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Learning To Die By Brother David Steindl-Rast

by Brother David Steindl-Rast: The only point where one can start to talk about anything, including death, is where one finds oneself…

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And for me this is as a Benedictine monk. In the rule of St. Benedict, the momenta mori has always been important, because one of what St. Benedict calls “the tools of good works” meaning the basic approaches to the daily life of the monastery-is to have death at all times before one’s eyes. When I first came across the Benedictine Rule and tradition, that was one of the key sentences which impressed and attracted me very much. It challenged me to incorporate the awareness of death into my daily living, for that is what it really amounts to. It isn’t primarily a practice of thinking of one’s last hour, or of death as a physical phenomenon; it is a seeing of every moment of life against the horizon of death, and a challenge to incorporate that awareness of dying into every moment so as to become more fully alive.

I have found that this approach is present-sometimes more explicitly, sometimes more implicitly-in all the different spiritual traditions that I have come into contact with. It is certainly very strong in Zen Buddhism; it is present in Hinduism and Sufism. It is one of those basic human gestures by which one confronts meaning in order to live religiously. As I use the term “religious,” it refers to the quest for ultimate meaning. Death has evidently to be one of the important elements in that, for it is an event that puts the whole meaning of life into question. We may be occupied with purposeful activities, with getting tasks accomplished, works completed, and then along comes the phenomenon of death-whether it is our final death or one of those many deaths through which we go day by day. And death confronts us with the fact that purpose is not enough. We live by meaning. When we come close to death and all-purpose slips out of our hands, when we can no longer manipulate and control things to achieve specific goals, can our life still be meaningful? We tend to equate purpose with meaning, and when purpose is taken away, we stand there without meaning. So there is the challenge: how, when all-purpose comes to an end, can there still be meaning?

This question suggests why in the monastery we are counseled (or challenged) to have death at all times before our eyes. For the monastic life is one way of radically confronting the question of life’s meaning. In it you cannot get stuck in purpose: there are many purposes connected with it, but they are all secondary. As a monk you are totally superfluous, and so you cannot evade the question of meaning.

This distinction that I am making between purpose and meaning isn’t always carefully maintained in our everyday language and thought. In fact, we could avoid a good deal of confusion in our lives if we did pay attention to the distinction. It takes only a minimum of awareness to realize that our inner attitude when striving to achieve a purpose, a concrete task, is clearly different from the attitude we assume when something strikes us as specially meaningful. With purposes, we must be active and in control. We must, as we say, “take the reins,” “take things in hand,” “keep matters under control,” and utilize circumstances like tools that serve our aims. The idiomatic expressions we use are symptomatic of goal-oriented, useful activity, and the whole of modern life tends to be thus purpose-oriented. But matters are different when we deal with meaning. Here it is not a matter of using, but of savoring the world around us. In the idioms we use that relate to meaning, we depict ourselves as more passive than active: “It did something to me”; “it touched me deeply”; “it moved me.” Of course, I do not want to play off purpose against meaning, or activity against passivity. It is merely a matter of trying to adjust the balance in our hyperactive, purpose-ridden society. We distinguish between purpose and meaning not in order to separate the two, but in order to unite them. Our goal is to let meaning flow into our purposeful activities by fusing activity and passivity into genuine responsiveness.

