Friday, June 24, 2011

Timely/Untimely Interlude - Some Thoughts on Death and Dying

Poppies at Ballintubber Abbey, April 2011
What follows in these cyphers and words are in a sense forced upon this writer by life.  When we recall the passing of Mr. X or Ms Y we often describe their going from us as being "untimely."  And yet such a sentiment is quite ridiculous philosophically, whatever sense it may make emotionally for us at the time.  And then again, perhaps emotional intelligence is as important as philosophical intelligence anyway?  I have just returned from the funeral and burial of the mother of a close friend who is my own age, and hence death and dying are now like surfaced submarines transmuted into great ancient galleys warning us of our mortality, of our fragility, scary and macabre craft that float unbidden upon the surface of our consciousness.  For this awareness let us be truly thankful, because awareness is all, awareness is all.  A friend who accompanied me this morning to the funeral opined that once we have allowed our ego to die we will never fear death itself.  Life in that sense, he argued, is a continual sequence of little dyings and little deaths as we gradually chip away at the seemingly impregnable, but all too fragile, fortress of the ego.  There is a lot of truth there, I agreed.

And then who is to say what is timely or untimely about death, or about anything for that matter?  The Eastern philosophers and mystics constantly call on us to observe life in the full, observe the very impact this, that or the other occurrence has upon us emotionally and spiritually, and indeed intellectually.  Instead of questioning or judging, relax and attend to what life is saying to me in X, Y or Z occurrence.  Such objectivity, such a sense of stillness, such an attitude of mind, such a state of heart requires constant training, constant awareness, an easy, yet sharp consciousness of life.  The true mystic in this sense is the true observer par excellence, the primal or original or essential witness.  He or she has been schooled in the hard lessons of life and has learnt their life lessons well.  They grew simultaneously in age and in wisdom as the Bible puts it.

Folklore: The call of the cock when the Lord had risen
Life is often messy despite our human penchant for putting order on it. We have been treading the soil of Mother Gaia for millions upon millions of years. We have had many myths over that time to support us on onward progress and evolution. But in that progress and evolution so much, so very much has had to die off and disappear so that we moderns could eventually come on the scene. There are a lot of waste materials left in the wake of progress and evolution. A lot of forgotten species and not-so-forgotten species have left the face of the earth over those years. We have also mentioned so many times in these pages that our many myths, whether religious or scientific or literary or poetic, are just that, sustaining myths that last for a certain time before being replaced by new and more appropriate ones. That's why the following words of Gerard Manley Hopkins appeal to me. For millions upon millions of years we humans "have trod, have trod, have trod" and indeed over all those years all those inventions and all those technologies of all the various kinds have come to the fore, but so many of them have been destructive of humankind itself, and so "all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell." Life is a messy as well as an ordered business. There always must be room for Mess or Chaos!

And dying and death are distinct parts of that Mess and that Chaos.  And so speaking in another metaphor (or simile if you have a penchant for precision) from the Bible, we read that "death comes like a thief in the night," often totally unexpected.  We never know the day nor the hour.  I have for a number of years - the last ten or so - often been expecting the soon demise of my beloved mother, and yet she still lives on, content in  her demented state, smiling often and eating well.  And who is to say whether her death will be timely or untimely.  Again I seem to remember other words from the Judaeo-Christian Bible that the Lord God's time is not your time or my time.  Whether one is a believer or an agnostic or an atheist one can still appreciate the spiritual and wise content of these words.  It is saying to us in the here and now that in many senses the complexity of life and our sheer infinitesimally small intellect versus the infinity of the universe with its infinity of possibilities and explanations leave us gasping in awe or floundering in confusion.

Headstones, Ballintubber Abbey, Co. Mayo
Again, I have long been of the belief that the big repression in modern society is that of the reality of death rather than the repression of sex. It is basically fear that makes us as a society and culture repress death, and indeed dying. We just ignore speaking about it, and when we do, our conversation and thoughts are all about our fears. Why is this so? James Hillman argues that this is so because a modern take of death and dying is that we do so alone, whereas in more primitive cultures death and dying are always looked on as a communal experience, indeed one of the big moments, with birth and entry into adulthood, of life itself which they saw as circular and cyclic, not linear and final. More primitive societies saw death as a communion with one ancestors, a way of connecting with those gone over to the spiritual world.  In a sense so did this lady who died a few days ago and who was buried in the freshly turned soil of Glasnevin Cemetery today.  She was of farming stock and was consequently ever so close to the cycles of the seasons and to the planting of seeds, to growth and harvesting and to the dying off of plants before the next cycle would begin.  She reminded me of my mother because while neither woman knew the other in life, both were close to nature and never fought against death as they could see that it was never the end of life, rather that it was part of life, part of the cycle of the seasons which like potent cells floated energizingly in their very blood stream.

I remember the late Denis Carroll, D.D., the brilliant theologian, philosopher and historian who lectured me at college saying once that every time he walked to the graveyard to bury another one of his flock (he was for a great part of his life a priest, but left and enjoyed some twenty years of married bliss before he died relatively young some years back) he actually did feel a twinge of doubt as to whether there was anything beyond us or not.  While Denis was a great Christian theologian, and in some senses an excellent Roman Catholic priest, his was a brilliant, cultivated and sharp mind which could ask the deepest of questions as well as giving the deepest of answers.  With Frs Enda MacDonagh and Gabriel Conor Daly. O.S.A., Denis made up the triumvirate of our greatest Irish Liberal Theologians.  He was always humble enough in the Socratic sense to declare his own ignorance and doubts, too.  This is what essentially drew us as students to this wonderful man and excellent scholar.

I have also long liked the wonderful writing of the Irish Times journalist John Waters who quite sagely opined some years back that the Roman Catholic Church ( and indeed the Protestant ones) are great at celebrating those important rites of passage: viz., baptisms, marriages and funerals, which he described as rites of "hatching, matching and dispatching."  No truer word could be said.  Whatever about the intricacies of theology;  whatever about the debates as to whether God exists or not; whatever about the faults and failings and sheer corruption of some elements in the Church; whatever about our faith or indeed our doubts, it's the symbols and the metaphors and the use of those symbols and metaphors in healing ritual that really matter.  In essence all those ceremonies or rites of passage are in themselves important because of the very artistic way the carry our pain as Professor Levine has been anxious to teach us, and as I have attempted to describe in my more recent posts.

God be with you, Mary O'Sullivan.  You were a lovely woman and a fine soul.  May the force of life, whatever it is that weaves the warp and woof of life together, strengthen and comfort the bereaved.  In the Gaelic language which I taught for some thirty years we say:  Solas síoraí do'd anam uasal agus leaba i measc na naomh go raibh agat go deo: "May the light of eternity always shine on you and may you sleep among the saints forever!"

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