Living with Death
Some years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of newly ordained priests about the task of preparing people for their death. In a nutshell, I taught that the whole of the Christian life is a preparation for physical death. ‘In the midst of life, we are in death,’ and one of the great blessings of the Christian faith is that it teaches us Jesus is the gate and door through death to life. If we stay close to Jesus we shall never die: we are made by God to live with him for ever. This does not mean that the fact of death is not disturbing or even frightening, but it does mean we live with the fact of death hopefully. We must seek grace sufficient to understand that physical death is a new birth and a liberation. How very different this is to the spirit of our times.
I have always found the prayer-poems of Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711; Bishop of Bath and Wells) very helpful. In his evening hymn ‘Glory to thee my God this night,’ there is a line ‘teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed’. The practice of the Christian faith should remove the ‘dread’ of death. In my talk, I exhorted them to preach and teach about death often, and when involved with individuals to encourage them to write their wills and plan their funerals. It is not only sensible stewardship of property and an expression of practical concern for family and friends who have to deal with everything after we have died, it is also primarily a spiritual exercise. My own grave is reserved in a churchyard I pass most days and from the road I can see the wooden marker bearing my name. I am able to say to friends and family ‘That’s where I’ll be buried’. I am learning to dread that grave ‘as little as my bed’.
In this month of All Souls’ Day, Remembrance Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King and the beginning of Advent, dying, death and judgement colours the liturgy and prayers. Prayer for the departed I believe is especially important is shaping a faithful and mature attitude to physical death. In talking to the new priests I expressed the view that a careful keeping of ‘the years’ mind’ of parishioners was a very important pastoral and spiritual task. In our prayer for the departed, our relationship with them is in and with and through Christ. In prayer the Holy Spirit comes to our aid to pray with faith and understanding. Prayer for the departed draws us into that love which is stronger than death and convicts us of ‘the things that last forever’.
Recently, my closest friend died suddenly and the experience of grief is still raw. I was so grateful for the fulness of prayer and liturgy that made up his funeral rites, I found the vigil by his body the night before his burial particularly helpful. There, with the paschal candle burning, and the light of the Blessed Sacrament shining in the sanctuary beyond, I was reminded and convicted again that ‘God is the God of the living and the dead and none are dead to him’.