“Keep death daily before your eyes”
Those of us who work with tools, in crafts, garden or kitchen, will probably possess a variety of them but will generally rely on a few favourites, until a job or recipe comes up that requires a special tool and then we might have to go searching for it in cupboards and drawers. Similarly with St Benedict’s Tools of Good Works in Chapter 4 of the Rule, there are those in daily use like the commandments and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. A long way down the list we find “Keep death daily before your eyes”; this rarely comes out unless bereavement or serious illness befalls us.
This happened to me; being diagnosed with cancer recently and undergoing treatment brought home to me that I am going to die some day and so will everyone else. Of course, I always knew that in my head, but suddenly it became real to me. Death, my death, was suddenly before my eyes, as Benedict recommends.
So, what happens when death is brought before your eyes? For me it completely reordered my list of priorities. Things that used to cause me worry and stress shrank into insignificance while others became much more important. First, it made me more aware of others’ suffering, friends with illnesses or worries and concerns, and even perfect strangers and those around the world suffering disaster or persecution. It also brought life daily before my eyes, with greater appreciation of small things and the wonderful relationships I had. Friends turned up to look after me during the worst parts of the treatment, others let me know they were praying for me and I became aware of being part of a vast network of people and being cushioned in love and prayer and of joining in that prayer for others.
Everyone has had experience of the death of family and friends but it’s not one of those things that we talk about easily or even like to think about; it’s too painful. However, as we get older we can’t avoid it; more and more people we know become frail and die and questions keep coming up. Why do some people suffer more than others? Why do children die when their life has hardly started? Why do so many people suffer with dementia? What regrets do I have about my life? What is on the other side of death, what happens when I go through that door, what do I believe? What about Purgatory?
We say in the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in … the communion of saints … the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Eternal life is not something that starts when we get to heaven: it has already started. But as Catholics we don’t believe that most of us are fit for heaven when we die or that heaven/hell is the stark choice on our death; we believe in purgatory, a state of purification and preparation for heaven. Perhaps, like eternal life, purgatory has already started in this life. Might suffering with dementia be the stripping away of what is not essential? Might caring for a person with dementia be a stripping away of our own will and orientation towards the other? Might euthanasia be a refusal to take part in the purgatory offered to us here? Just wondering.
Another tool that doesn’t get used very often but is found alongside “Keep death daily…” is “Desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit”. As I started to think about my own death I began to think about eternal life. There was a time when I didn’t exist – I had a beginning but I will not have an end. Perhaps our reluctance to think about these things is because our imaginations are so restricted. How can I possibly imagine that? Those who try fail, in my opinion; in the same way that making a film of a book disappoints me because the director’s imagination is not mine, any attempt to describe heaven inevitably falls short.
I prefer to accept the future as mystery. As St John says: “what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is.” Perhaps Jean Vanier’s final message before he died sums it all up:” God is good and whatever happens it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything.”
Helen Granger is a Minster Oblate.