This is the first in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
You are going to die and you don’t get to say when or how. I say this at every funeral, both to those present and to myself. This solemn reminder is hard to process. It is one thing to assent to this obvious truth intellectually, but it is another thing to internalize it in our depths and really know what it means.
What is death? Some speak of heartbeats that stop or brain waves that cease, but that is not what death is. The cessation of vital indicators is the effect of death, not death itself.
Part of the mystery of death is that it is presupposed by another equally deep and mysterious question: What is life? Some say that life is organized energy, but this answer also misses the mark. It describes what life does, not what it is.
The force we call life is mysterious. We see its effects. We know when it is present and when it is gone, but we do not know exactly what it is. Just because we have a word for something doesn’t mean we understand it. Similarly, death is mysterious. I have been at the bedside of parishioners and my own loved ones at the moment of death and I cannot adequately articulate how strangely baffling it is. There is labored breathing; sometimes there are nervous twitches. Occasionally some words are spoken. Then, suddenly, there is a great stillness. The mysterious force that we call life has departed; the soul, the animating principle of living things, is gone.
I remember looking at my sister, my father, and my mother as each lay in the casket. They were there and yet they were not. When I looked at my mother, she seemed alive; I fully expected her to look at me and tell me to comb my hair or that she loved me—but she was not there. Her body had lost that mysterious spark and force we call life. Her soul had departed.
Looking at my father’s still body in the hospital room where he died was overwhelming. He had been a giant in my life. He still looms large in my memory; his voice rings in my soul. But there he was lying still in that hospital bed—and yet he was not there. Something deeply mysterious had happened. The hidden, mysterious life force of his soul was gone even though there seemed to have been no change in the appearance of his body.
Sadly, I have had to have several of my pets put down over the years. In those cases, too, the mystery of life and death is evident. An animal is alive one moment and then suddenly grows still. Even with plants and trees, I have seen them healthy and green only to be astonished when they die. What happened? The life is gone; a mysterious, organizing principle and force has departed—but what it is we do not know. We do not see death, only its effects.
I am overwhelmed in the face of death, at the mystery of it and the mystery of what has departed: life, a force that cannot be seen or measured, that does not tip the scales of scientists or involve our senses but that is nonetheless very real.
Especially in its inception, life is mysterious. Consider an acorn. In appearance, it is not so different from a small stone. Yet if you were to put both in the soil, the stone would sit there forever and do nothing; the acorn, though has a mysterious spark, a life force in or around it that springs forth to become a mighty oak. What is that spark? Where is it? An acorn has it but a stone does not. Why? Only God really knows.
It was my father who first taught me of the mystery of life. When I was a child, he told me that one of the deepest experiences of his life had occurred when he was about my age:
It had suddenly occurred to him, coming into his mind like a bolt out of the blue, that he existed. He cried out, “I exist!” and then grew silent in astonishment.
He said that ever since that moment he had never ceased to be amazed and awed at the mysterious fact of his existence. Indeed, it is an awesome mystery. Why do I exist? Why do you exist? Why is there anything at all?
As my Father grew silent in amazement, so must I. I have already said too much. The word mystery comes from the Greek muein, meaning to shut the mouth or close the eyes. As we begin a meditation on the Four Last Things, (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), ponder with awe and reverential silence the great mystery of life and death.
Tomorrow I will discuss some of the more practical aspects of death.