“Lord, teach me how short my life will be, tell me how little time I have left.” When did you last pray that prayer? “God, remind me I’m going to die.” We don’t pray that way because we don’t want to be reminded, do we? I mean, why would anyone spend time contemplating death?
Well, I raise the subject not because I am growing old. I talk about death because it is healthy. Socrates says it. The Psalmist says it. Jesus says it. The well known psychologist, Eric Erikson, said it. “Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” In his novel, Ravelstein, Saul Bellow summarizes in a simple image the importance of death in making us wise. “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”
I talk about death because it is important and life-giving to contemplate reality once in a while, especially the reality that life is circumscribed. It does not go on forever. It begins in birth and ends in the grave for every one of us. “I know thou hast made my days mere inches long. Man, though he stands upright, is but a puff of wind.” Fifty years from now most of us will have vanished like the winds of Autumn.
I speak of the fleeting character of life because this is a good time of year to do it, the time of year when we feel it most, the time of year when we might just face it again. Don’t you find these days wistful, melancholy, strange in their almost unbearable weight of beauty, yet so tinged in their passing with the threat of what is to come.
Time is experienced differently in different seasons. February through March around here feel like an eternity. And there are spring and summer days when time seems to loaf along, deliciously slow. But Autumn? I don’t know how it is with you, but for me the coloring days slip speedily by. Scarcely are the leaves red and gold but they shiver and fall, leaving stark skeletons against the sky. A puff of wind around here and it is all over.
And the seasons of the year but mirror the seasons of life. Bill Cosby comments on how the young have forever, but when you hit the Autumn of life, life seems to pick up speed. “I recently turned fifty,” he wrote some time ago, “which is young for a tree, mid-life for an elephant, and ancient for a quarter-miler, whose son now says, “Dad, I just can’t run the quarter with you anymore unless I bring along something to read.”
Don’t you sense it in your life? The children leave for school, and before you can turn around they are employed in some far off city, and before you turn around again, they are getting married, having children of their own. You turn to your husband or wife and say, “Where have the years all gone?”
And it is important that we face it and feel it, first of all, because God and dying are linked. “A haze on the far horizon, the infinite, tender sky, the ripe, rich tint of the cornfields, And the wild geese sailing high: And all over upland and lowland the charm of the goldenrod, Some of us call it Autumn and others call it God.”
Why? Because we get serious about God especially when we confront our mortality, our finitude, our limits, our creaturehood. Our death confronts us with the reality that in the ultimate sense, life is not our possession, a property to shape or dispose of as we please. Death faces us with the fact that we are creatures whose life depends finally upon factors and forces over which we have no control. For all our wits and wisdom, tests and technology we cannot guarantee tomorrow. So it presses hard upon us the ultimate question: is it all a meaningless losing struggle against the dark, or is it in the hands of Another, a Greater? This is why we rarely get and stay serious about God until we get and stay serious about our fragility and finalty.
Ben Campbell Johnson traces this truth in his own life. “The question of my future confronted me at age nine when I walked alone across the highway at my Uncle John’s near the very spot where my great-grandfather had been hit by an automobile and fatally injured. Suddenly death became very personal. As I walked across that road, the question impacted itself on me: What will happen to me when I die?
I could not deal with it. Though the weather was sultry, I shivered as the chill awareness of my own death paralyzed my mind. Often, after that marker day, the reality of my death confronted me. Because I did not then have a religious background, I had no notion of a loving God who would be with me even in death. My only way of coping with this disturbing reality was to put off thinking about it until I grew older; but try as I might, I could not escape the continuing awareness that I am dependent on another for my life and that one day life as I now know it will end.”
But it is fair to say that modern civilization is , in many respects, one grand effort to do just that, escape that awareness, deny and defeat death. An amazing part of our personal anxiety and effort, not to mention federal budget, is focused on our craving for a safe and secure existence at whatever cost. Just think of how much anxiety and effort we expend to thwart the ravages of nature and keep us safe beyond our security alarms. Just think how much of the national expenditure on health care is given to extraordinary measures in late years to fight off death for just a few more days.
I am not denying a certain legitimacy in all this, even the human and technological ingenuity of it all. But the insidious side of the frenzy and effort is the illusion it may breed in us that with another doctor and drug, a bigger government program, a better police force, we will finally be able to rest secure in ourselves, in our self-created autonomy. Like the man in Jesus’ parable who had enough grain in the barn and money in the bank so that he could take his ease, unaware of the heart attack that lurked in that very night. “You fool,” says his Maker.
I sense our lack of reality in the way in which we have made death disappear. People no longer die. They slip off to a hospital and then to nowhere. And when they do die in front of us on the ever-present tube, it is somehow antiseptic, sterilized of any real agony, any real humanity. And adolescence is almost by definition a denial of the reality of mortality. Take the growing incidence of AIDS and other venereal diseases among the high school and college age. Growing like wildfire and yet they have scarcely affected the life-style of the young. Many a mid-life crisis is a massive denial of mortality. Act your age? Indeed.
And as we no longer confront our mortality, face our finitude and creatureliness, deal with the brevity of our years, so do we less and less deal with God as a serious issue and choice in life, more serious than the stock market or the summer house, the children’s education or the coming retirement.
But the leaves are falling, my friends, and if we let them speak to us, we may once more make the move toward trust against despair. Underlying all the denial going on out there I sense a kind of low-grade depression and despair…that only an honesty about life can repair. When we recognize that we cannot secure our existence, when we learn to trust that, in life and in death, we are in the hands of a Greater One and thus get comfortable with our mortality, then life of depth and meaning becomes possible.
