Thursday, October 29, 2009

Column: Cowardice or Utter Grace?

The photo is of the oldest part of the Jesuit cemetery at Wernersville, just after an ice storm a couple of years ago. Every time I go, I walk the cemetery, and pray for the men who are buried there. One is on the path to canonization - Walter Ciszek SJ - I'm certain there are many more saints there.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 28 October 2009.

In Your hand I commend my spirit; You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth. — Ps. 31:6

“May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.” Some might think it peculiar, that with these closing words of Night Prayer, the last thing I ask of God before I turn out the light each night is a peaceful death. It hardly seems conducive to pleasant dreams or a good night’s sleep.

To tell the truth, I am deeply comforted by that final petition, for I have seen death come shrieking in like a banshee, strewing grief and pain in every direction, leaving desolation in its wake. It is no small grace I seek.

My first husband’s death was not peaceful. It came after a frantic ambulance ride to the ER and a long night in surgery. Tom departed this life without warning, with no time to prepare.

At the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls, I am particularly mindful to pray for Tom’s soul. But I am also prompted to meditate on my own death. What will it be like when I die, when the Weaver severs that last thread?

The practice of meditating on your own death has a long and respected history in Catholic tradition. In the fourth century, desert Father Evagrius advised monks to “Remember the day of your death…so as to be able to live always in the peace you have in view.”

Sir Thomas More argued passionately to his 17-year-old daughter Margaret that nothing was more efficacious in strengthening a person to live life well than contemplating these last things: death, judgment, pain and joy. Though it sounds macabre, meditating on your own death is not so much about preparing to die, but about preparing to live, now as ever after.

Theologian Karl Rahner’s description of death as a “fall into incomprehensibility” rings true for me. I find it difficult, almost impossible, to conceive of my death, yet in surrendering to that impossibility, I taste of death’s ultimate surrender. I fall into God’s hands, knowing that before Him I cannot stand, for now I see myself, not dimly as in St. Paul’s mirror, but as God sees me. Perhaps that is what make it such an arduous contemplation.

Before this mystery I cannot mask my flaws, though perhaps knowing them, I can yet mend them in life. In “Learning to Fall,” written after he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, singer and songwriter Eric Lowen pithily sums up what I desire in this exercise: “I know where I stand; learning to fall.”

As All Souls day approaches this year, I find that the final days of Jesuit priest Albert Delp shade my meditations. Sentenced to death in mid-January 1945, he expected to be immediately executed. Instead he was returned to prison, where he spent 22 days excruciatingly suspended between life and death. Almost incredibly, Delp remained hopeful through much of his ordeal, wondering, “Is it madness to hope — or conceit, or cowardice, or grace?”

Delp's final writings, smuggled out of prison on bits of torn newspaper, speak poignantly of how difficult he found living in this liminal time, literally on the threshold between life and death. I'm coming to realize that this is where we all live, though it may be a reality I readily choose to ignore. Recognizing that I stand in this doorway is a powerful confession of hope.

I meditate on my own end, learning how to fall so that I might choose to stand. Realizing ever more deeply that at this very moment I am no less in God's hands than I will be at the hour of my death. This is not madness, or conceit, or cowardice, but utter grace.

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel. — Nunc Dimittis, Gospel canticle for Night Prayer


  1. This is such a powerful post. I am not marking it read in my reader as I need to return and think about it some more. We often banish thoughts about death but the observation of Sir Thomas More about the efficacy of such contemplation should be more widely understood.

    I will include your first husband in my prayers on those upcoming "twin feasts".

  2. This is powerful, thank you.

    I like your rereading of heaven and hell (if I recall those last things correctly) as pain and joy.

    Prayers as you remember your beloved dead this weekend from here also.

  3. Sophia - I'd love to take credit for the recasting of heaven and hell as pain and joy, but it shows up in Rahner and a few other places...and the prayers are appreciated!

  4. You touch upon that vast sense of emptiness spread out before us when we wonder whether a loved one *was* in God's hands at death. If so, what does it mean to be in God's hands? And if not, what does anything mean at all?

    Either way: silence.

  5. Anonymous8:03 AM

    Michelle: I get so much out of reading your blog and your columns; thank you for the energy and commitment to put your faith journey into words; I do not always comment but I always read and you inspire me. Marie M.

  6. Anonymous10:17 AM

    I am frequently suicidal because living is so painful but you make me stop and think "What will it be like to die?" I run from life in a dozen different ways but now I wonder if seeking death or any of the other avoidances I use each day is not another layer of the pain of living. Is there a different way to be? I will reread your words and remember you in my prayers and may even use yours asking for a peaceful death tonight.

  7. Marie, Thank you! And it's nice to know you are here, even if we don't "hear" you!

  8. Anonymous - I promise most solemnly that I will keep you in prayer, but please, if you have not already, seek help.

  9. Anonymous12:06 AM

    I thank you for your prayers. I am honoured. I do quite often do this pain alone but I do seek help regularly, as you put it. It bewilders me somewhat that people seem to think that getting help is so important but I do not see such a big difference between living and dying so why cling so tenaciously to life?