Too Beautiful to Die (All Souls’ Day 2017)

Ellis Wilson, “Funeral Procession”

Halloween (“All Hallows’ Eve”) descends from a Christian practice — almost as old as the religion itself — of venerating deceased saints and martyrs on November 1. At some point, centuries later, the more expansive practice of praying for all of the dead came to be celebrated on November 2.

Working on the Surgical ICU of a hospital gives this day a special resonance for me. I find myself thinking of the many patients whose deaths I’ve been privileged to attend and whose dying they and their families have invited me into. I’ve prayed for them today.

I also find myself remembering a moment in another hospital, in Boston. I was the on-call chaplain on a terrible night when I was summoned to six deathbeds in eight hours. In one instance, at about two in the morning, I found myself keeping vigil, alone, over an elderly person who had died some twenty minutes earlier. A young doctor came in and told me it was his first day on the job — and that this was the first patient he’d lost. He looked at the body lying there quietly in the pale artificial light of that hospital room and said, “Chaplain, I am a man of science. I would like to believe in an afterlife, but look at her: do you really think there’s anything…left?”

His question has stayed with me. Indeed, does it make any sense for a reasonable person — a person of science — to believe the comforting stories about “Heaven”?

I also find myself thinking of another patient that summer in Boston. This man’s illness had reduced him to a wisp, barely able to talk or open his eyes, seemingly a shadow of life. He had married his partner of fifty years a few days earlier in his hospital room, having waited so long for marriage equality laws to pass in Massachusetts. His husband, a non-practicing Jew, would talk to me outside in the hallway. “I’m not so religious,” this husband told me. “In fact, I don’t think very highly of religion at all. But there’s a word for the process of watching my husband die, and I can’t get it out of my head, because it’s the only word that seems appropriate, even though it sounds very pious.”

I asked him what the word was.

“It’s ‘mystical,'” he said.

I do not think that mysticism attends every experience of dying. Too often it’s all tragedy, anger, injustice, violence, rot, and horror (although I suppose these things have their mystical dimension, too). I do think that my time in hospitals has — against all odds and with all evidence to the contrary, and in the midst of so much pain and sadness and doubt — on the whole made me more convinced, rather than less, of the sacredness of human life. And putting all questions of the efficacy of prayer aside, it’s made me convinced that people are worthy of prayer, if I may put it that way.

When the doctor asked me about the afterlife, I more or less just listened, and stood with him in silence before the Mystery. I suppose an apologist could have said that any afterlife worth believing in wouldn’t be visible to the human eye, anyway; may not even be “after” so much as something infinitely more ecstatic. Or that whatever mystery is great enough to give being to creation is also surely great enough to grant it immortality, or in other words, that it is somehow less astounding that anything should exist forever than that anything should exist at all.

And to that apologist’s response, one might aptly point out that stories of Heaven have long been used to justify the exploitation and oppression of the poor, reassuring them that they’ll have their happiness in the next life, so there’s no need to fight for it here below. That is true, and it is also true that in the face of an unjust and premature death, to demand that there be something more is not a way of dismissing the poor but of protesting on behalf of their very dignity, their very merit. Justice cries out that they must — they simply must — inherit the earth.

The debate can go on.

For myself, I can only return to my deep and unscientific intuition that as powerful as death is, love is stronger. Goodness, greater than evil. I don’t have any empirical evidence that life’s more than a walking shadow, but I do witness every day the evident majesty — despite everything — of the human spirit. I see a goodness and love and beauty that persist, time and again in my own searching, as the only relevant answer to our deepest questions. To have faith is just this: not to be able to draw, like a clairvoyant cartographer, some map of the afterlife, but to insist that the human spirit never give up on the dream of an infinite love.

Gabriel Marcel put it this way: “We know that we have learned to love someone when we have seen in them that which is too beautiful to die.”

And Pope Benedict XVI put it this way: “We see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness.”

I guess the only answer to that sincere and honest doctor is that it’s all hope and love and mystery… great, great mystery. And in the presence of this mystery I derive consolation from this ancient Christian prayer used for the burial of priests, set so beautifully to music by the great religious composer John Tavener.

Why these bitter words of the dying, o brethren,
Which they utter as they go hence?
I am parted from my brethren.
All my friends do I abandon and go hence.
But whither I go, that understand I not,
Neither what shall become of me yonder;
Only God who hath summoned me knoweth.
But make commemoration of me with the song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn; but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

We go forth on the path eternal, and as condemned,
With downcast faces, present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

If thou hast shown mercy unto man, o man,
That same mercy shall be shown thee there;
And if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
The same shall there deliver thee from want.
If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
The same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Youth and the beauty of the body fade at the hour of death,
And the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed.
The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered,
The shapeliness of the neck destroyed; and the other parts have become numb,
Nor often say: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

With ecstasy are we inflamed if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder;
That there is Paradise, wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
Let us all, also, enter into Christ, that we may cry aloud thus unto God:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!