None of us likes to think about death, and that isn’t necessarily bad. Our every heartbeat blocks out death, pushes it away, and keeps us focused on living. That’s nature and God working. And this denial of death stems too from the fact that, in the end, we don’t die, don’t become extinct, but move on to deeper life. At some level, we already know that, sense it, feel it, and live life in the face of it. To want to think about death can be as much a sign of depression or illness as of depth. Pushing away thoughts of death is normally a sign of health.
But there are times when faith asks to look death in the eye. Classically, the churches have asked us to do that during the month of November when, at least in the Northern hemisphere, we see a lot of death going on in nature and we see light itself diminishing as the days grow shorter and there is less and less sunlight. The Book of Maccabees says that it’s a healthy thing to pray for the dead and the church tells us that, every so often, it’s healthy too to think about death, both by remembering those who have died and by contemplating the reality and certainty of our own deaths. Death and taxes, Mark Twain assured us, are a certainty for everyone.
But how to think about death? Where is that thin line between contemplating the mystery of death and falling into morbidity, anxiety, and false guilt about being alive and healthy?
Honest prayer can help us walk that tightrope and honest prayer is what we do when we can bring ourselves naked before God, unprotected by what we do, by what we own, by what we have achieved, and by anything else we have to fend off loneliness, fear, and death. In honest prayer we can be deep without being morbid.
But we can also be helped in this by the giants of our faith who have stared death in the eye and have tried to share with us what that feels like. I recommend especially C.S. Lewis and Karl Rahner.
For one perspective, I recommend Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, which is one of the finest and most readable treatises ever written on Christian death and the afterlife. He comes at it as an Anglican, but is equally sympathetic to both the Protestant and the Roman Catholic traditions. He stresses the continuity between this life and the next and sets this into a wonderful theology of God, grace, and the communion of saints.
From the Roman Catholic tradition, I recommend Karl Rahner. Unlike C.S. Lewis, Rahner stresses the discontinuity between this life and the next, suggesting a much greater dissimilarity than is imagined by Lewis: “It seems to me that the models and schemes people use to try and explain eternal life in general don’t fit the radical rupture that nevertheless comes with death.” We “dress up” eternal life, he says, with images familiar to us, but “the ineffable outrageousness of the absolute Godhead in person falling stark naked into our narrow creaturehood is not being perceived authentically.”
Then in one, vintage sentence (280 words long) he leaves us this image:
“When the angels of death have swept all the worthless rubbish that we call our history out of the rooms of our consciousness (though of course the true reality of our actions in freedom will remain); when all the stars of our ideals, with which we ourselves in our own presumption have draped the heaven of our own lived lives, have burned out and are now extinguished; when death has built a monstrous, silent void, and we have silently accepted this in faith and hope as our true identity; when then our life so far, however long it has been, appears only as a single, short explosion of our freedom that previously presented itself to us stretched out in slow motion, an explosion in which question has become answer, possibility reality, time eternity, and freedom offered freedom accomplished; when then we are shown in the monstrous shock of a joy beyond saying that this monstrous, silent void, which we experience as death, is in truth filled with the originating mystery we call God, with God’s light and with God’s love that received all things and gives all things; and when then out of this pathless mystery the face of Jesus, the blessed one, appears to us and this specific reality is the divine surpassing of all that we truly assume regarding the past-all-graspness of the pathless God -then, then I don’t want actually to describe anything like this, but nevertheless, I do want to stammer some hint of how a person can for the moment expect what is to come: by experiencing the very submergence that is death as already the rising of what is coming.”
Death is a journey into the unknown, the ineffable, the unimaginable, the unspeakable – unspeakable loneliness, ineffable embrace, unimaginable joy.