THE JOY OF DYING A talk given by Dr. Ray Whiteman at St. Mary’s, South Brisbane, October 12, 1997.
In January of this year, I supported my friend and brother-in-law, Mervyn, through the last days and hours of his life as he lay dying of cancer. I prayed with him, talked to him about God, and watched the grace of God transform this alcoholic back into the simple loving man that he was, to the point he could ask: “When will God come to take me home? I hope it is soon.” As I watched Mervyn cooperating with God in his last hours, he taught me so much about dying as a true Christian.
It was during this period that I discovered that I had terminal cancer. It is incurable Multiple Myeloma which is a cancer of the bone marrow with an uncontrolled growth of plasma cells. My particular cancer will not respond to the bone marrow transplant treatment. All we hope for is that Chemotherapy will slow down this aggressive cancer as it eats away at all the major bones. Already there are sizeable lesions in my bones which will eventually crumble and break and then - to die.
On the subject of death this is what the Old Testament psalmist has to say:
As for man, his days are like grass,
He flowers like the flower of the field;
The wind blows and he is gone
And his place never sees him again. (psalm. 102)
There has always been a reluctance to talk directly about death. People have been saying that ours is the first age in which it has become the great unmentionable. But this is not really true. This has always been the case, at least in our Anglo-Saxon culture. For instance, we had to borrow the word “to die” from the Old Norse language. Our Old English words for dying changed their meanings over the centuries because of their lack of use. We moderns have always used euphemisms like “passing away” or “falling asleep” rather than dying.
On the other hand, it is a common experience that a dying person has no difficulty in talking about death, while relatives and friends when speaking of the subject are rigid with inhibition. My friend Jim was an example of this. His wife would not consider the thought of his dying. We were not to mention the subject to him. Yet she found him so often kneeling at the foot of the bed in the middle of the night, weeping in his loneliness. At last one day, he broached the subject to me as best he could by quietly giving me his suits and other clothing for me to keep and wear.
It seems that people who are dying can better cope with death than the rest of us who are only watching it or thinking about it. We must remember that we always receive the grace of the moment. When death comes, we shall receive the grace of death - the grace to cope with it. “My grace is sufficient for you,” Jesus said. It is only natural and human for us not to want our life to end, so we are not inclined to look too deeply at our dying. The end puts everything into question. The end puts everything into question. The end means that I can no longer project into the future: it is the end of all procrastination.
My idea of who I am now includes many fictional notions of who I will be, with many big and small plans always to become a better person - but the thought of death, the approach of death puts paid to them all - big and small.
The knowledge of the shortness of our life brings with it a wisdom, an understanding of our deeper self as opposed to our superficial self. Death gives meaning to life. It forces us to see the shape of our life since we have to imagine it finished. It is like being in a cloud - we can’t see its shape, we think it has no limits because these can be seen only from outside, from a different perspective. Its shape then becomes apparent and even most obvious to us - perhaps with some embarrassment.
Our life is over like a sigh,
Our span is seventy years
Or eighty for those who are strong.
And most of these are emptiness and pain.
They pass swiftly and we are gone.
Give us joy to balance our affliction
For the years when we knew misfortune. (psalm.89)
It is so important to reflect on our life with deep humility and acceptance i.e. to accept ourselves as God does with all our faults and weaknesses. The thought of death enables us to do this. Plato once wrote: “the unexamined life (i.e. the life without reflection) is not livable for a human being.”
And as a Christian if we enter deeply into contemplation, there we shall meet the infinite, loving God who lays us open and challenges us rather than the tiny localised God of our own making who seems to be there solely to protect us and to comfort us. You see, the danger is that my god - the God that I image - may not be the real God at all. Meister Eckhart used say centuries ago: “I pray God to rid me of God” (i.e. Eckhart’s God). Reflection on our death brings with it a spiritual wisdom and recreates in the process the true God for us. As the Psalmist prays: “Lord, make me know the shortness of my life that I may gain wisdom of heart”. This is the spiritual wisdom that we must pray for.
Christian teaching leaves us with the affirmation that the dead know God, but does not attempt to say anything further which may be just as well. We are already too eager to imagine a bodiless existence ie a formless spirit floating about in the heavens without a bodily form. On the contrary, we should frequently remind ourselves of the glorified body of the Risen Christ as was seen in His appearances after the Resurrection. Or maybe it is better to leave the matter unclear and indistinct. We don’t need to be able to figure it all out as the early Christian writers used advise us:
Clement (1st century): “Ask no more than what Christ has provided for your journey through life”.
John (3:2): “What we are to be in the future has not been revealed”.
