From: Windows Into the Light
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ, your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
God of refuge and comfort: you are always graciously present with me, even in moments of despair and loneliness; show me the presence of your life in all that I say and do, that through times of trouble and challenge, I might find my cross in your hands, and my life in your life. Amen.
(The Son of Man is to suffer; take up your cross and follow me)
Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
How do we move from merely knowing the dust of life to embracing it daily? Most of us find such a task anxiety-producing, a moment of Paxil or Xanax endorsement. But some people know to the depths of their being that they’re dust. Unlike most of us, they somehow have a gift of life because they have seen death so very clearly. Instead of being afraid of death, instead of shutting the self off from its reality, these people see it as a natural part of the journey. Because of that fact, they have a meaningful life in almost every moment as they bask in the light of God’s newness as it unfolds each day.
A couple of summers ago, I met such a man. He was a wild man, with curly blond hair growing in wild abandon, falling down his back in twists and turns; he looked like a virtual Tristan from the pages of folklore and mythology. When you looked at him, you saw adventure, openness, honesty, and life. He looked like the cross between a laid-back surfer and an intense college philosophy professor. The contradiction was authentic and in it there was incredible beauty.
Michael was about my age, had practiced as a lawyer in the entertainment industry, had a preteen daughter, and loved his wife unreservedly. We shared so much in common, including our first name, and yet, were so very different. He was a carefree wanderer of sorts, and I a careful priest, very different on the surface yet fellow journeyers in the soul. In our chance meeting on a pilgrimage to Ireland, I met this man, much like a figure from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It was as if he just strolled up to me along the path; and in our journey together over a few days, we became brothers. Intense talks, good pubs, and great surroundings had made for an immediate family reunion between two long-lost Irish souls.
Michael was intensely spiritual. Everything about him yelled of another place, another being, another sacred spot just beyond reach. In talking with him, I got the feeling that he had seen more of life than I had. It wasn’t just his stories, full of angst commingled with joy and laughter. It wasn’t just his keen observation of other human beings. There was something deep within him that just spoke a true word. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I thought maybe it was growing up Catholic in all sorts of parochial schools. Maybe the nuns had been able to open his soul and pour lots in at an early age, liturgy and doctrine oozing out of his body involuntarily from time to time. Or maybe it was the love of his life, his wife of many years, that gave stability, grace, and mercy to a brokenness deep within only he knew.
But the more I talked with him, the more this priest saw, the more I discovered that it really wasn’t any of those things in isolation. Instead, it was all of them combined into his vocation – his true calling in life. You see, Michael was a rock climber. Someone, who for some insane reason, like to climb high above the earth, holding onto each jagged edge. He was a world-class climber, captured by professional photographers and television stations all over the world. But in Michael’s case, it wasn’t just a job; it was truly his calling, his vocation. For Michael wasn’t just an internationally known climber. He was a free soloist, one who climbed without ropes.
He called it climbing naked. And to see him scale a rock was so pure, so natural, that the description fit him rather well. He could read a rock instantly, setting off to climb as if going for an afternoon stroll. Many had doubted his claims over the years – they were so insanely pompous. But film crews had long erased doubts about Michael. He wasn’t pompous; he actually could climb like no other. I think he knew himself so completely, it was as if the climbing part of him was before the fall – back to that part of Adam and Eve that could climb and ascend in nakedness, unashamed of their bodies before God their creator.
After our chance meeting, I had emailed him a couple of times. And in the most unlikely of scenarios, this priest and that rock climber became friends. He sent pictures of climbs in Ireland, gorgeous images of Michael dangling from rocks in the Gap of Dunloe outside Killarney. He talked about life and what it meant to him. And he shared with me his excitement about climbing on the coast, something he was doing for a new documentary. I responded with my own climbing, a kind of interior questioning of the rocks before me, and in his wisdom, Michael just knew how to say the right thing, the line that would help me see the crag and stronghold just above where I was temporarily hanging out upon my own rocks. The naked climber was helping me, one ever afraid of heights, reach beyond my stuckness to a place of light and hope ever higher.
So when my phone rang and the caller ID read from Ireland, I thought it might be Michael calling to talk about his upcoming filming. We had discussed a couple of ideas for it and he had said he’d let me know how it went. Instead, it was my other Irish brother, Con, a climber in his own right who had introduced me to Michael. Con’s voice was still, quiet, and somber, as if he had captured the dust of the Skelligs in his very words. He told me Michael was dead. I immediately thought of a fall. My mind wandered into blame so quickly thinking, If he’d only used ropes, he’d still be here. And then Con’s words awakened me from my wanderings and I heard the horrible story of how Michael died. He was not climbing. He had finished the final climb of his month-long Irish journey, and was standing upon a shoreline rock at the base of Valentia Island when a rogue wave of epic proportions came and swept him out to sea. A line was cast and within minutes the Irish Coast Guard was there, as their station was just yards above where Michael had climbed that day. But my curly-blond-haired Irish brother, my newfound soul mate along the journey of life, was never seen again. The raging Irish Sea had claimed him forever.
