LIFE: Death, by Thomas Merton


From Love and Living

Death is the end of life.

This statement seems at first sight quite obvious.  It appears to say everything essential about death.  Yet merely to declare that when a living being ceases to live, it “dies,” is perhaps to say nothing of any importance at all.  If we reflect on the implications of “life” and “death” and the “end of life,” we become uneasily aware that to make purely casual statements about these realities – a statement which turns out to say “nothing of importance” – is a frivolous abuse of speech.  This reveals an incapacity to face the reality of life, death, and the end of life.  Death is treated with frivolity because life itself is treated with frivolity.

Life comes into being without any invitation of our own: we suddenly find ourselves in it.  And as soon as we recognize ourselves as alive we become aware that we tend toward inevitable death.  If we do not gain some adequate understanding of our life and our death, during the life-span that is ours, our life will become nothing but a querulous refusal, a series of complaints that it must end in death.  Then the fear of death becomes so powerful that it results in a flat refusal of life.  Life itself becomes a negation, a neurosis, a frivolity.

When life and death lose their proper meaning, that is to say, when they are no longer experienced as what they really are, then the awful and empty power of death creeps into everything and sickens everything.  So when death becomes most trivial, it also becomes most pervasive.  It is only “the end of life.”  So all life ends.  All is death.  Why live?

To take death seriously is not, by any means, to seek to avoid it always and at all costs, but to see that it must come as part of a development, as part of a living continuity that has an inner meaning of its own.  Death contributes something decisive to the meaning of life.  Therefore, death does not simply “intervene” or “supervene” and spring upon life as upon its prey, in order to devour it.  To hypostatize death, to give it an objective and autonomous reality of its own, a “power” of its own, and set it over against life, makes death not serious but trivial.  And yet this way of thinking does, in fact, give death a kind of power over life, at least in our own minds.  Thus, we live as if death were always ready to exercise this inescapable power over us.  We take to living mouse lives that are always waiting for the cat, death.   Yet there is no cat, and we are not mice.  If we do, in fact, “die,” it is not because a monster has caught up with us and pounced on us at last.  If we become obsessed with the idea of death hiding and waiting for us in ambush, we are not making death more real but life less real.  Our life is divided against itself.  Death then operates in the midst of life, not the end of life, but rather, as the fear of life.  Death is life afraid to love and trust itself because it is obsessed with its own contingency and its own ending.

That we inevitably take this wrong attitude toward life and death (we cannot help it) is, according to the Bible, the sign and the effect of sin.  Sin and death go together, for when our attitude toward life becomes infected with sin (and every man’s attitude is so infected), then life is seen as something that must inevitably be ambushed by death.  But when is life seen in such a light?  This is the important question, for on this depends our notion of the end of life.  And when we pause to reconsider this fact, we see that the word, “end,” is ambiguous.  This ambiguity is close to the heart of that ignorance of life (and consequent fear of death) which is, in its turn, such an important element in what we call “sin.”

The “end”: that is to say, the termination, abrupt and arbitrary conclusion.  The Greeks thought of the thread of life being cut off by the scissors of the Fates.  Death is, then, the destruction of something that need not end.  The termination of the interminable.  This brings us to a better idea of the sinful concept of life: the word “interminable” is quite suggestive.  Though there is no real reason why life should simply go on and on and on, we feel that this interminability is nevertheless due to life.  We find that life is, therefore, an incomprehensible datum, something thrust upon us, something that wants to continue, something that even though meaningless declares itself, in its inmost strivings and aspirations, to be “interminable.”  This experience of life which we are now characterizing as that which is born of sin, is therefore completely ambiguous and, in fact, very distressing.  Life is something meaningless that seeks to perpetuate itself without reason and to be simply and arbitrarily interminable.  Over against this is death, which is life’s enemy, and seeks, always with ultimate success, to terminate it.  Two arbitrary forces meet in this unreasonable conflict and death always wins.  Something which for no reason wants to be interminable is, in fact, terminated.  An essentially meaningless life-drive demands to continue in spite of everything, and we choose to adjust our lives to this demand.  But the situation itself seems fatally unjust.  Therefore, we tend, as sinners, to meet it equivocally.  We know that death cannot be turned aside by deceit, yet nevertheless we try to live lives that will at least outwit death as long as possible.  The sinful life is one which for no reason, except that we seek to outwit death, becomes a hectic and desperate drive to assert life’s own interminability.  This compounds all the inner ambiguities of life and death.  For one thing, in seeking to convince themselves of their own power to survive, men seek to destroy others who are weaker than themselves.  In destroying others, the victors strive to feel themselves interminable, since in the presence of another’s suffering and death they themselves go on more lustily than before.  They go home and celebrate their new lease on life – which has, however, come from the experience and spectacle of death.  In the society of men who are exclusively intent on their own pleasure and survival, even though it has no meaning, just because they are convinced that their life ought to be interminable, death begins to play a very important part.  Death is called upon to nourish and to stimulate the “sense of life.”