This lack of certainty about the details of our eternal home is emphasised even more by the following facts:
We know nothing about Heaven, except it is the presence of God
Nor about Hell than it is god’s absence
Nor about purgatory than it is the process of purification for allowing God to be all-in-all to us.
We don’t know what it is like to die. We have only watched others dying. We do know that when we die we shall go through every inch of death and travel the unknown road alone. And lonely though that road be, we, who have lived our spiritual life in a close relationship with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, can be sure that this holy trinity will be there to comfort and console us as they lead us to the eternal gates and then with the warmest of welcomes, to introduce us to our new eternal home.
Go within his gates, giving thanks.
Enter his courts with songs of praise.
Give thanks to him and bless his name. (psalm 99)
It is only human to fear the unknown, and to be anxious about death. However, to become more familiar with death, to speak of it more frequently is to lessen this fear. The trouble is that we don’t take our death seriously enough. We superficially deny its reality with our euphemisms, and part of this unreality is that also we don’t take Christ’s death seriously. We must remember that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and therefore experienced death to the full. He was spared nothing. then God the Father raised Jesus from a real death not a simulated death. Hence, His was a real resurrection. We can never come to appreciate the reality of our own resurrection if we don’t directly face the reality of our own death.
Death forces us to think more deeply about ourselves. Our past is forever dying and passing into the present. Some part of it dies every time a friend or relative dies. Death constrains us to take the whole meaning of our life into our hands and to look to the present.
As Christians we should not fear death. On the contrary, we should embrace death. By facing fear directly, we conquer it. Interestingly enough, it has been said of Fear and Faith, that they are opposites so that when we have located the centre of our fear, we also have located the spot where faith has work to do.
Dying is an essential part of living and so, in some sense, to love life is to love death too. Or if death is inevitable, why fight against the thought of it and engage in a battle that cannot be won? Why define our life as a continual defeat? Why not say: “I will not consider that I am being pushed out of my life, rather I shall choose freely instead to walk in it and out of it, moment by moment”.
Like the deer that yearns for running streams,
So my soul is yearning for you, my god.
My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life:
When can I enter and see the face of God? (psalm 41)
Death provokes us to rethink our lives and prevents us from settling down forever with a stunted understanding of ourselves and of the world. What freedom it promises us if we don’t recoil at the thought of it? It tells us that there is no need to keep anything back, that we should throw off the masks, and that it is pointless to continue avoiding the thought of death. Embrace the inevitable, it says.
We know that our faith offers us the hope of resurrection. Jesus was resurrected in His glorified body. Is this to be the model of our resurrection: to live for eternity with a glorified body? I personally find comfort in believing that I will be resurrected, so to speak, with my glorified body soon after I die, contrary to the traditional belief that my soul and body will reunite on the final day of judgement.
Our life is a unique gift from God. It never existed before and will never be repeated for all eternity. In God’s eyes we are very important. Yahweh says this of us in the pages of the Old Testament: “Since time began, I called you by name”. Our death lies in the future. It is the big STOP sign ahead. To all appearances, we will be annihilated and our friends will gather the fragments of what we had in common with them, then they will have to move on, as we did with Princess Diana. It was a similar story even for the friends of Jesus: “They closed the tomb and all withdrew”. The sun will shine for our friends through other windows after we have gone.
With the morning their outward show vanishes
And the grave becomes their home.
But God will ransom me from death
And take my soul to himself. (psalm 48)
And so I have been given my sentence - with death quite imminent. I would like to share with you my own thoughts and feelings about this powerful experience. I do feel embarrassed that I look and feel so well while carrying such an aggressive type of cancer within me. For the first month or so, after discovering my health problem, the tears and the human emotions were strongly there. I thought I would have been stronger than this being a religious educator teaching about death and eternity for forty-seven years. However, my wife, Anne and I have always talked with each other freely about our deaths and the after life and have continued to do so. We share our thoughts candidly about the pain ahead, her caring for me at home, the sadness of leaving each other, the preparation necessary regarding the home, the will, my funeral service (there may be some advantage in writing my own eulogy!). When friends visit we also talk with them freely about my dying soon, to let them share in our peace and even the joy of my going to heaven. We feel this assists them in preparing for their own final leave-taking.
Truly I have set my soul
In silence and peace.
As a child has rest in its mother’s arms,
Even so my soul. (psalm 130)
We knew that we could approach my death positively or negatively. We decided on the positive approach - to embrace death as the great final act of my life when I will make the greatest decision of my life which is to decide and to freely choose to be with my god forever. Becoming aware of my cancer has given me time and a great opportunity to do this. In this respect it has been a great blessing.
