I think we got off on the wrong foot, believing that death came into the world because of sin. If there is something divinely providential about our lives, there must be something divinely providential about our deaths. In the language of the previous post, “The Universe in Your Soul,” the cosmos that begat life must have also begat death.
This insight, this revelation, came to me as clear as day while reading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations one morning. And it gave me great peace, and dare I say, bliss. I felt as I imagine C. S. Lewis’s wife did when she was “surprised by joy.”
Was it something Julian said? Probably, but not directly. The idea welled up in me as she described our yearning to see the face of God, though I don’t assume as she does that death provides that experience. Neither do I reject that hope. After all, if we can imagine an infinite multiverse, who knows what death may bring?
I believe that whatever death means, it is intended as providentially as our lives. It is part of the natural order of things or the divine order of things, however one chooses to view it.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” in death as in life. “In life and in death we belong to God.”
Because we resist death, and our deaths in particular, as part of life, we view death as a kind of failure rather than an accomplishment or completion. It is not only the medical profession that suffers this. Because long ago death was associated with sin, even those who don’t think much about sin may search obituaries for self-inflicted causes, even if it’s simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I wrote a sonnet to a friend in college that rather romantically compared our life cycle with that of alpine wildflowers, ending with the couplet:
Even then I wanted to be buried straight into the ground, recycled, as it were, into the earth, and into other forms of life.And then someday we’ll lose composeWhile out of us, another grows.
But recycling has other expressions.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Jesus said.
Having sold only two paintings in his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “Life is only a kind of sowing time; the harvest is not here.”
Echoing this, Henri Nouwen spoke of the “fruitfulness of our lives” that may only be realized after our brief lifespans.
In one of her letters of spiritual direction, Evelyn Underhill wrote, “No one, not even the greatest saint, is irreplaceable. It is a greater act of trust and love to give your work into fresh hands…”
Finally, it takes an artist like Van Gogh seeing death as if for the first time to observe:
It certainly is a strange phenomenon that all the artists, poets, musicians, painters, are unfortunate in material things… That brings up again the eternal question: is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side [of] death we see one hemisphere only?
Painters—to take them only—dead and buried, speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations through their work.
Is that all, or is there more besides? In a painter’s life death is not perhaps the hardest thing there is.
For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but to look at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this, that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train.
So it seems to me possible that cholera, gravel, phthisis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
My preference would be to go there on foot, but regardless of how I get there, I hope to trust the benevolent providence of God and the universe. They’ve been doing life and death much, much longer and better than I have.
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