Friday, August 3, 2012

Sister Death

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death…

I’m not a fan of Death.  I remember the death of my brother, when he was 24 and I was 19, and I feel very little love for her.  She tore a wound into my family and me, and the wound still aches in cold weather.  The scriptures themselves name her as an enemy, The Last Enemy in fact, and one day she will be destroyed.  She entered our world when our failure and sin unlocked the gates so long ago in the Garden of Delight, and she crashes in again and again, those same gates swinging wide, and takes from us our closest friends, in suffering, in disease, even, as with my brother, in fleeting mistakes.  We’re left reeling in the vacant wake of her taking, and we wait our turn.  We try to distract ourselves like restless patients in a waiting room, but she comes for us nonetheless.

How, then, am I to have peace with such an unrelenting foe?  How can Brother Francis name her as a Sister through whom he praises the Almighty?  

From that first night I spent in Italy, Death was all around me, and she would stay with me throughout my pilgrimage.  

I wandered past the basilica around the corner from my hostel on that first evening in Rome.  There were people in fine attire gathering at the doors, filing in for some sort of special event.  I asked the security guard what was happening.  

“A concert tonight,” he said.

“How much are tickets?” I asked.

“It is free,” he said, “Come in, come in.”

I shuffled in and found a seat near the back, feeling a little self-conscious about my tourist shorts and the plastic bag I was carrying (Raman noodles and fruit were on the menu for some fine Italian dining this evening).  The orchestra tuned their instruments and the choir members took their places as I perused the program.

 Ein Deutsches Requiem Op 45, by Johannes Brahms

I read the words of the movements as the choir filled the basilica with a hundred voices:

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.  The grass withereth, and the flowers thereof falleth away….

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.

There she was, seated beside me, my new companion on my journey.  That night, in the music of this lilting, rolling requiem, Sister Death and I began a silent conversation.

I remember when I first became aware of the reality of death.  A little boy from our church had drowned, and we attended his funeral.  I remember viewing the coffin.  Tucked into the coffin with him was his stuffed Sesame Street Ernie doll.  He seemed to be tucked in for bedtime, but I knew he wasn’t sleeping.  He was dead.  I didn’t know the boy, but I sat in my pew and cried.  I knew that this was not what was meant to be.  This Death was very bad.

I remember the night my brother died.  It was an ordinary Thursday night.  The doorbell rang, and my parents went downstairs to answer it.  I stood at the top of the stairs to listen for who it was.  I don’t remember hearing what the police officer said, I just remember my mother crying out.  Everything became a dream.  There was a mirror in the hall way, and I remember looking into it and speaking to myself.  “Andre’s dead.  My brother is dead.”  I ran into the back bedroom and began to cry out to God.  “Wake me up!  Please wake me up!  Please wake me up!”

But I’m still here, and he’s still gone, and sometimes it feels like I’m still dreaming.  Sometimes I find myself still pleading.

All of this came to mind as the choir sang, as the soloists lamented the frailty of life and the certainty of death.  The requiem played on, rising and falling and rising again, building and building until the last movement.  These words rang out among the stone pillars and the people:

For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…

I still hated her, but it was good that we were talking.

Three days later, I was in a crypt, surrounded on every side by the bones of the dead.  It was a good place to continue the conversation.  

Almost four hundred years ago, a group of Capuchin friars moved their brotherhood from France to the friary of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rome.  With them, they brought the remains of their dead, almost 300 cart loads of bones.  With limited space, the friars found a creative solution both to honour the dead and to remind themselves of their mortality.  From death, they would make something beautiful.  In this crypt, femurs became crosses, fingers became chandeliers, and shoulder blades became the wings of angels.

I walked silently down the tiny hallway, stopping at each nave along the way.  Intricate patterns of vertebrae adorned the walls. Here and there, skeletal friars in familiar brown robes bowed in eternal prayer.  A placard in the sixth room of the crypt caught my eye. 

What you are now, we used to be.  What we are now you will be.

I should have been shocked, even horrified, to be surrounded by death in this way.  Strangely, I was not.  Instead I looked in silence at the bones of the dead, and I felt great peace.  Long had I hated Sister Death.  Here I stood in her home, in her very embrace, and I was reminded of her place in the mysterious order of God.  This crypt was not a macabre celebration of death, and to see it as such would be to miss the point completely.  This crypt was a testament to the resurrection, a reminder that death does not have the final word in the conversation.  For the first time, I began to feel at peace with this enemy, Sister Death.  She and I were coming to an understanding.

It was night, on the third of October, 1226.  Francis lay naked on the cold earth, his frail body racked with pain, his blind eyes staring into eternity.  A few of his closest friends gathered around him.  He knew his time to die was drawing close, and he sang his canticle of praise to God.  But before he finished, he faltered.

“Wait,” he whispered. “It is not complete.  It needs another verse.  Will you write it for me, Brother Leo?”

Brother Leo held his hand.  “Of course, Father.”  Leo found parchment and pen, and Francis began to sing as faithful Leo took down his words:

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

As he sang these words, he felt the arms of Sister Death around him.  But he smiled, and kissed her, and completed her embrace with his own.  From the stinging wrath of his own earthly father, to the threats of the brigand Brother Wolf, to the last adversary of Life itself, he remembered the simple words of Jesus:  “Love your enemy.” 

In this, he had peace.  And in this, I find my own.  To love my enemy is to take away her power over me.  Woe to those who kick and scream and run from her.  Woe to those who live as though they would not die.  Woe to those who are willfully ignorant of their end, who hoard life to themselves and think nothing of giving it to others.  She will find you.  She will take you no matter how you protest and ignore her.  She will embrace you.

But for those who love their enemy, who know their end and the measure of their days, who know their frailty and welcome the inevitable embrace of Sister Bodily Death, they will become her conqueror, and she will joyfully relinquish her power.  They will pass from the dream into the reality of Divine Love.  In dying we awaken.  In dying we are born to eternal life.

1 comment:

Sustar said...

This cannot receive a comment from me. I am speechless in silent glory.