When I was 22 years old, a seminarian, I was privileged to have a unique kind of desert experience. I sat with my siblings in a palliative care room for several weeks, watching my father die.
My father was young still, 62, and in good health until being struck with pancreatic cancer. He was a man of faith and he brought that to his final struggle. He wasn’t afraid of God, whom he had served all his life, nor of the afterlife, which his faith assured him was to be joy-filled. Yet he couldn’t let go of life easily, struggling almost bitterly at times to surrender. There was a deep sadness inside him, ultimately more soft than bitter, during his last weeks of life. He didn’t want to die.
But his sadness was not rooted in a fear of death, of God or of the afterlife. His sadness had to do with leaving this world, leaving his wife, his family, his community, his dreams for his retirement years, and with his own enjoyment of life. He was sad at the bitter fact that he was dying while the rest of us and the rest of life were continuing on, without him.
I was reminded of this recently while reading an article in America Magazine by Sidney Callahan within which she shares about her own fear of dying. Here’s the salient part of her text:
But less severe losses also seep into my fear of dying. Intense sadness arises over giving up one’s part in the ongoing drama of one’s daily life and one’s times. The familiar local round and love of one’s own family and people (including my adored dog) strongly bind us to our specific and beautiful world. To have this story interrupted is a painful prospect when we could go on forever. When your life is a blessed Sabbath banquet given by God here and now, leaving your place at the table can be hard — even for a more glorious celebration. In dying we will inevitably be entering into an unimaginable, novel existence, like a fetus being born. Despite the promised wonders in the world to come, I am afraid I identify with the happy, contented fetus in the warm womb who does not want to come out.
Before dismissing this as an immature or less-than-a-holy feeling, we might want to examine Jesus’ own fear of dying. The Gospels present his agony, his “sweating blood,” as a moral drama rather than as a physical one. It’s Jesus in his humanity, as lover, who is sweating his death. The Gospels make this clear. In describing his death they highlight his intense loneliness, his isolation, his being “a stone’s throw away from everyone,” and his feeling of abandonment. The pain he expresses in the Garden isn’t fear about impending physical pain, it’s fear about impending abandonment, about his losing his place at the table, about the moral and emotional isolation of dying, of dying alone, of dying misunderstood, of dying as unanimity-minus-one.
It can be helpful to contemplate this for a number of reasons.
First, a deeper understanding of this can help us recognize and deal more openly with some of our own fears about dying. We need to give ourselves permission to be sad at the thought of death. As well, a deeper understanding of this can help us prepare ourselves for the loneliness we will one day all have to face. As Martin Luther put it: You are going to die alone. You had better believe alone.
Next, a deeper understanding of this can save us from making simplistic judgments about how other people deal with death. Too common is the simplistic belief that if a person has real faith, he or she should be able to let go of life easily and die peacefully. There’s truth in this, but it needs tons of qualification: As Iris Murdoch once wrote: “A common soldier dies without fear, Jesus died afraid!” Jesus, as the account of his death in the Gospel of Mark makes clear, did not go through the death-process, the process of letting go, serenely. He faced his death with faith and courage, but he also faced it with deep sadness, intense struggle, near bitterness, and seeming darkness at the center of his faith. Healthy people, people who love life, find it hard to give up their place at this world’s tables. Small wonder that Jesus struggled!
Finally, a deeper understanding of this can, paradoxically, help us to enter life more deeply. Jesus tells us that we must lose our lives in order to find them. Among other things, this means accepting that one day we will lose our place at this world’s tables. And that acceptance can give us a deeper appreciation for the tables of family, community, and enjoyment that we sit at now in this specific and beautiful world.
Life and love are precious, on both sides of eternity. Our fear of losing our place inside of them is a healthy, holy fear.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com