We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in their sins!
Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.
We praise and bless You, Lord,
and give You thanks, and serve You in all humility.
(from Canticle of the Sun, by St. Francis of Assisi)
I think about Death, because I think deeply (as deeply as I can) about Life. It is in honor of Life, in a very real way, that I pay homage to Death by wondering, thinking, studying, talking about and now writing about Death. Sister Death, St. Francis called it, in perhaps the most comfortable evocation of its nearness and familiarity. And Sister Death I will often call it as well, with a nod of gratitude toward Francis and an opening of the door to my- our- oft neglected (or shunned) sibling.
In writing about Sister Death, I am not unaware that some will leave this blog, perhaps never to return.
It is easy in a culture which is afraid of Death- and that’s what we are, largely- to regard talk about it as a talisman or as a conduit. “I don’t want to think about it,” he/she/we says because thinking about means facing its inevitabilities, its finalities, and all of its inherent Mystery, if only for a few moments. The trouble is, like a Sister, once Death has been acknowledged, it cannot be unacknowledged. Poking at the dead fly on the windowsill as a toddler, is the first of a lifetime of questions about the Sister’s nature, followed by greater questions about her immanence, and then even greater wonderings about her permanence.
Death is not a crazy Sister, though, that we can keep locked in the basement no matter how much we may want to! It’s appearance, more frequent in some locales and personal decades than others, is a relentless reminder that we do not live in a static universe. We are always in the midst of change, in the throes of Creation, and caught in the chaos of many dimensions . The deaths of solar systems play out over light years while the deaths of mayflies begin and end in a single day, making the evidence of our existential similarities to either, difficult to observe. Culturally, we can ignore the Sun’s cataclysmic metamorphosis into a cold, ashen meteor and laugh nervously at the mayfly’s short and fragile grasp of life. And we can institutionally further close our eyes and minds to Death’s omnipresence by grasping at the testimonial straws offered by hustlers on the sanctuary circuit: “I died on the operating table and saw the third heaven!.” (more- much more- about that religious vocation in a later article.)
In short, I want to to dance with Death. But I want to do it here, in digital space- not at the edge of a canyon or in high stakes game of Russian Roulette! By exploring here, I am looking down in the dark basement myself, where we know our Sister stirs. We have relegated her there, most of the time, and I think it has been to our detriment. We’ve missed her songs; we’re missing her symphony. No matter how darkly we have been taught to hang the curtains around Death and regardless of how sonorous the basso-profundo chords are being played as we allow Death to stand in the Light of our Inquiry, we must know Death better. We must. In honesty, I tell you that I feel the desire already to retreat, to chicken-shit shut this door and go play somewhere else. But I think- I suspect and I am almost sure- that we are missing a great deal about Life by treating Death in this way. I think we must put our hand out and hold Sister’s hand in ours as we look her in the face and see the reflection of ourselves in her eyes. And then, because she will embrace us in her everlasting love one day, perhaps we can come to feel comfortable enough to allow her to sit closer, talk more often, and even- from time to time- put our arm around her shoulders and feel her heart beat with our own.
Each day, I will be building my thoughts and also deconstructing some of them, with the help of some great writers and thinkers who have challenged me. There are others reasons I write about this subject, too, and I will be sharing those as well.
If I die before I wake.. (you know the rest..)
2 thoughts on “Sister Death”
Odd that you should write about this. I just picked up Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking this weekend. It’s her autobiographical account of grieving her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness. Her husband died suddenly during dinner of a massive coronary while their daughter lay in the hospital in a coma that began with the flu.
The details of her remembering and coming to terms with death are vivid and insightful. Contrary to what you would expect the book is not dark and morbid. It teaches about what it is to be human and live.
I too think about death a lot, perhaps more than most, but I think about it differently. I keep remembering the Tao, “the man who is right with Tao is not afraid to die because he knows he will.”
i would love to sit across from you and explore this with you…I am amazed that you are writing this passage. right now I am pondering just thos very thing. My husband lost his job & I have been using the pain and fear of it to inquire more about life & see it for what it really is. I am reading “Tipping Point” a book about how Epidemics are created…it is also helping me explore more deeply…then I went to the Veterinarian to get some vitamins for my kitties (so they will live longer :-)) & watched a show about Meerkats in Africa…I cried as the narrator explained that one of the females had been thrown out of the clan…she was sitting on the edge of the colony, knowing she would not be accepted back..she had nowhere to go…she was vulnerable & the narrator explained what a dangerous position she was in being on her own…I cried my eyes out, hoped the camera man took her home with him :-)..Then I went home to research Meerkats…in my research i found that in order to keep disease down and to protect the species (they need a few to leave & start new colonies in case their colony is devistated by disease or preditors or environmental change), females are often kicked out…they roam looking for males to mate with and to start a new colony..I am sure most do not survive…But for the Greater Good this must happen..I get it! It is sad and also wonderful! We humans have lost this understanding & this connection with ourselves, our communities..I happen to be one of those nutty people by the way that believes everthing is equal..all species, all lifeforms are equal & part of the whole…interdependent…what we do to the earth, we do to ourselvses..it does not serve us to act as if we are above all other life forms & to believe we are not a part of nature…
anyway…your writitng is amazingly pertinant to the inquiry i am in right now!