I want to tell you that I am quite excited about dying and, in a way, I am looking forward to this unique experience through which we must all go. And keep in mind, I am going only a few years before each and everyone of you. There will be the joy of being with my God and with those great personalities who have preceded me, the Communion of Saints, among whom are my father, mother, sister and brother.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord, God of hosts.
My soul is longing and yearning,
Is yearning for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and my soul ring out their joy
To God, the living god.
I do admit that I am anxious and a little afraid of the suffering and discomfort ahead but I don’t pray to be free from it but ask God for the courage to bear it for my own sins and for others. Of course, I secretly hope that the morphine is quite effective. Neither Anne nor I ask or pray for a cure. We accept the design that God has laid out for us. Let the younger person or the younger parent be given the cure. I have run my race, I have fought the good fight as Saint Paul says in his letters.
And both Anne and I agree that my cancer is perhaps the greatest grace that God has given us. So many blessings have come with it which are too many to enumerate here. There is a deep peace and joy that has come with our resignation and acceptance of my dying. Also there is a freedom that it has given us to at last be truly our deeper selves. Our love for each other and for others has become much closer and deeper. We have a different perspective on life and its various dramas, and we are quite amazed at the way it has enabled others to express their love and concern for us.
And what has prepared us to experience this joy during these last days? We have both thought about this anomaly of joy in dying, and agreed that the following aspects of our life have assisted us greatly in our acceptance of this sudden call from God.
We have considered death as an essential part of life. The subject of our death has always been an acceptable and a frequent part of our conversation. For us, “Life is changed, not destroyed”.
Our daily prayer life has supported us throughout the thirty years of our marriage. We pray aloud the Office twice daily in alternating verses. The psalms are so rich in their expression as you have seen in this talk tonight. “Lord, make me know the shortness of life that I may gain wisdom of heart” (psalm 89) is an aspiration we daily pray.
The presence of the Resurrected Christ is real in our lives. Our families must recapture the understanding that the early Christians had of this truth. The Real Presence of Christ is not confined to the tabernacle. It is the Real Presence in our home, at our dinner table and when with loving relatives and friends. The traditional teaching of the Real Presence in the Catholic Church unwittingly suggests that the presence of Christ in the home with our spouse and children is not real. To be so familiar with Jesus here makes it so easy to meet with Him again in Heaven.
Our New understanding of theology during the past thirty years has transformed our spiritual lives. Here are three examples:
God: no longer the fearful judge but rather the unconditional lover.
Forgiveness of Sin: No longer do we beg for forgiveness. We now understand that forgiveness is always there and waiting for us to receive it from a god who loves us unconditionally. Rather, we pray for the humility to accept the forgiveness already offered. forgiveness is not earned nor merited but accepted.
Church Authority: We have taken full control and responsibility for our spiritual development and moral decision-making. The Church and Scriptures are two of our principal guides, but our informed conscience is the primary arbiter for our moral decisions. Vatican II and Thomas Acquinas (seven centuries ago) taught this.
The support of a Daily Mass at the Carmelite Convent and the meditation that goes with it.
Regular spiritual readings: Recently Saint Therese of Lisieux taught me the insignificance of the length of my life when she wrote that my life simply existed between the two great eternities - the eternity of the past and the eternity of the future.
My mother’s appearance in a dream after death: I was in Canada when she died in Australia. Dr. Joan McLeod of the Calgary Education Office, an associate of mine, knew nothing of my mother nor of her death, her appearance, the bedroom, those around her bedside, the view of the sea from the window. Mum died peacefully, we all retired to the corridor, Joan returned to the room. Mum was sitting up and assured Joan that she was “at peace and quiet all right”. Joan, in the dream, called for me, I went in and found Mum sleeping peacefully in death. She knew I wouldn’t be at her death bed with my five brothers as I had just visited her one month before during her serious illness. God allowed her to tell me that she had arrived and was enjoying the peace and joy of heaven. My belief in immediate resurrection after death was confirmed.
Special blessings in my life: My good parents and family, a deeply spiritual wife Anne, my twenty-five years as a Christian Brother influenced by these very dedicated men, the influence of great relatives and friends such as Father Peter Kennedy.
Our Christian Belief in the Resurrection: as described in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:
“In Heaven we shall receive the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Father Peter Kennedy has asked me to share with you this evening my thoughts on death and dying. To string my thoughts together in the early part of the talk I have freely used material from the book, “Remember Your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death” by Donagh O’Shea O.P. (Twenty-Third Publications, 1997).
(If this talk is printed and distributed I would like this acknowledgment to be included)
R G Whiteman