School in the Art of Dying

Have been thinking a good bit about death lately. It’s Good Friday tomorrow, and one’s mind does run that way on this occasion. And besides, it seems like death is, if not everywhere, then a more frequent passerby than before. I was praying this morning through the list of people I know with cancer, and it occurred to me that it is a long one, and that they are, many of them, my age. And then there was the funeral of the stillborn I attended a couple of weeks ago. And my mother-in-law is with us now, declining in health.

Last Thursday I spoke to the Trinity community about death. I reflected some on Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, the ones he spoke about a week before his own death, to judge by John’s chronology:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The one who loves his life will lose it, while the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24, 25).

I found Henri Nouwen’s reflections on this idea of dying profound, and I shared those with the Trinity community too:

"Mortification—literally “making death”—is what life is all about, a slow discovery of the mortality of all that is created so that we can appreciate its beauty without clinging to it as if it were a lasting possession. Our lives can indeed be seen as a process of becoming familiar with death, as a school in the art of dying. I do not mean this in a morbid way. On the contrary, when we see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift. "

There’s a great ancient picture of Jesus with the sheep on his shoulders, and I put that up for the students to see. The kindergartners said it looked like Jesus had a towel on his shoulders. Oh well. But I think they got it when I put RJ up on my back and told them Jesus would carry them over and through the cold river of death, if they will only let go of all the things they hold, even the things they love, enough to hang on to him for dear life. Of course, as the ancient picture shows, he’s got us in his grip—but we still have to let go. Our death is not a fiction even if it’s now His death too.

Interesting to me that I got a passel of emails thanking me for talking about death. Seems that the taboo is strong among us and that folks were glad to talk about it. One parent reminded me that Stanley Hauerwas thinks that the fear of death is one of the primary shapers of our culture. I expect he’s right.

This is surely one of the great values which a school like Trinity can add. Show me a school which doesn’t aspire to teach students how to live well. We all do that, though we’ll quibble about what the good life is. But if Hauerwas is right, then a school that wants to teach kids how to die well can have a corner on that market.


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