This immediately begets another and far worse ambiguity.  A “sense of life” that is habitually fed on death is corrupt and pathological.  It is not life at all.  In seeking to escape death, man becomes fatally attracted by the death he seeks to escape.  His obsession with avoiding death becomes a fascinated and hypnotized flirtation with death.  Thus, death in fact comes to be the “end” of life, not in the sense of its termination only, but more especially as its goal.  

Psychoanalysis has taught us something about the death wish that pervades the modern world.  We discover our affluent society to be profoundly addicted to the love of death, and most of all when it seems to be carried away by the celebration of life.  Erich Fromm has pointed out how obsession with power and wealth inevitably means obsession with death.  The death-oriented mind not only directs its energies to obviously destructive uses of power (such as nuclear stockpiling) but even its apparently productive work is, in fact, a work of death, a work centered on reducing life to “dead things” and depersonalizing men, reducing them to objects, to commodities for use.  The love of money is, in fact, the love of a “dead” product (which is nevertheless endowed with magic life), and we know how psychoanalysis explains this.  The anal character is a death-loving character, and he expresses his love of death not only in avarice, in the accumulation of power, but also in legalism (the deadening of life and impulse by the hand of law), technologism (the substitution of mechanical order for the fertile unpredictability of life), as well as by the direct cult of violence for its own sake.

Thus, we see that in a death-oriented society, even though it may seem very dynamic and powerful, death becomes the end of life in the sense of its goal, and this is made at least symbolically evident by the fact that money, machines, bombs, etc., are all regarded as a more important than living people.  In such a society, though much may officially be said about human values, whenever there is, in fact, a choice between the living and the dead, between men and money, or men and power, or men and bombs, then the choice will always be for death, for death is the end or the goal of life.

Nevertheless, this idea of death as goal, fruit, or fulfillment is not completely false or misleading, once the context of sin is understood and accepted.  But now death as “end” must be seen in a totally different light – the light not of sin and selfishness but of love and grace.

All created life is limited.  Living beings come into existence and begin at once to develop, for growth is one of the essential functions of life.  In the beginning of its growth, the living being must continually receive from others.  The human infant, totally helpless and dependent on its parents, shows this clearly enough.  In this state of vulnerability and limitation, the human heart already faces the problem of death, and it is here that infantile man, whose very nature it is to regard himself as interminable, as one for whom others have to live and sacrifice themselves, forms his cunning idea of death.  But man’s ideas must grow as he grows.  The infantile concept of survival at any cost is a kind of absolute.  It must be outgrown.  As man grows into other stages of human development, he realizes that there are ways in which life affirms itself by consenting to end.  For example, the youth begins to discover that by bringing to an end some egoistic satisfaction, in order to do something for another, he can discover a deeper level of reality and of life.  The mature man realizes that his life affirms itself most, not in acquiring things for himself, but in giving his time, his efforts, his strength, his intelligence, and his love to others.  Here a different kind of dialectic of life and death begins to appear.  The living drive, the vital satisfaction, by “ending” its trend to self-satisfaction and redirecting itself to and for others, transcends itself.  It “dies” insofar as the ego is concerned, for the self is deprived of immediate satisfactions which it could once claim without being contested.  Now it renounces these things, in order to give to others.  Hence, life “dies” to itself in order to give itself away, and thus affirms itself more maturely, more fruitfully, and more completely.  We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others.  This concept of “dying” is, in fact, altogether different from the death-loving attitude we have sketched above, for, in point of fact, this is not death-loving or death-centered at all.  The “dying” to self in order to give to others is nothing more or less than a higher and more special affirmation of life.  Such dying is the fruit of life, the evidence of mature and productive living.  It is, in fact, the end or the goal of life.