Toward the end of his long life, during which he had suffered much and thought intently, the great American philosopher, Josiah Royce, found no little help in a magazine article he had read years earlier. It was a tale of a circle of timid persons gathered around the one man who through much hardship had learned to be courageous. He is saying, “Don’t you see what ails your point of view? You want absolute security. And security – why, its just the one thing a human being can’t have, the thing that’s the damnation of him if he gets it. To demand it just disintegrates a man. The main thing is to take the road fearlessly, to have courage to live one’s life. Courage, that is the great word. Courage is security. There is no other kind. The courage of faith. You have a right to trust the future. Myself, I believe there is some One to trust it to.”
Upon entering a hospital room, I approach the bedside of a man who said he was feeling much better today, thank you. He jokingly added, “I think I’m going to live,” to which I responded, “Did you doubt that for a time?” His answer was, “No, not really, but I was pretty sick for a few days back there. Mostly I guess I was just scared.” Then he thought for a moment and said, “You know an experience like this does something to your faith. It’s one thing to pray, read about faith, and talk about trust in God, but its quite another thing to be reduced to the level where there’s only one choice – to trust him or not. I think I understand faith a little better now because I have been here.”
“Lord, I know thou hast made my days here mere inches long; but a puff of wind. And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope, my trust is in thee.” And trust in the face of our mortality generates new perspective against our confusion, a new sense of what is important in life and what is not. “Man is a puff of wind and the riches he piles up are no more than vapour, he doesn’t even know who will get to enjoy them.” One of his nurses was asked how much of his fortune Howard Hughes had left behind. She quietly responded, “All of it.”
Jesus is accosted by his disciples who want to solve the philosophical problem presented by a man born blind. “Who is responsible, he or his parents?” Jesus brushes their question and concern aside, says, “We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” The night of death, the night when we no longer have opportunity to do the needful, the important, the loving and helpful thing, visit the friend, make the long neglected call, say the word we long should have said.
When we in trust, face the fact that the leaves of another Autumn are falling and we do not have forever, it does begin to shed a whole new light on life, what matters and what is pretty peripheral. Our death and dependence upon God grants a whole knew perspective about what is worth doing, living for, and what we can let go.
Friends, you know as well as I do how we become immersed in the stream of time, oblivious to its precious and fleeting character, and everything becomes too important…yesterday’s slight by someone simply passing through our days, tomorrow’s petty problem that April will not remember, the shallow discontent that is earthbound and fleeting. We lose our grip on the only things that really count against the background of eternity. Friendship, beauty, care for the needs of those around, song. Can you believe that singing is more important than stock options? Which do you think will be more important on the other side? The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
David Horowitz is an author and social commentator that I have read with great reward. He has been a harsh critic of political correctness on the campuses and of other decadence in our society. I was surprised then, with the appearance of a wonderful little book he wrote recently on the brevity of life, called The End of Time. He has recently discovered that he suffers from a life-threatening illness, and finds that in spite of his agnosticism about the hereafter, he cannot give up on life, its precious dimensions and doings. He writes, “My children and grandchildren are filling up the spaces I have left. It is through them that life comes to me now. They pull me toward it… In my grandchildren I see the energies of my childhood and the horizon of expectation stretching endlessly in front of me. In their parents I watch myself gathering the next generation and hust-ling it
forward to futures unknown. These are my rings of time. Like the lost civilizations they tell me where I am going and where I have been. I feel my ancient-ness in them.
I know how I will leave. When my time comes, I will be engaged at full throttle, or the best I can muster. If I allow myself regrets, it is for the occasions I did not do what I should have, and for those when I failed to do what was right. It is for not being grateful enough. But I won’t feel cheated. Now or ever. I will not regret a moment that I lived to the full or did what was good. Nor will I regret the love I gave to my family and friends, or the kindnesses to strangers….But then it will be done, and it will be left to others to fill in the spaces.”
One of the writers who helped Horowitz make sense of what is happening to him was the seventeenth-century Catholic philosopher and scientist, Blaise Pascal. Citing Pascal’s famous observation that “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know, “ Horowitz concludes his journey by saying: “I do not have the faith of Pascal, but I know its feeling…I will be unafraid when death comes. I will feel my way toward the horizon in front of me, and my heart will take me home.”
Finally, there is this strange phenomenon. As we, in the face of our mortality, learn trust rather than despair, learn perspective over confusion, we also begin to know a strange kind of deep down joy. For what is joy? Joy is the rich, settled enjoyment of whatever comes, grounded in the conviction that God and purpose, love and song will always be there.
Doris Donnelly writes perceptively, “One of the first things I learned about joy was that I had confused it with excitement, pleasure, fun and happiness. It is not at all like these. These we can produce, and to some degree control, our fun and pleasure. But they are, in comparison to joy, surface qualities. Joy sinks far deeper into one’s being and dwells there much like the easy purring of a reliable car engine, aware of, but unperturbed by bad weather. Joy anchors itself deeply, establishes roots and endures in the worst circumstances alongside an unconquerable gladness about life that no barrier can confine. For joy arises out of the settled gift of trust in God and the gratitude that embraces whatever comes as somehow beautiful and good, full of richness and meaning.”
“Lord, help me know my end, the number of my days, teach me how short my life shall be. Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in thee.” .