St Mary’s March 22nd 2017
Long ago, when I was a scientist, I was involved in an international research project about the rate at which cells are created and then die. The results showed that for many tissues within our bodies, cells only have a life of a few days, before they are replaced by new ones. Thus we can say that dying goes on within us at a physiological level throughout our lives, and as we age so dying becomes more prominent than renewing. And yet at a psychological level we pay little attention to these processes until some part of our bodies fails in some way. We then seek help in the expectation that repairs will restore the previous status quo, although in fact some degree of permanent damage will have happened. It is very common in our society to regard ageing, or dying, as a nuisance, something to be coped with, or feared, or even something to be ignored as far as possible. We argue about such matters as ending the process of dying by euthanasia, or whether resuscitation close to the point of death is desirable or justified. And we increasingly struggle with providing sufficient care for the growing number of people whose lives have been extended by modern medicine, but whose nervous systems are increasingly beyond repair. The way we look at dying is often confused.
In the course of parish ministry clergy are frequently involved in caring for families only at the point when dying has already been followed by death. And clergy increasingly are not even involved at this stage either. In our largely secular world we see that preparation for dying and death is increasingly neglected, both spiritually and purely practically.
One of the reasons for choosing the sequence of topics for these mid-week Eucharists in Lent was that they were part of the structure of the recent funeral of The Very Revd Bob Jeffery who died soon after completing a new translation of a great spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, a book attributed to Thomas a Kempis, a 15th century Dutch monk. Kempis writes with great personal conviction, directness and humanity about the individual’s reliance on God, the words of Christ, and the futility of life without faith.
Kempis is strikingly direct about dying. He says: assume death is near. Reflect on the state of your soul. We are here today, gone tomorrow, with sluggish hearts, thinking only of the present and therefore providing nothing for the future. Live this day as if it is your last. Arrange all action and thought as if this is the day of your death. If unprepared for death today, will you be ready tomorrow? If you have a clear conscience then death will have no terrors for you. Blessed are you if you keep in mind your death. Among the key attitudes to ensure you have a happy death are: utter contempt for the world, a strong desire to grow in holiness, a love of discipline, the practice of penance, willing obedience, self-denial, accepting every trial for the love of Christ. Honour the saints of God, follow their examples, so that when life is over they may welcome you into your eternal home. Remain as a stranger and pilgrim on earth, unconcerned with the things of this world. Keep your heart free and lift yourself up to God, for here you have no lasting city. Direct your prayer and longings to heaven every day, so that at your death your soul may be free to pass joyfully into the presence of God.
Kempis’ emphasis is very much on how we as individuals may prepare for death, and in particular on the need for reconciliation with those people and situations we may have harmed. But there is the contrasting perspective of dying to self that we should not overlook. If we look at milestones in the progress of the world we can see how critical have been the lives of those who have neglected their personal safety, their security, selfish gain and advancement. We owe so much to those who have given themselves and their strength recklessly to God and other people. By taking things easily, by avoiding stress, we may exist a little longer, but we may well not live.
As we become older we tend to live in an increasingly deep rut. As John Hick once wrote, maybe this is why Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is open to little children, and we must regain their innocence and receptivity to enter this kingdom. Unlike us, they do not have to escape from our own increasingly enclosed worlds of meaning to sense God. I have been deeply moved by one or two people who have sensed an encounter with God and God’s radical ways, shortly before death. They have realised that the life they have made for themselves, the world of meaning that they have put themselves at the centre of, has come to lose its meaning as death approaches. In this situation they have encountered a kind of death of their present selves, and have started to make a new life, which mysteriously they said will take them into the next world with God.
In the midst of this mystery I have found myself turn again to R.S. Thomas’ poem The Bright Field.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that has
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
In this beautiful and paradoxical sonnet we see that as we are dying, what we negatively thought was lost and receding is still positively ahead of us. We are not going towards a sunset but travelling towards a dawn. Amen.