Category Archives: death

You can kill us, but…

Saint Justin the Philosopher and Martyr (AD 100-165; celeb. June 1st)

Justin is known in the Orthodox Church as Martyr Justin the Philosopher. In his youth he was unsatisfied with the philosophies of the day, and after becoming a Christian he opened a school of Christian philosophy. He refused to offer sacrifice to pagan gods and was beheaded along with the martyrs Justin, Chariton, Euelpistus, Hierax, Peonus, Valerian, Justus and Charito in 165. They are all commemorated on June 1.

You can kill us but you cannot do us any real harm.
-Saint Justin Martyr

The following gives the context of the above quote and is from his first apology in 150 A.D., which he wrote to the emperor Antoninus Pius in defense of innocent Christians:

“Reason dictates that persons who are truly noble and who love wisdom will honor and love only what is true. They will refuse to follow traditional viewpoints if those viewpoints are worthless…Instead, a person who genuinely loves truth must choose to do and speak what is true, even if he is threatened with death…I have not come to flatter you by this written petition, nor to impress you by my words. I have come to simply beg that you do not pass judgment until you have made an accurate and thorough investigation. Your investigation must be free of prejudice, hearsay, and any desire to please the superstitious crowds. As for us, we are convinced that you can inflict no lasting evil on us. We can only do it to ourselves by proving to be wicked people. You can kill us—but you cannot harm us.”

We remember together.

While the weather was of the wintry-spring sort, cold and rainy, we had a typical Memorial Day in several ways. There was barbecued meat and watermelon served on a red checkered tablecloth, and more importantly, a visit to the cemetery.

None of our friends or family are buried nearby, but not far away in Colorado Springs is the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery, which was the perfect place to visit today. The rain had stopped and it was only cloudy. We walked through the wet grass to read the markers on many graves, and we prayed.

As Liam and Laddie and I were straggling behind along the row of freshest graves, some from as recent as this month, we met a smiling woman leading a poodle, who asked us if we had seen the grave marker remembering an Air Force wife for being a “worrier.” Hmm…. no, we hadn’t! Was the worrier her relative? She said no. I quickly picked up on the fact that she was headed toward a different one of those recent graves, that of her husband who passed last year.

She began to tear up, and apologized for it. I asked if I could give her a hug, and learned that they had been married for 53 years. It was a sweet widows’ embrace that warmed us both on that drizzly morning.

While we had been wandering among the graves, we’d seen a soldier in camo going from grave to grave saluting smartly. After a time he began to play a pennywhistle, and to run through one battle or marching song after another. As we were leaving we sang along with his little flute, “God Bless America.”

Amen.

Not one atheist has plunged.

Below are encouraging words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, prefaced by a few of my own Holy Saturday thoughts from six years ago, when I was freshly bereaved of my husband. I will leave that mercifully dated personal context as is, though it is for the more enduring words of Metropolitan Anthony that I am re-posting:

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I find myself in a phase of grief where from time to time during the day I feel acutely lost without my husband, the absence of him like a soreness in my spirit, an ache in the middle of my chest telling me that something is very wrong with me. Yes, something is wrong!! It’s death that is wrong – it’s wrong for us to be separated, for me to lose the heart of my heart. I have known this truth in my mind and for the world generally – now I understand it in my bones.

Crucifixion wikimediaBut as I’ve said here more than once already, I have the peaceful assurance that we are not absolutely separated, and a huge thankfulness as well that neither of us has been cut off from the Source of our life and existence. Sometimes we humans use the figure of speech that we will “die of grief,” because it feels that wrenching. But I know even as I am feeling it and railing against it, that I will live through it. This is all because Christ suffered for us, and he overcame death. My pain is like a pinprick compared to what Christ endured on our behalf. As for my husband, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

These words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I first read in God and Man two years ago are even more meaningful to me on this Holy Saturday:

When in the Apostles’ Creed we repeat “And he descended into Hell,” we very often think “That’s one of those expressions,” and we think of Dante and of the place where all those poor people are being tortured with such inventiveness by God.

But the Hell of the Old Testament has nothing to do with the spectacular hell of Christian literature. The Hell of the Old Testament is something infinitely more horrid; it is the place where God is not. It is the place of final dereliction; it’s the place where you continue to exist and there is no life left.

Harrowing-Dionisius

And when we say that he descended into Hell, we mean that having accepted the loss of God, to be one of us in the only major tragedy of that kind, he accepted also the consequences and goes to the place where God is not, to the place of final dereliction; and there, as ancient hymns put it, the Gates of Hell open to receive Him who was unconquered on earth and who now is conquered, a prisoner, and they receive this man who has accepted death in an immortal humanity, and Godlessness without sin, and they are confronted with the divine presence because he is both man and God, and Hell is destroyed — there is no place left where God is not.

The old prophetic song is fulfilled, “Where shall I flee from thy face — in Heaven is thy throne, in Hell (understand in Hebrew — the place where you are not), you are also.” This is the measure of Christ’s solidarity with us, of his readiness to identify himself, not only with our misery but with our godlessness. If you think of that, you will realise that there is not one atheist on earth who has ever plunged into the depths of godlessness that the Son of God, become the Son of Man, has done. He is the only one who knows what it means to be without God and to die of it.

— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

There was a lesson to be taught.

Some time before he died in 2019, I became slightly acquainted with the work of Clive James, and even bought two of his books, one of which includes the poem below. After becoming sick unto death in 2010, he said he had felt somewhat embarrassed that he kept on living; he wrote what he called a “farewell poem” in 2014, and he continued writing his newspaper column “Reports of My Death” for a few years. I read many of those columns, and find his prose and poetry satisfying even when I don’t know what he is talking about.

Now as I revisit James’s work, I am very interested to read about this: “Clive James spent the spring and summer of 2019 writing and editing an autobiographical anthology called The Fire Of Joy, a raid on ‘the treasure-house of his mind’: a collection of the poems that first awoke in him his love of poetry and that were lodged forever in his memory.” I was disappointed to find that the book is not in any library I can access, and it’s expensive to buy, for someone like me whose appreciation of poetry is not at a level that would justify the expense.

In any case, it was his own poem that most grabbed at my heart back then, and prompted me to pray for him, that the interior “work” he had been given to do in those last years might be fully healing, unto ages of ages.

SENTENCED TO LIFE

Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.

But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done

Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.

My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish, each a little finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.

Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.

Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will and testament –

As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.

– Clive James, 2014