Once upon a time in London there was a middle-aged businessman. One morning as he was walking through Westminster, just near Big Ben, he stopped to hear the clock chime eight, but after looking down from consulting the famed clock-face against his Rolex, he was confronted by a hideous figure. It was Death. There in front of him with a look of grotesque surprise on his face was the Grim Reaper. Before our businessman could run out of ear-shot, the Grim Reaper stuttered out the phrase: “Tonight I have a meeting with you!” The businessman ran toward Westminster Cathedral, and opening the door, started to the front altar. There on his knees he prayed, so fervently, that a priest recognizing a distressed parishioner, walked up to him. “Do you mind if I ask whether I can help?” queried the priest. With a look of fear, the businessman glanced up at the priest, and then began to tell the priest what he had seen. “There is only one thing for it”, the priest said, “You must get as far away from this place before evening arrives”. The priest took the businessman into the sacristy and then through to a parking lot, where he informed his fear-stricken companion that he would drive him to Heathrow and help to put him on a plane to a destination far from London. Arriving at Heathrow, the businessman purchased a ticket to Moscow. With every kilometre that the plane sped from England, the businessman’s tension slowly dissipated. He watched a movie, listened to some music – and read through a Moscow By Night Guidebook. After waving the businessman off – and wishing him well, the priest had driven back to Westminster. Walking out on to the streets, the cleric searched for the Grim Reaper. Fifteen minutes, half an hour passed – no sign, and then, he saw him, the dark, wretched figure – scythe lying on the ground – the Reaper cursing and cussing, seated at the base of a tree in St. James’ Park. The priest took a deep breath and walked straight up to the Reaper, adamant that he was going to give Death a piece of his mind. “Listen my good man – what business do you have going around the streets of London shocking my parishioners?” “Shocking your parishioners?” replied Death, with a disgruntled look on his face. “I’m the one who was shocked. How do you think I felt? Here I am scheduled to be in Moscow tonight to have a meeting with that friend of yours – and I find him here in London!”
The French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) in his Essays, deliberated at some length on the subject “Of judging of the death of others”. Montaigne wrote that the process of dying is “without doubt the most noteworthy action of human life”. (Montaigne, 1943, p. 334, trans. D.M. Frame). The manner by which a person meets their death, reveals a great deal about the purpose to which they have lived their life, and we all like to read of people dying bravely; not only for their sakes – but for providing us hope of imitation. Moreover we see time and again, in the deaths of so many martyrs and saints, a peaceful resignation to the meeting of God. The death of Montaigne is worthy of mention, for dying of quinsy, and with all his faculties intact other than the use of his tongue, Montaigne wrote a note to his wife requesting his neighbours to come so as to bid them farewell. While the liturgy was being celebrated in his room; and surrounded by friends and the Eucharistic – Montaigne, fulfilled his spoken desire to die calmly and ‘as a man’. He wanted to be as good as the words he had written to instruct others.
The manner by which a person meets their death, reveals a great deal about the purpose to which they have lived their life, and we all like to read of people dying bravely; not only for their sakes – but for providing us hope of imitation.
Death is a reality that can make one feel claustrophobic. Locked within a room known as mortality; the only way out of this condition is through the facing of the inevitable. One can become so anxious about death – that the process of day-to-day living becomes an entombment in a sarcophagus of fear. Such a mode of existence is clearly not living. In the 1984 motion picture Amadeus we have this scenario portrayed for us; Mozart writing a Requiem that is simultaneously killing him in the process, as he believes that this task is a premonition of his death. Anxiety builds-up in Mozart, swept along by a wave of self-fulfilling prophecy, and eventually Mozart’s frail health eventually succumbs to insurmountable fear. Death will eventually come to a person whether they are fearing it or not; and as such, it is better to spend one’s life, in good conscience and free from anxiety, than in a labyrinth of existential questioning – most of which, cannot be answered in this world. Too much a pre-occupation on death will eventually mean that the journey of life has been lived the less for concentrating on the end-goal, and having spent no time enjoying the scenes in which life’s journey has taken you.
Too much a pre-occupation on death will eventually mean that the journey of life has been lived the less for concentrating on the end-goal, and having spent no time enjoying the scenes in which life’s journey has taken you.
The other extreme is also a fallacy – that being the individual becoming so reckless about living and dying that one risks life, daring Providence to take it from you. Such recklessness is oftentimes inspired not so much by a fearlessness in the face of death – but a hatred of life; that is masked by ambivalence, that is neither courage or heroism – but playing a game of Russian Roulette.
A balance must be struck: we should not be so focussed on the next life, that we disregard the value of the present; nor should we be found so despairing for losing this life, that we have no faith in the promise of a life to come. The Eastern mystic, Evagrius Pontikos (345 – 399), provides a wonderful summum bonum for good living. According to Evagrius: ““A monk should always act as if he was going to die tomorrow; yet he should treat his body as if it was going to live for many years. The first cuts off the inclination to listlessness, and makes the monk more diligent; the second keeps his body sound and his self-control well balanced.” (The Philokalia, 1979, Vol. I, p. 53). Evagrius has captured beautifully the need for the pilgrim in this world to find a golden mean – to be very much in the world, but not of it.
It is critical to note in St. Paul’s passage, that even the great Apostle to the Gentiles does not call upon his readers to be so foolish as to think that death does not require pain and separation; but he proclaims a message of hope and consolation.
No clearer example of this balance is there in Scripture, than in the passing of Christ from life to death. God Himself longs to live – but He wills to choose death ahead of a life devoid of Its meaning and purpose. Christ has come into the world for a reason – and if this reason requires that He must give up His life; then so be it; but although the life is giving up freely – it is not giving up without enormous anguish. He could run; He could hide – but in both cases He would cease to be He Who Is. The Passion of Christ, is only that, because it involves a tearing away from a life and people that Christ loves, rather than loathes. The eventual choice He makes, is based on choosing life and not death; for God is a God of the living and even in the face of the decay of the body – there is the promise and the hope of the Resurrection and of a new life. Christ did die – but this event, by God’s grace, meant that His death became a bridge for us to cross, a bridge between two forms of living rather than a wall to end all hope. For this reason, St. Paul writes in his letter: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, RSV). It is critical to note in St. Paul’s passage, that even the great Apostle to the Gentiles does not call upon his readers to be so foolish as to think that death does not require pain and separation; but he proclaims a message of hope and consolation.
Death will one day find us – ready or not; so until our own time for death arrives, we may as well live prudently with faith, in good conscience – and with courage.
None of us can speak authoritatively about death, for only one Man has ever died and resurrected in a glorified body; all we can do is to trust in that One Man who for our sake gave up His life, and waits for us in a world and life to come. For the resurrection of Christ gives us not only a meaning to our deaths, but also a meaning to our lives; we live in God – we die in God. Perhaps with this trust and confidence we can then forget about the quite natural fear of death, and begin to use the precious gift of life to its very maximum. For as a man cannot run away from the beating of his heart – nor also can a man see the face of God and live; and as there is a season to live in this world, so there is also quite evidently a season to live in the next. Thus the key to a fruitful life, is through living each day with fresh intent, and that can only be done when we face the reality of our day-to-day dying; for a disordinate fear of death will ultimately lead to a fear of living; and this is pointless, for whether we wish the time to come or not – death will one day find us – ready or not; so until our own time for death arrives, we may as well live prudently with faith, in good conscience – and with courage.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, January 2018