Lent, Mortality, and Hope
Well we have now entered the season called Lent in the Christian community–40 days of serious reflection about our flaws, our failings, our lives and where they are headed, what purposes drive us and to what end? Time to take stock, time to listen and to really examine our life story to this point and see if it could stand a bit of re-writing in the time that we have left. Well we have now entered the season called Lent in the Christian community–40 days of serious reflection about our flaws, our failings, our lives and where they are headed, what purposes drive us and to what end? Time to take stock, time to listen and to really examine our life story to this point and see if it could stand a bit of re-writing in the time that we have left.
Serious thinking and serious listening. And perhaps, for those of us who live by the written word, and who peer into books for gleanings of grace, our reading may take on a more serious bent. For me right now, I am deep into Richard Lischer’s Stations of the Heart–a memoir he wrote recalling the last three months of his 33-year-old son’s life.
It is a sad book–one that I had to turn aside from for a while because it brought back to me all the deaths in my own life that have occurred in recent years–my dad’s, my mom’s, Leon’s, and then Bud’s. A lot of deaths in my life over the last fifteen years, but the last three following in fairly quick succession. So even though Lischer’s son Adam died of metastatic melanoma (as my dad did in 2001), in the end, death comes to all with the cessation of the last breath. In this regard, all deaths are, in the end, alike.
And so I set aside the book for a while. But then I took it up again as we entered Lent, wanting to see it through to the end with the hope that in the aftermath of the tragic and early death of Adam, Lischer–himself an ordained clergy and member of the theology faculty at Duke Divinity School–could strike a note of hope in death’s aftermath.
In the middle of the night that Adam died, Lischer and his wife, Tracy, had an epiphany–one I have had on rare occasion. He says:
We saw a vast company of spirits joined in a common dance, but it was not horrible or frightening, only natural. Every person in that enormous hospital, everyone at the malls and on TV, all our friends. . .our young Jenny and Sarah (daughter-in-law and daughter). . .all of them will die. Sitting on top of the covers at one in the morning, we suspended the hierarchical view of the generations and saw ourselves and those we love as a vast field of lights, every single one of which must go out. . .We live only in the flicker created by their random dying. What we had known of death intellectually, we now possessed as a triumphant certainty. In the wee hours of July 17-18 it was the only absolute truth available to us. (Stations of the Heart, pp. 206-207)
And of course, this is the absolute truth about our own lives though we spend great energy suppressing that knowledge and lots of money on personal trainers and health foods and fad diets and tread mills in order to deny that fact.
And so where is the hope in all of this? Lischer struggles desperately after Adam dies to swim up to the surface of his grief. At the end of Adam’s funeral (he was a devout Roman Catholic as was his pregnant wife, Jenny), the priest assures the mourners that they have not lost Adam nor is he consigned to “the faulty memory of human history. We join together in our hope that God is ever faithful to God’s promises. God always promises life. Adam now lives with God, never to die again. May he rest in peace.”
Later on, this same priest assured Lischer–as he fought to regain a sense of Adam’s presence in his own life as his memory fades–that “Adam was now more like God than like us. The dead are completed beings who are no longer subject to the limitations of time and space and are therefore available to us across the entire surface of our lives.” The priest suggests that Lischer stop trying to clasp Adam’s felt presence, but let Adam come to him as he will over time. And in fact there was an occasion sometime after that when Lischer himself was hospitalized for emergency surgery. And he did have an experience of Adam coming to him–not in a dream but in another epiphany.
That is what Lischer wrote. I don’t know about any of that, but his report does give hope. As do some of the poems that I have also turned to during this Lenten wilderness journey. My dear friend, Isobel de Gruchy–a very talented poet–has fed my spirit from time to time. One of her poems titled “What is Hope” says
Is hope just really optimism,
just wishing on a star?
Signing the cross across your bosom,
ignoring the facts that are
against you, or is it just
walking with God in simple trust?
(Walking On, 2013, p. 39, quoted with permission)
May your Lenten journey be deep, filled with hope and trust, and open to Transcendent epiphany in the process.