The Mystery of Life and Death

This is the first in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Note: I wrote this post prior to the terrible shooting that occurred Sunday in Texas. Once again we are confronted with terrible violence and the specter of sudden death. Please offer your prayers for those who have died and their families.

As we begin here a series on the Four Last Things, a shooting like this confronts us not only with the death and life, but also the mystery of iniquity. In reading this, I hope you will keep in mind that my remarks here speak of death that awaits us all at a time and in a manner not of our own control. Please also remember this post was not written as a response to the Texas shooting and I do not propose it as an explanation, or commentary on that terrible shooting. Rather it is a commentary on the deep mystery of life and of death.

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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.

One Reply to “The Mystery of Life and Death”

  1. One of the deepest experiences in my life was when I was a chid around the age of five where I came to the realization that I was going to die and everyone around me was going to die one day. It all came about when my nursery school teacher said we all have a guardian angel and our guardian angel might talk to us some time. When I asked my brother who was eight or nine if his guardian angel ever talked to him he asked what I was talking about. I told my brother what my teacher had said and that my guardian angel had talked to me. That night when we went to bed he started calling out my name in the dark in a ghostly voice and all of the sudden I became overwhelmed with the realization that I was going to die and all my family would die and I would be separated from all those that I loved and depended on. I ran from the bedroom to my oldest sister crying and told her my brother was scaring me and I was afraid of dying. Seventeen years later I had a meditative epiphany during which I literlaly experienced a sequence of uncomfortable sense withdrawals and separation as if in the dying process which led to feeling an incomprehensible peace and total lack of physical sense perception other than being consumed in the most beautiful florescent white light. It was then I was flooded with the recollections of several past events as a child and the revelation that the woman’s voice I thought was my guardian angel was more acurrately my deceased mother who had died when I was fifteen months old of whom I had no memory of. She had suddenly spoken to me on three prior occasions, the first two of when I was about to do things that may have endangered my safety and well being and the third was when I told my brother. Although the statements were always breif and to the point, whenever I looked around no one was visibly present and there was no dialogue other than when I finally reponded to her voice at the last encounter. In the revelation I recalled that around the age of four or five I had started asking my brothers and sisters what our mother was like because I felt a need to know something about her to tell my friends when they asked about my mother. It was the emotional attachments stirred in my siblings by my questions that brought her to verbally make contact with me and to make her last anguished request for help. My brother pretended to be a ghost that eventful night calling my name in the dark because I had unkowingly terrifed him and he became visibly angry with me earlier that day when I asked about his guardian angel and told him mine had just spoken to me. He had been in the garge when I came looking for him after the woman’s voice had just called out my name pleading for help. I had looked around and saw no one so I said “I will help you guardian angel. Where are you?” upon which she repeated my name as in amazement as the woman’s voice fadded away. In the garage was an old cedar chest that had my mothers keepsakes and my brother had once told me that we were never to open it and bother the contents Obviously my brother was doing just that the day I approached him. He was clearly quite distressed with me for asking about our mother. When I abruptly opened my eyes and came out of the meditation. I realized that I never asked about our mother after my brother had become angry that fateful day because he theatened to run away and never come back if I didn’t stop asking about our mother when I had come asking him about guadian angels talking to us. I never heard the woman’s voice after I stopped asking about her but I am quite certain the outcome of those events fulfilled both our requests. I am no longer frightend thinking of my impending death although I feel bereaved when I think about it taking someone away I am close to. I spent the next forty years coming to grips with life. Now at 66 years of age my focus is more on judgement which is a more evangelical aspect of life and a catharis.

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