But since contingent lives must end – they are not interminable and there is nothing whatever in their constitution that justifies us in thinking that they are – it is important that the end of life itself should finally set the seal upon the giving and the sacrifice which has marked mature and productive living.  Thus, man physically and mentally declines, having given everything that he had to life, to other men, to his love, to his family, and to his world.  He is spent or exhausted, not in the sense that he is merely burned out and gutted by the accumulation of money and power, but because he has given himself totally in love.  There is nothing left now for him to give.  It is now that in a final act he surrenders his life itself.  This is “the end of life,” not in the sense of a termination, but in the sense of a culminating gift, the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance: the surrender of his being into the hands of God, who made it, and the acceptance of the death which in its details and circumstances is perhaps very significantly in continuity with all the acts and incidents of life – its good and its bad, its sins and its love, its conquests and its defeats.  Man’s last gift of himself in death is, then, the acceptance of what he has been and resignation of all final judgment as to the meaning of his life, its worth, its point, its ultimate destiny.  It is the final seal his freedom sets upon the love and the trust with which it has striven to live.

For a Christian, this sublimation of death by freedom and love can only be the result of a free gift of God in which our personal death is united with the mystery of Christ’s death on the cross.  The death of Christ is not simply the juridical payment of an incomprehensible ransom which somehow transformed the sinful death of man into a liberating and victorious death, a supreme act of faith and love, because it also transforms the death of man into an act of glad acceptance and of love which transcends death and carries him over into eternal life with the Risen Christ.

It is, of course, understood that, for Christian theology, death “in Christ” is not merely a matter of external forms but of interior grace, and this grace can be and is given to every man, Christian or not, whose death is, in fact, the last free culminating gift in a fruitful life oriented to ultimate truth in God (whether known or unknown, but at least implicitly loved and sought).

Without the cross of Christ, his love, freedom, and grace, death grinds down upon the last despairing spark of life and triumphs over it, because the spark, still clinging to its own illusion of interminability, refuses to give itself back to that from which it came.  Hence, various religious illustrations of this defeat: for Hinduism and Buddhism, the man who clings to interminability must in fact go on being born over and over again, since that is what he does in fact want.  In the Christian tradition, this “interminable” loveless and meaningless existence is called hell.  (We must, of course, remember that the graphic descriptions of hell’s torments are more or less literary and are not expected to be taken literally just as they stand.  Sartre’s idea of hell in No Exit is, in fact, much closer to Christian theology than are the lurid pictures of devils with pitchforks pitching sinners into the hottest flame.)

The life of Heaven, eternal life in Christ, is not simply a life without end.  It is not interminable joy – even joy, if interminable, would become dreadful.  The suggestive word “interminable” contains a hint that something that would be better terminated cannot, in fact, be put to an end.  It never ceases!  It goes on forever.  Who would want a joy that he could never get rid of?  Eternal life, on the other hand, has nothing in it which would be better if it were ended.  The very concept of an end is no longer relevant, for the goal is attained.  There is, then, no more goal, there is no end.  All is present and all is actual.  All is pure reality, the total compact fulfillment of man in love and in vision, not measured out in infinitely extended time, but grounded in the depths of the personal life of God and the inner dynamic of love: from the abyss of the Father, in the light of the Son, through the love of the Holy Spirit.

Death is the point at which life, by freely and totally giving itself, enters into this ground and this infinite act of love.  Death is the point at which life can, if we so choose, become perfectly real, not because it “demands to be interminable,” but because it can receive the gift of pure actuality in the love of God, in the Trinitarian life, the circumincession of Persons.  Death is, then the point at which life can attain its pure fulfillment.  Death brings life to its goal.  But the goal is not death – the goal is perfect life.


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