LINK TO PDF VERSION (Good for saving or printing out)
Three weeks ago I witnessed a miracle. I’ve seen it before, but this time was especially poignant. I have sat at the bedside of the dying and read the prayers that usher them to the gates of Glory, and occasionally they decide that permission has been granted, and they pass behind the veil shortly afterwards.
This time, sitting with Lucy Lucero and her family, with John and Cecilia Bell present, I had read that powerful prayer that I can never get through dry-eyed, “Depart, o Christian soul, out of this world…” and I had pronounced the Easter blessing. I turned to speak with the family when someone said immediately, “She’s stopped breathing.” Indeed, she had. Her heart followed her breath shortly afterwards and she departed peacefully.
Those moments of passage are so fraught with holiness that they take my breath away. I was kindly given the honor to perform her graveside committal service. It dawned on me in preparation for that event that we all see two miracles in life, no matter what other miracles come our way, we are all born, and we all die, and in the final analysis, they are flip sides to the same wondrous miracle, merely seen from one side or the other of the great veil.
I shared in the birthing of our three boys. To help bring them out of the previous world in which they lived into the bright, loud, beautiful and sometimes cruel world will never leave me. They changed our lives—oh how they changed our lives! Now we look at what they have become and we marvel that they could have grown up from such squirmy, slimy, squinty-eyed helpless peanuts that they were into what they are now! Now two of them have children of their own. They, too, have witnessed this miracle; the line has come round full circle. A safe birth is a miracle.
When we sat with my father almost 4 years ago, I was struck by the liturgy of dying, the holy hardware of hospital beds, bedpans and special sheets and the litany of songs and tears that carried us as in a gentle boat of fog through those days. The memory of them still glows in my heart. I think it always will. A good death is a miracle.
As I said, I’ve come to see them as flip sides of the same miracle of the transition from one life to another, each time breaking out of a world that has ceased its usefulness, into something incredibly greater and more glorious. I wonder if it isn’t of the essence of all miracle. Somehow we come to experience a life that is fuller, larger, more whole and more glorious than we knew before. St. John’s gospel refers to Jesus’ works, not as miracles but as signs. They point to something; they point to the Kingdom of God breaking in on our lives. They point to that greater life.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus he needed this same kind of miracle. One wonders what brought him to Jesus by night. Oh, we know why it was at night. He didn’t want to be seen. Yet something drove him to come to Jesus—unanswered questions nagging at his soul, the friction between what he knew and what he experienced, the tension between the way things are and how they ought to be, in short, a world grown too small. The night was as dark inside as out.
Jesus isn’t coddling or kind. Like a midwife that pushes and shoves an unborn child around so that it can be born well, Jesus massages his soul in ways that shove him out of his comfort zone and into the birth canal. It will require the loss of what he has known—and in this is death. Life in the Spirit requires death to the rule of the ego. “The spirit blows where it wills…” this is what reborn life looks like from within the womb. This is what heaven looks like from a coffin.
We know that Jesus’ words eventually did their good work. In John 7 Nicodemus challenges the temple authorities on their grounds for arresting Jesus, and at Jesus’ burial Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of embalming spices, way more than necessary—a reflection of his regard for the man Jesus. In the Eastern Church he is venerated as a saint. He found the rebirth that so confused him at the beginning.
We prepare for this miracle. The moment itself always surprises us, and so it should, but unlike other miracles, this one’s imminence is always evident, so we buy baby furniture or we make arrangements with a funeral home. Implicitly we affirm our faith in doing so. We believe that the birth will bring a new life into our world, and we believe that a death will bring a soul into the realm of heaven. Preparations are as much for the rest of society as they are for the person involved. Blankets and onesies equip us to care for a newborn, funeral services help us adjust to a reordered community.
There are two ways in which preparations for death are a deeply loving thing to do.
We prepare ourselves. In this we show our love for God who creates us, and in facing the hard questions squarely, bravely and wisely we stretch our own minds and hearts around the reality of heaven. Those who make peace with death pass on peacefully. Those who do not torture themselves unnecessarily. Dying is a part of living, and “el buen morir,” a good death, is a blessing and a holy moment. To avoid it is to try to stay alive by denying it. Not only will this always fail us, but it is an implicit denial of the resurrection. We fall victim to what Jesus said, “He who saves his life will lose it, and he who loses it for my sake will find it.” Preparation for that great transition always requires the surrender of the rule of the ego, and learning to live in the Spirit.
We prepare our communities. Believe me, I have sat with families of those who left behind no preparation, and it can be a nightmare. Those who are mourning such a significant loss are in no shape to make the choices that need to be made. Their lives are in turmoil, unmoored as they are, afloat in a gentle boat of numbness. That is where they have to be, they will be, and they cannot not be. To say, “Oh, my kids will decide what to do,” is ultimately self-centered, short-sighted, and anything but loving. Those who say these kinds of things thrust their loved ones into the wilderness because they were unwilling to do so themselves. In the confidence of our faith we can sit down and make these decisions beforehand. It helps us face the facts and stop lying to ourselves, and it helps those who have to step in behind our departure to celebrate our lives in this realm with honor and dignity, and as a way of recalling the story that was our earthly lives.
This preparation must address several areas. We can prepare living wills and express our wishes beforehand, while we are able, and outside the pressure-cooker of the moment, about DNR’s and life-support. Burial arrangements can usually be pre-arranged and pre-paid. My parents wanted whatever could be useful from their bodies to be so used, and the rest to be cremated. We buried them on tribal lands in Ecuador by request of the tribe, a fitting tribute to their legacy. What fitting tribute would celebrate your legacy?
Funeral service arrangements are equally important. Of course, our Prayer Book has one of the best funeral services in the Church. Many things are set out already, and they are time-tested to do what is needed to begin to move us through grief to comfort and hope. However, there is always wiggle room, ways in which the service needs to be tailored to express your faith as lived out in the story of your life. My father’s favorite hymn was “How Great Thou Art,” and you know we sang it heartily at his service. My mother was very musical in every way and her celebration was full of song. Favorite scripture passages, flowers, special ceremonial elements all fit together to wrap your earthly life up and tie it up with a bow, and set it on the mantle of your loved ones’ lives as a legacy of memories that help make them who they are. You help the family tell your story in this way, and that is the kindest, wisest and most healing thing you can do.
After this service Griffon will be in the Parish Hall with forms. they will help you think through important questions on this topic, and if you will work with her you will leave explicit instructions for the Church regarding your own passing. By having braved the wilderness you will keep others from having to do so.
Preparing for death is not morbid. The Christian sees in death the pathway to the greater life. If we believe that Christ died, then our deaths are redeemable, and if we believe that Christ rose from the dead then heaven is real. If we believe both then we know that we get heavenly foretastes in this life, like a training ground in which we learn to live heaven’s life here. Moments when we sit with the dying become the miracle not only of their transformation but of ours.