Death surrenders us completely to God; it makes us pass into God. In return we have to surrender ourselves to it, in love and in the abandon of love, since, when death comes to us, there is nothing further for us to do but let ourselves be entirely dominated and led onwards by God…
Lord Christ, you who are divine energy…set me ablaze and transmute me into fire that we may be welded together and made one…To receive communion as I die is not sufficient: teach me to make a communion of death itself.
~ Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and mystic, 1881-1955)
My mood that morning matched the dreary Minnesota weather. The truth is, it was one of those days when I had to force myself to go visiting patients. I felt weighed down with self-pity and agitation. I debated whether to hang out at the office to do paper work, but I knew that William was in the final days of dying. After chugging another cup of coffee, I decided that I needed to go and say goodbye. I am grateful beyond measure that I did.
I had only known William for about three weeks. By the time he came on to hospice, William had largely lost his capacity to speak because of a fatal respiratory condition that required a tracheotomy and constant suctioning. And yet William didn’t need words to communicate what defined his outlook on life. The joy of this man’s spirit literally glowed on him. I didn’t get to hear any of the stories about William’s generosity and compassion until the day of his funeral, but I knew that he was extraordinary just by the way he smiled.
It was breathtaking, really. William had over the past few years suffered unimaginable physical travails due to his disease process. By the standards of our health and wealth obsessed society, William had an exceedingly poor “quality of life.” At one point during my first visit with him I had to hide my initial revulsion at certain aspects of his appearance (and having grown up in a funeral home, I am not usually in the the least bit squeamish). Sitting before me, however, was a man translucent with an open-hearted graciousness and tranquility that defied explanation. Sadly, William’s condition declined very rapidly, and by my second visit he was barely responsive.
On that final visit to William, he was nearing death. As I trudged my way into the nursing facility (still wondering if I was in any spiritual shape to “help” anyone else at that moment), I was overtaken by the sounds of loud, joyous, spirited, Black Gospel music echoing from William’s room.
At first my sensibilities were jarred. Where I grew up, death was a somber thing, only to spoken about in hushed tones with low-key organ music playing in the background (funerals had a way of constantly interfering with my play time as a child!). Through a CD player, William’s room, on the other hand, had been converted into a lively, passion-filled African American Baptist tabernacle. There was clapping and dancing and the shouting of “Amen!” and “Alleluia!”
And there was the lifting of hands. Barely conscious and seemingly unable to respond to verbal requests, William was lying flat on his back with his arms open wide and lifted up in the ancient posture of prayer and praise.
The sight of that undid me. Here was one who had endured years of what would seem to most of us to be unbearable suffering and who was literally at death’s door. And yet William appeared to be enraptured in a cloud of joyous surrender, ecstasy, and love. The “fire” of divine energy about which the mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes was ablaze in that room.
Through my mind flashed those haunting last words of Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, before he was hung by piano wire in a Nazi death camp:
This is the end – for me the beginning of life.
In a recently published work, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister explore the spiritual meaning of the word “alleluia.” Asking the question whether saying “alleluia” in the face of failure, disappointment, suffering, and death is just one form of “emotionally unhealthy self-deception?” they reply,
alleluia is not a substitute for reality. It is simply the awareness of another whole kind of reality – beyond the immediate, beyond the delusion, beyond the instant perception of things…it calls us to see all of life as life-giving, somehow, in some way, whether its present gifting is apparent or not…It is learning to cling to a sense of alleluia that carries us through life to that moment when everything in us has come to fullness and our only next step is immersion in God.
I learned more about William at his funeral the following week. The old hospice adage, “People usually die as they have lived,” certainly rang true in his case. William knew what I have yet to practice in my own life: “alleluia” applies as much to the valleys and shadows and dark caves of life as it does to times of health, brightness, and blessing. The man did not have an easy life, and he most assuredly did not die an easy death. He approached both, however, with gratitude and a smile.
I entered William’s room (or should I say “temple”?) in a state of self-pitying glumness. After being given a small taste of the “communion of death,” I walked out a changed man. Just spending a few moments in William’s presence – as he made his dying into a profound prayer of praise and thanksgiving – reminded me that in the bosom of G-d, there is Life and Love and Belonging beyond my wildest imaginings. The Mexican folk song, Pues Si Vivimos, beautifully expresses the heart of Jesus’ message this way:
When we are living, we are in the Lord. When we are dying, we are in the Lord. For in our living and in our dying, we belong to God, we belong to God.
Alleluia for that. And alleluia for William and for all my guides on the Jesus Way who teach me that in every end – even the end which we call death – is the beginning of life.