A good death
Having prepared a talk about pastoral care for the terminally ill I have been reminded that our life in Christ is ‘a living death.’ In a society where the prevailing view of death is negative and fearful the Christian faith views it as none other than the ‘gate of life.’ To those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death life in the Spirit takes on a new urgency and becomes an absolute priority. Those of us who are in rude health need to remind ourselves that this same shadow is ever present – just around the corner: the next step, or the next breath.
So many of our great classic prayers bring the fact of death into the centre of our consciousness: ‘pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death’ from the Hail Mary, ‘ at the hour of my death call me and bid me come to thee,’ from the Anima Christi.’ The daily prayer of the church enfolds the expectation of death with light: ‘you overcame death and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers,’ from the Te Deum, and , of course, the Nunc Dimittis ‘ Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ In Compline there is the wonderful collect thanking the Lord that he ‘lie in the sepulchre and did make the grave to be a bed of hope for thy people.’
It is the task of personal prayer to contemplate the fact of our own death. Bishop Edward King taught that a good place to review our spiritual life is to consider the fact of our own funeral. History is populated with people who had skulls on their desk or coffins propped up in the corner of their bedroom. As John Donne reminds us ‘the bell tolls for thee.’
This need not be a gloomy contemplation, it is, ironically, a vital one: to engage with the fear and anxiety that physical dying and death brings with it a deeper awareness of our need to ‘ know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ and reorder our lives around the call to live in the Spirit in the present moment. This is when life in Christ becomes a living death: ‘He must grow greater and I must grow less.’
Our hope in Christ is not for this life. If we place all our hopes and aspirations in this ‘fleeting world,’ and look for our security in material possessions we are no better than the farmer in Jesus’ parable who built a bigger barn to set himself up for a comfortable life. ‘You fool, your soul is required of you this night.’
One of the pities of parish life has been the demise of Evensong, not least because the lexicon on the evening hymnody has passed out of the language of our prayer and worship. I am so grateful that I know so many by heart ( as others readers surely will) They include: ‘Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed; teach me to die that so I may rise glorious on that awful day.’
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House