This morning my older children and I attended the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl. We knew Ailish from my son’s disabled-sports league. She had some horrible breathing impairment; she could barely speak, but always smiled. I don’t know what happened, but her mother spoke of her getting sick last week, and they just couldn’t beat this one.
The priest gave a beautiful homily about making our wounds the source of our healing. Ailish was a beatiful example of that.
But I was struck too about how many times he spoke of her sixteen-year-old life as brief (my children are all younger, but it feels like they’ve been with me forever) and of the special circumstances of her disability. True enough. But I was struck by how we try to put death away from us.
Last week someone commented on this web site that she didn’t feel like the words “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death” are the Word of God for her. I understand the fear of death—we shouldn’t want to die. But the Word of God is clear on this one: life only comes through death.
I don’t know what to think of Leon Tolstoy, but I highly recommend his short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The story is about a man facing death when he isn’t ready for it. Two images stand out to me.
One is at his funeral. One man winks to another as if to say, “Ivan Ilyich has made a mess of
things—not like you and me.” I would never do such a foolish thing as dying. Ailish had some unique malady, but she was different from the rest of us.
The other is as he dies. “What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.” Maybe the path of life isn’t in the direction we think.
Death is all around us. When the bell tolls (as it did when Ailish’s body arrived at the church this morning), it tolls for all of us.
As one way to get a random sample of ordinary people, I think about my wedding party. One of my six children is severely disabled—but I’m the lucky one. Two of my six groomsmen had babies die at birth; a third had premature twins, one of whom died after a couple months; a fourth has had two babies die halfway through pregnancy, when they were almost viable; and the other two guys were just unable to have children. Depending how high you set your bar for tragedy, that’s six for six, or two thirds, or one half: half of these guys have held their dead babies in their arms.
Of my wife’s six bridesmaids, one had seven miscarriages, another had multiple very bloody miscarriages that required the horrible “dilation and curretage” procedure, a third had a bloody miscarriage that landed her in the hospital, a fourth’s husband had a genetic anomaly that gave them a 50/50 chance of their children dying before adulthood, a fifth was infertile and it ended in divorce (infertility is more horrible than you think), and the sixth had been a single teenage mother. Not so much death as my groomsmen, but an awful lot of tragedy.
Of our two altar boys one is too young to have faced much yet, the other has had lung cancer.
And of our two readers, one had a baby who, last I heard (we haven’t stayed in touch) was not very likely to live, and the other lost a baby brother when she was little, and grew up with her mother depressed.
For that matter, my grandmother grew up in a household like that, under the dark shadow of a baby who had died, and so did my mother-in-law. We try to sweep these things under the rug, but death is all around us.
And it is right in front of us. One of my grandfathers died a beautiful death at a ripe old age. The other one died while he still had teenagers in the house, after decades of horrible depression. My two grandmothers both lived too long: we like to think that death is no problem if you’re old, but both of them lived into pain and disability that they didn’t know how to face, and spent their last years wishing they could die.
Death is not unique to Ailish. It’s a fact of life. We all have to figure out how to find healing in our wounds. We all have to pass through the way of the cross.
The Byzantine Liturgy contains a line, “By death he trampled death.”
The Russian Orthodox author Alexander Schmemann says those words mean that Jesus shows death is not the end. If we flee from death, death is the ultimate horror, something we can never face. But if we embrace the Cross, we find out that death is not death after all. He is there, leading us through.
Another non-Catholic author I revere is the very strange nineteenth century Scottish Protestant preacher George MacDonald. His theology, I guess, was heretical, but he makes some pretty Catholic stuff out of the Protestant problems he was handed.
MacDonald wrote strange fairy stories for children. My favorite is At the Back of the North Wind. The image comes from a sort of silly riddle in Greek mythology. If the North Wind brings chill, what would it like to be on the other side, so that the North Wind is always blowing away from you instead of on you?
In the story, the North Wind is a beautiful fairy woman, who befriends a poor child in London. In the end, you find that this wonderful friend is Suffering and Death, whom the little boy has discovered in an entirely new way, as a friend and adventure. What if we saw suffering as a wind to ride, instead of to hide from? What if the train is going the other direction?
One of the Eucharistic prayers speaks of those who have died “in the hope of the resurrection.” This gets deep into the Eucharist itself, where death and the memory of death becomes a feast and the embrace of God.
Here’s the irony. Without the hope of the resurrection, non-Christians think the blessing of death is to be free from the body and from pain, to be put out of our misery. Fearing death, death is the only thing they long for. That is not a view that sees heaven and earth as full of God’s glory. It’s one that thinks the only good is to escape.
The hope of the resurrection means that we face death—and all the suffering, the little deaths, of our lives—not as the ultimate evil, not even as the end of our bodily life, but as a passage through. To die with only the hope that you’ll be free of the body—which, after all, is an essential part of your person, and of your relationship with God—is to enter into eternal death.
To die with the hope of the resurrection means not detachment, but love of life. “Her grip on a handburger had once been so strong that she had fallen through the back of a chair without dropping it,” as Flannery O’Connor says, in one of the greatest essays on this topic. It means being sad to die, but glad to keep living. It means losing our self-sufficiency and finding ourselves in the sufficiency of Christ.
That’s the only way forward.
Eternal light grant unto her, oh Lord, and to all of us.