"The end is where we start from." ~ T.S. Eliot
Seems kind of ominous to begin with a headstone, doesn't it? Let's face it though, from dust to dust, right? It's in the Bible after all, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Like everything else that has arisen from the earth, we will one day return to it. It seems to me that all religions were created, by God or otherwise, to guide us toward that one big mystery.
Death is life's greatest mystery, and from the moment we are born we begin to die. It's the one big thing that we can know almost nothing about, no matter how hard we try. It can also be one of a human being's greatest fears, because of the immensity of its consequences and the sheer fact that it really is incomprehensible. Well, okay, so there are two things we do know about death: it is ineluctable for every living, breathing thing and it is the greatest unknown. That is all we know and all we are likely to ever know.
So why is this the beginning? Because when we are born it's the only sure thing ahead of us. The one true thing we can rely on without fail. And in my admittedly limited mind it's the main reason for religious faith. I mean, hey, if we were born to live a life of flailing around a sea of never ending disappointments and struggles with no reward in sight, what would be the point? So, they give us a set of rules to live by, and if we do our best and repent when we fail, we will have eternal life, reunited with all of our loved ones, in a glorious place called heaven. Now, doesn't that sound like a plan? And also my personal point of departure from Religion 101.
Here is what has been my take on it: life itself is the reward. The world is too utterly amazing, wondrous, beautiful, stupendous and, all things considered, JOYOUS to think any other way. No matter how terrible things get, the world is still miraculous. Life is miraculous. People, with all of their flaws and foibles, are still miraculous. And shouldn't this be enough?
Watch this video sometime if you don't think life is miraculous even in the midst of tragedy:
I have made the argument with many priests that I just don't care what happens to me when I die. I have never bought into heaven, or felt a need for it. I certainly don't buy into hell. Heaven and hell are right here on earth. Look around, you'll find them. What's wrong with living life in the best way we can, yes, following the Golden Rule and other teachings of the Gospels or religious texts, and keeping our eyes set on just this: the here and now lived to the best of our abilities.
"But don't you want to believe that there is an afterlife?" they ask.
"I just don't care. I'm not really afraid of dying, I just want to live a really long time. I want to see heaven every day because it's all around me. And I want to learn from the things that resemble hell. There is so much to do while I'm alive, I can't be bothered with worrying about what happens when I'm not."
And around and around we go. I mean, I want to believe in Jesus. I read the Gospel and epistle every day. Really, I do. But...
Resurrection? I just don't know.
Enter the writings of eastern Orthodox priest and bishop, Kallistos Ware. Since discovering Orthodoxy I have read three of his many books and for the first time, since reading Thomas Merton, I found a religious voice that I could relate to. There is a balanced and real-world sensibility to this man's way of explaining things that make some of the murk so much clearer to me. A highly learned and literary mind that just happens to have palpable faith in the Christian religion. Things that seem outrageous and against all logic to me are held firmly in his heart as the truth. This is what he has to say about death and resurrection:
It is to be seen as the last and greatest in the long series of deaths and resurrections that we have been experiencing ever since the day that we were born. It is not something totally unrelated to all that has been happening to us previously throughout our life, but it is a larger, more comprehensive expression of what we have been undergoing all of this time. If the little deaths through which we have had to pass have each led us beyond death to resurrection, may this not be true of the great moment of death that we await when it is finally time to depart from this world?
What are these little deaths he writes about? How about something that follows us all of the days, or nights, of our lives? Sleep. Every time we close our eyes to sleep, we surrender to the unknown with faith that when it is time we will rise again. It's interesting to consider that our bodies and minds cannot be regenerated without succumbing to the unconsciousness of sleep. I mean, we could have been created to regenerate by standing with our arms raised to the sun for an hour or so everyday, but that's not the way things are. All living beings must fall into an unconscious state of rest to keep on living. Sure, you can fight it, and sometimes have to fight for it, but nevertheless it is a given that people need to surrender to sleep in order to survive.
Another example of a little death is when we are separated from someone or something we love. It could be when a child finally leaves home for good, or a divorce. It could be when someone who lives in our heart passes away. It can even be when we unwillingly lose a job. Life is full of separation and sometimes the effects on us can be traumatic and last our whole lives. But the miracle part is that we can go on living, not without a heaviness in our hearts, but almost always, things do get easier. Our spirits are meant to survive tragedy. To learn from them, to know what it is to be deeply human and feel great pain. But we are also able to find goodness and beauty again, even from within the tragedy. We can smile because we know that love never really leaves us and that unless we learn the courage it takes to separate when we need to, or to leave our familiar surroundings, we will never fully arrive at our potential as a human being. In the eyes of a Christian, says Bishop Ware, suffering is a gift. It enables us to really see beauty, to really know love....maybe even for the first time.
There are other types of little deaths. What about rejection? What about the first time you loved someone and it wasn't returned? And hey, what about the death of our childhood beliefs and faith? What about the doubts that creep into our adolescent minds? The ones that challenge all that has been accepted as truth when we were young and trusting? Bishop Ware says that doubt is a healthy sign of maturation, and to be fully realized, our faith must continuously be tested and reborn.
Here’s the catch: in all of these situations the little deaths turn out to be creative forces, not destructive. They propel us forward into something better, or to a place where we can look back at all that happened and know we have grown somehow. This is what my lifelong take on dying lacks...this trend of transformation that occurs throughout our lives on every level. In my way of looking at things, it would all simply end. Right then and there...back to dust. But truthfully I cannot say, and neither can you, that it’s not what happens. No one can. Not the wisest man or woman on earth.
Faith. It’s all about faith. Doubt and dying, faith and resurrection. Life’s constant and reliable ebb and flow. It’s the natural pattern of everything: out of dying comes resurrection. Why wouldn't the death that comes at the end of our lives fit the same patterns? That is the question I am left with after reading Bishop Ware's words.
You know, it’s not that I don’t want to believe in resurrection. It’s not that I don’t want to believe that the end of my earthly life is really just the final page of the prologue. That there is a much greater story to unfold in the ever after. I just always thought it went against every logical way of thinking; maybe it just seemed too good to be true. But I'm not so sure anymore. I'm coming to think that resurrection is logical after all. I can't prove it. I can't even say I will always believe it. But I am mysteriously willing to give it a try.
*End note: Long time readers of this journal may realize that I tend to write about spirituality or religion now and again. I hope to be doing more of that. It's a big part of my life and my struggles, and I'm thinking that might be the same for some of you, too. If you ever feel like it, please join in the conversation by leaving comments below. You can also email me if your prefer. I think our doubts and questions about the spiritual side of ourselves can sometimes be a lonely place to dwell. I hope that by opening up my own box of those uncertainties, others might find a way to recognize and express their own. For a long time I believed my secret and stuffed-way-down doubts were a bad sign. Must be a Catholic thing ;) It's taken a lot of prayer, study and plain old time to realize it's just the opposite.
Doubt is a healthy sign of maturation, and to be fully realized, our faith must continuously be tested and reborn.