The pain of his death was no doubt unbearable for his family. He left behind his beloved wife and daughter, and with them a whole host of admirers across the globe grieving his death. As I reflected upon my own grief, I realized many days later that Michael had lived more than I ever had dreamed possible. In his short life of just over forty years, he had accepted his dust, had accepted his death, and because of it, he had been able to live life fully. Considering his own death while dangling upon the rocks many a day had not brought depression and destruction to him. Instead, death and its inevitability had brought the possibility of life for Michael. He had accepted the dust of his life, had seen the possibility of his own true fall from grace, and knowing it fully he had returned to a place of creation few of us ever see. It was that place in the Garden, that place of incredible hope and beauty that had let the wild man climb naked, without anything tying him down, without anything covering him up. I realized that I could learn this secret from Michael, I could open this window to life, or I could just go back to my every busy, anxious life.
Many months after Michael’s death, I was making my way to an island in the Grenadines. My wife and I were heading out to a small island for a few days of true relaxation and rest. On the large ferry, I stood at the rail and watched as the hull pierced the ocean. It was early morning. Deep blue swells and waves were rolling in from the east. The sun was coming up over the water. And there, in the deep, dark ocean, the first hints of sunlight began to reflect upon the waves, the sea foam curling wildly upon itself, a messy palate of twists and turns. At once, I saw Michael, his curls cascading down upon his shoulders, his piercing eyes staring up from the ocean depths. And I knew he was all right, all of his dust now commingled with water, once again at home swimming naked in the place he had known from his mother’s womb.
I am no longer afraid of falling.
Few of us face our death, and hence our life, like Michael did. Because he was able to so fully accept the fact that he would die one day, Michael was able to live freely, uninhibited, taking each day as a gift form God. If we’re to find this same life, then accepting our own death is the key to true life. In this exercise, we stare directly into the face of death and then find ourselves freed to live the life God has given.
- One or more local newspapers.
- Paper or a journal.
- Alternatively, a computer for word processing.
This exercise consists of two parts. In the first, we reflect upon the lives of others, people we may or may not know. By considering what they left behind, we then move to our own life and consider how we want to be remembered.
Begin by preparing your area. This exercise is particularly contemplative, so the quieter the space you can ensure, the better. You might appreciate having a table or desk if that makes writing easier. Say a prayer, using those at the beginning of the chapter or select a word or phrase from the reading that might appeal to you. Repeat the prayer throughout this exercise.
Turn to the obituaries. Select several to read. Obituaries can vary from a simple notice of the death of someone, listing basic family information and services times, to elaborate narratives of every achievement and activity in a person’s life. Religious and cultural variations can also influence how they are written. As you read the obituaries, notice what they share in common and how they are different. Notice what kind of language is used in each, whether historical, religious, narrative, or otherwise. Try to figure out which obituaries were written by the family or perhaps even the person who died. Compare those to ones that appear to have been prepared from a template, the funeral home’s attempt to plug in all the information that it deemed appropriate. Use the Soul Questions for further reflection.
Now, consider your own obituary. As difficult as it might seem, begin to think about what you would want listed about your life. Don’t think about publication costs or other restrictions. Write it for today (hoping, of course, no one needs it!). You might make a list of accomplishments, including education, civic and religious involvement, and other activities. You should also consider what family should be listed and how. And is there anything you definitely want to highlight? Is there a particularly meaningful item you should list because it captures something of who you are? When you’ve gathered all this information, begin to compose the obituary as you would want it to appear in print. Edit and revise freely, and if working on paper, write your revisions in the margins and to the sides of the paper. Let the composition, edits, and all, become a living testimony to what you find important in your life.
As a final step, place your own obituary into your niche, the box you created in the first exercise.
- What was is like to read obituaries in the paper? Did it make a difference not knowing the people listed? How did you react emotionally to reading about the lives of other people, knowing that they had just died?
- Which obituaries captured your attention? What about them drew you in?
- What cultural or religious influences did you see in the ones you read? Did you discover any new customs or practices you didn’t previously know? How did you react to them?
- What relationships were highlighted in the family portions of the obituaries? Did you see any strained relationships? Loving ones?
- Was grief expressed in any of them? If so, how did that make you feel? Was there a death for which you would have expected grief to be expressed, such as the death of a child or young adult, but it was not? How do cultural norms influence decisions about the composition of an obituary?
- What was it like to contemplate your own death?
- Was writing your obituary something that brought deep reflection to your life or did you find it hard to engage in the process? What might your reaction say about your death? Your life?
- If you wrote revisions in the margins as suggested, go back and take a look at the process you went through as you wrote. What do the revisions say about the way you perceived this project? What became clearer as you worked?
Thoughts for the Journey
- Do you see the connection between accepting the fact that you will die and living your life to the fullest?
- What might help you see your life as a gift form God, something to be cherished and lived fully each day?
- Have you ever met someone like Michael who was able to live freely? Do you believe they were able to live fully because they understood the relationships of life and death? Can one live fully without that understanding?
- How honest was your obituary? Did you want to embellish it?
- What was missing from your obituary that you want to be listed there one day? How might you change your life to make sure your obituary reads as you dream it will?
- How could revising your obituary from time to time become a way to keep your life grounded?