death

About a month ago, my father gave me a copy of my own will to read over before we left for my great-aunt’s funeral.  Suffice it to say, I did a lot of thinking about death that weekend.

It was a lovely service, but then came the moment that I always dreaded.  I hate looking into the casket and seeing the waxy, lifeless body of the person I had once known.  Their features are fixed in place, caked with a garish sort of makeup, and you can tell that there is no spark there.  “It doesn’t look like her,” I whispered to my father.  “That’s because it isn’t,” he returned.

That’s why I hate looking in there.  I understand why it happens, as a final farewell and to give closure to the grieved.  But you can tell when you look that something has left.  Everything that made up their personality, their tiny quirks, opinions, and Great Loves has gone.  Their soul has left that flimsy, mortal shell and entered into eternity.

A storm was brewing on our way to the funeral, ominous in the distance.  It split the sky into dark and light geometrics on our right, fading from black to white on the left.  We were in Oklahoma, and it looked very honestly as though some of the clouds would touch down.

My family was worried.  My brother hates tornadoes.  I turned to him and asked him what the worst thing that could happen was.  “Uh, we all die a horrible death?” he replied.  I met his eyes.  “Is that all?”

Because for the believer, death does not hold the same dreadful power that it once did.  It’s a crossing over from one dimension to the next – the vehicle that takes us (in a Narnian vocabulary) to Aslan’s Country.  “Death opens a door,” says C.S. Lewis, “out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

We no longer fear death, because all it can threaten is a better life than the one we have known here.  Eternity with God lies on the other side, and it is magnificent.  As someone once pointed out to me, life on earth is as close to hell as the Christian will ever be.  And if life here is so beautiful even despite the decay and depravity of this world, can you imagine what heaven will be like?  This world is but a dim reflection of the next, and eternity is being in God’s presence forever.

Just as we need not fear the consequence of death, we can also have faith in its timing.  And that’s scary, too, because there’s so much we want to do here, so many people we’re connected to, and so much life we want to live.  But I have realized this: if God takes me, then He will be even more glorified in my death.  If I die tomorrow, it simply means that my time here is finished and that my work here is done.  As long as there is still breath in my lungs and blood running in my veins, I have a mission.  The only reason I am still alive right now is because God has not finished with me here.

This summer I was driving my friend back to her house, moaning as we hit our third red light in a row.  She answered, “Maybe God just wants us to spend more time together.”  I laughed.  “No, seriously,” she said.

I think I forget how much of my life God has planned out.  He is a God of big pictures, but He is also a God of precise details.  There are so many reasons why we could have hit those lights.  What if we would have gotten in an accident if I’d gone through – and died?

I wondered then with shock – how many times has God saved my life without me even knowing?  How many details, breaths, or decisions could have resulted in my death had they been even slightly different?

My mortality stares me in the face at times like these – at funerals, during car rides, at night when I stare up at the shelves above my bed.  But I can stare back, unafraid and unangered.  I do not despair at death because I know that there is life beyond its threshold.  And it hurts, and the grief is almost too much to handle, and we don’t understand why God has Death take our loved ones when He does.  All I can say is that He knows better than we do.

One of the reasons that I love The Book Thief so much is that its narrator, Death, is not depicted as evil, but as tired, sad, and haunted by humans.  Death is only the messenger, and he is an old friend.  He tips his hat in my direction and I nod in his, knowing that he does his job without spite.  He takes each soul and carries it gently at its perfectly ordained time. I watch him pass, and he acknowledges me, and I know that when the day arrives when he comes for me, my work here will be finished, and I will have nothing to fear from him.

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Read this: 

“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”

“Crossing the Bar”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

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the poet

The Diviner

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked with precise convulsions.
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green hazel its secret stations.

The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.

~Seamus Heaney

Excuse me while I try to form my feelings and hazy ideas into something that makes sense.

So the week before Spring Break (two weeks ago, I suppose), we were talking about Seamus Heaney in my Irish class.  I adore Heaney, and his poetry is beautiful and meaningful and very much a living thing.  Among all of the things that he has to say about life and Ireland and all the rest, something that struck me the most was his talk of the role of the poet.

Now by poet, I don’t mean strictly someone who writes poetry.  That sounds funny.  Let me explain.  I mean “the poet” in a broader, more ancient sense, one that encompasses more than rhyming or what you may normally associate with poetry.  I mean the poet as a sort of epic hero, who brings truth to his people, sometimes painfully.  This is the traditional Irish view of the poet, or senchaí: someone with great power that speaks the truth, even to the king, and that some fear.  He has the power of sight, and can use his words in satires against his enemies.

Or like the Oracles of Ancient Greece: someone who is chosen to be a mouthpiece of the divine, someone who is spoken through. Which brings me to the most important parallel to the poet, the true calling of such a person: the prophet, someone who carries the truth from God to the people.  Although this brings to mind the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke with God (how amazing!), you can still be a prophet today.  Anyone that God uses to speak through is a prophet, and God most certainly still speaks to people.

And around this time in my class, as we’re talking about poetry being made up of partly scop, or craft (being a good writer), and partly vates, or prophesy or vision, speaking the truth, I start freaking out.  Really freaking out, and zoning out of some of the discussion or being way too much into other parts of it.  I can feel myself getting excited all over again as I type this.  I’m looking at my paper right now, and I have little notes scrawled all over it, like:

my heartbeat shakes my whole body in trembling rhythm with the hand of God,

Or this overly-excited realization of the poet’s job:

poet as a go-between!
a translator of truth!
a diviner!
a mouthpiece!
a prophet! an oracle!
a tool in the hands
of He who holds all Truth
a liminal, ferried between
two worlds,
granted another sight by the
Everlasting

poet as messenger
of the eternal, birthright
of an oracle
why am I almost twitching?

a mortal body and an
eternal soul,
like all the amphibians of humankind.

and I am suddenly restless,
yearning, churning, swelling
with a feeling I don’t know
and a desire for something past
this mortal coil.
My heart is beating with desperate purpose.

So, I was freaking out.  And still am.  Because I couldn’t, and honestly can’t, imagine a greater purpose than being spoken through.  The lump in my throat tells me that I desperately want that, to have a purpose, to have this purpose, but I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.

We read another poem that day called “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” (click), where a bird makes a nest in St. Kevin’s hand and he is responsible for their lives and can’t move until they leave.  I talked to my professor about the role of the poet and such things after class on my way to study for my calc exam (that was easy to focus on after all of this).

I wrote down all that I could remember of what he said.  He looked at me and told me that the calling of the poet is not an easy one to accept.  He asked me to remember St. Kevin.  What did he do?  He went out to the wilderness and hid away from everyone else.  But God found him anyway.

You were made with a purpose, and you’re here for a reason.  I watched the movie Hugo a few days ago (which I heartily recommend), and was nearly moved to tears by certain parts of it.  There’s one part in there where Hugo and Isabelle are talking about purpose.  Hugo looks at people like machines and wonders if they too become “broken” when they lose their purpose.  It’s beautiful.  And then he says this:

“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.”

You are not an extra part.  I really identify with Isabelle.  I wonder what my purpose is, too.  But I know that I have one, because God has given me one.  We were each made for something.  And I trust that He will help me find that something.

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See this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcdEXHIuTxw  Seriously, watch this movie.