that 21 devices were tuned in, and some of them represented couples or families.

Most of us had our microphones turned off, but even having two or three people singing or praying together on Zoom confuses the audio stream. I was thankful to all of those who were willing to listen above the superficial distortion to the beauty of the memorial, for the sake of praying with me and for my husband. It was sweet to see their names and/or faces, and after the hymn “Memory Eternal” more people turned on their mics to say it individually.

That was a blessing of the current version of normal, and a good alternative to standing in the rain six feet away from my priest. But when I do eventually feel free to visit the cemetery, that real and physical resting place (I will choose a sunny day), I can see me with my face in the grass, smelling the earth, feeling the breeze blowing over me and over all those waiting for the Resurrection of the Dead. Until then I am sharing a few pictures of events featuring more concrete, material remembrances, the sorts of gatherings which we will be less likely to take for granted in the future — I hope!

Today as I write, it is Saturday, which is the Sabbath, as we were reminded in our (streamed) morning prayers from church. The day of rest. But most of us don’t rest ourselves on this day. Rather, the church remembers those who are resting in death, waiting for the Resurrection, Resurrection Day, which we both celebrate and look forward to on Sundays, as Sunday is the Eighth Day.

When I “came home,” which meant coming downstairs, I read the passage from I Corinthians appointed for the day, and it is on the on the same theme, a topic on the minds of many in these days of a world pandemic, a time when death statistics are in nearly every news article one comes across. I keep thinking about Ivan in Tolstoy’s story, and how it was only in suffering that he began to get understanding. I will quote from my own blog post, written only a month ago, so soon pertinent to our moment:

“It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ but nevertheless: ‘Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.'”

It is always a good thing to realize that one is dying. Those of us who will survive this recent threat and go on to live many more happy decades are no less under the sentence of death than those who will die from Covid-19. The realization can lead to repentance, and that in turn, to life.  Here is the epistle reading for today:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O[Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. -I Corinthians 15:50-57

Let’s not only pray that we and the people we love be delivered from physical suffering and death, but also that when suffering and death come, as they will, we all will be able to hear the voice of God in our hearts. As it was for Ivan, for some it will be the beginning of true life.

For Thou are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of Thy servants who have fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.

-From Prayer for the Departed

Bowing not knowing to what.

W.S. Merwin published this contemplation of his death in 1963. He died March 15, 2019.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

~ W. S. Merwin

Ivan was not ready.

This month our women’s book club at church read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Sunday afternoon we met at my house to discuss it. That day on the liturgical calendar happened to be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In that passage, before we come to the day’s reading, Christ has been speaking privately to His disciples about the end times, and telling parables. One is about virgins getting enough oil for their lamps, and the other about servants making good use of the gifts they were given. Both parables end with someone arriving and some people not being prepared.

Ivan Ilyich was most certainly not ready for the arrival of his death. He and his friends were like many people in that they avoided thinking about that inevitability. The story opens with the fact of it, and his funeral, which doesn’t affect his friends very much, because thank goodness, it wasn’t their death, so they can go on as they were before. Then the author takes us back to see Ivan’s life over the years, and close to the end when he could no longer avoid suffering, and had to face a reality that didn’t fit into his life’s theme of doing what was pleasant.

The Gospel for the day is sobering, and our pastor reminded us of what his late father, also our priest, used to say, that the task of the preacher is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This passage continues in the thread of being about Someone’s return. Christ, the Son of Man, begins to talk to His friends more directly, if metaphorically:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And by what criteria exactly does He sort them? If you haven’t read that account recently you might want to look at it; the whole process is laid out with much detail in Matthew 25. Our preacher said it is like getting the answers before the final exam.

I was teaching my usual church school class afterward, and read in preparation a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I liked very well; I shared it with the students, too. A quote:

“We are told that when the Day of Judgment comes, those who will stand before God – and those are all of us – will not be asked about their creed, about their theological knowledge, about their theoretical convictions. They will be asked direct and concrete questions, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not?”

Steve Robinson wrote similarly: “The separation is this: Who was paying attention to life itself, our Life in a constant icon before us, and fulfilling the Image in which we are created? Who is, in love and sometimes even in ignorance of the Name of the Image, paying attention to what is ultimately our Salvation now, and ever, and unto the ages, even though we do not know it.”

It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?” but nevertheless: “Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.” 

He begins to consider that perhaps “he had spent his life not as he ought….” Eventually, Ivan “saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death.”

This idea of the right thing ties in to what we heard in the homily at church, that God’s judgment is not of the sort we exercise and endure by the same name in the world. His judgment is essentially what happens when the One Who understands everything and is perfect Love sets things right. It would appear that as soon as Ivan prayed the feeblest prayer, his Father began this process.

The end, when it came for Ivan, leads us to believe that he passed from death to life. It did not come without agonizing struggles. He had missed life while appearing to be alive, all the while not preparing for death, which turns out to be the beginning of his true life.

Until they were separated, the sheep and goats had been in the flock together, being cared for by the Shepherd. Steve Robinson points out that sheep and goats alike were clueless about how their fate had been decided; it wasn’t fear of judgment that made the sheep love their fellows and act like sheep — or leaving the metaphor, as the humans God created them to be. Neither did they see Christ in the needy person whom they clothed or fed or took into their homes, but they loved that person anyway.

Metropolitan Anthony ends his sermon with this exhortation: “One day we will stand before Him. He will meet us with His infinite love, but looking at Him we will see that He has been our victim throughout life in the person of every one whom He loved and whom we have neglected, humiliated, rejected, allowed or caused to suffer. And how terrible it will be at that moment to look at Him and know that there is no anger, no hatred in Him, but deep, deep pain. Let us think of that, and remember… if you want to be divine, first be truly human.”

How knitting is like dying.

This month our parish women’s book club is reading Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” I finished it this morning, in an old anthology from 1947 that I had kept from our homeschooling years, when twice my late husband and I taught a short story course to our children. That collection is A Treasury of Short Stories edited by Bernardine Kielty. When I closed that volume I opened The Norton Reader, Seventh Edition, to see if it included any Tolstoy stories, but when I saw the title “From Journal of a Solitude,” I continued reading the first few excerpts taken from the book by May Sarton.

Her musings in the first paragraphs were on topics that were also among those so powerfully treated in the story of Ivan Ilyich: depression, dying; the perceived absence or presence of God, both “too frightening.” I don’t have any comments on those themes, but I would very much recommend Tolstoy’s story to your own reading. I thought I had read it before, but maybe I only started once. It is powerful.

I don’t know anything about May Sarton except what I read just this morning, but I appreciated the thoughts below; these came just down the page, after she’d moved on from writing about her dying friend. They are not so obviously linked to the Tolstoy story, except perhaps by their highlighting the need for patience in every stage and situation in life, not least at its end. “By your patient endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)

“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having pushed her to ask my opinion. The child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think. But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’ I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start on the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”

-May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude