Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
Last November I attended a lecture by Fr John Behr, a Russian Orthodox theologian, titled `Reclaiming Death’. He outlined the current situation in western societies where death is pushed to the edge of community life. `Death’ is the dirty word of our time. He came out with some staggering statistics including that in the United States 80% of expenditure in health care is on the last two months of life. So determined are we to delay death that in some cases we have to be killed before we can die.’ Here are echoes of Revelation 9.5: they seek after death but do not find it.’ He urged his listeners to reclaim death as an organic part of community life and as an essential part of being human. Fr Behr drew our attention to a saying of St Irenaeus of Lyon — `Jesus has destroyed death to make it a tool in his hand.’
This leads me to the place of death in our prayer life. Many readers will know the verse of Bishop Ken’s Evening Hymn; `teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed, teach me to die that so I may raise glorious at that awful day.’ In our prayer we must befriend death. Bishop Edward King used to advise retreatants that a good place to seek renewal in their spiritual life was to visualize their own funeral, and then in imagination come back to their own grave once the flowers had begun to fade and wither. The fact of death teaches us to seek `those things that last forever.’
One of the spiritual challenges for our generation is not only the reclamation of death in its social context, but also to reclaim it as a source of vitality in our spiritual life. Whether we like it or not, we do pick up and are influenced by the humanist approach to death. Having attended my cousin’s humanist funeral, I could see little difference to what was said and done in some of the modern Anglican rites I have attended recently which deal with death with a saccharine smile and a cloud of platitudes.
If our prayer — that is to say, our relationship with God — is to be real, one of vital engagement, it has to have death near its centre. Reflect on some of our most frequently used `classic prayers’ : in the Angelus we ask Our Lady to to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death,’ in the Anima Christi we pray ` at the hour of my death call me, and bid me come to thee, that I may live with thy saints for ever.’
St Paul writes: `you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.’ If through our baptism we have died and have risen in Christ, it means our life has a different dynamic, focus and end. This should affect profoundly the way we approach God. There should be less in our prayer about personal development and more about learning how not to fear the grave. In this is found a freedom to serve. In this way we lose our life in order to find it.