Death puts our responsiveness to the ultimate test. Unless our dying becomes our full and final response to life, activity and passivity must ultimately clash in death. Because we are so one-sidedly active in life, we think of death one-sidedly as passive. In death we are indeed passive: obviously, dying is the most passive thing that can happen to us. It is the ultimate passivity-something that will happen to us inevitably. We will all be killed in one way or another, whether it be by disease or by old age or by an accident or in some other way. We are well aware of this aspect but not too many people realize that death is also ultimate activity. Again, some “symptomatic idioms” can help make this clear. It is, for example, very significant that the one act that is the most passive in our experience, namely dying, cannot be expressed in English by a passive form. There is no passive voice to the verb to die. We can be killed, but we have to die. There is imbedded into our very language the realization that dying is not only passive, maybe not even primarily passive, but also the ultimate activity. Dying is something we have to do. Perhaps we can be killed without dying, which would explain those ghost stories in which a house or a room is haunted by the continuing presence of a person who has been killed but hasn’t really died. These two things have to come together in death: we do something and we suffer something. More than that: we must suffer what we do and do what we suffer. This doing and suffering, this give and take, which constitutes responsiveness, is brought into focus by our confrontation with death, but it has a far wider range. It characterizes life in all its aspects. Life, if it isn’t a give and take, is not life at all. The taking corresponds to the active phase, to our “purpose” when we do something; while the giving of ourselves to whatever it is that we experience is the gesture by which meaning flows into our lives. It must be stressed that this is not an either/or; life is not a give or take, but a give and take; if we only take or only give, we are not alive. If we only take breath in we suffocate, and if we only breathe out we also suffocate. The heart pumps the blood in and pumps it out; and it is in the rhythm of give and take that we live. In practice, however, the balance is often upset in our lives. Our emphasis falls far too heavily on the taking, on the doing, on the purpose. We belong to an “underdeveloped nation” with regard to meaningful living. Because we keep cultivating only one-half of the give and take of life, we are only half alive.

Mosaics in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice (11th-13th centuries)

Mosaics in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice (11th-13th centuries)

Here again the idioms we use are symptomatic of our preoccupation with taking and with purpose. We have scores of idioms that speak of taking but few that speak of giving yourself; we take a walk, take an exam, take a trip, take a course, take a bath, take a rest, take a meal. We take practically everything, including many things that nobody can truly take, such as time. We say we take time; but we really live only if we give time to what takes time. If you take a seat, it is not a very comfortable way of sitting down but if you let the seat take you that’s more like it. Taking a nap is the surest way to insomnia, for as long as you insist on taking it you will never get it; but the moment you give yourself to it you will fall asleep.

We might begin to suspect that our one-sided insistence on taking not only prevents us from living balanced lives and living peacefully, but also from dying a balanced death and dying peacefully. Faced with the prospect of death, we must say “I can’t take it.” After a life in which we take and take, we eventually come up against something which we can’t take; death takes us. This is serious. One can go through life taking, and in the end all this will add up to having taken one’s life, which is in a real sense suicide. But we can learn to give ourselves. It doesn’t come easy, conditioned as we are to be fearful of giving ourselves, but it can be learned. In learning to give ourselves we learn both to live and to die-to die not only our final death, but those many deaths of daily living by which we become more alive.

This is precisely the point: whenever we give ourselves to whatever presents itself instead of grasping and holding it, we flow with it. We do not arrest the flow of reality, we do not try to possess, we do not try to hold back, but we let go, and everything is alive as long as we let it go. When we cut the flower it is no longer alive; when we take water out of the river it is just a bucketful of water, not the flowing river; when we take air and put it in a balloon it is no longer the wind. Everything that flows and is alive has to be taken and given at the same time-taken with a very, very light touch. Here again we are not playing off give against take, but learning to balance the two in a genuine response to living as well as to dying. I remember a story told me by a young woman whose mother was close to death. She once asked her: “Mother, are you afraid of dying?” and her mother answered, “I am not afraid, but I don’t know how to do it.” The daughter, startled by that reply, lay down on the couch and wondered how she herself would do it if she had to; and she came back with the answer: “Mother, I think you have to give yourself to it.” Her mother didn’t say anything then but later she said, “Fix me a cup of tea and make it just the way I like it, with lots of cream and sugar, because it will be my last cup of tea. I know now how to die.”

This inner gesture of giving yourself to it, of letting go from moment to moment, is what is so terribly difficult for us; but it can be applied to almost any area of experience. We mentioned time, for instance: there is the whole problem of “free time,” as we call it, of leisure. We think of leisure as the privilege of those who can afford to take time (this endless taking!)-when in reality it isn’t a privilege at all. Leisure is a virtue, and one that anyone can acquire. It is not a matter of taking but of giving time. Leisure is the virtue of those who give time to whatever it is that takes time-give as much time to it as it takes. That is the reason why leisure is almost inaccessible to us. We are so preoccupied with taking, with appropriating. Hence, there is more and more free time, and less and less leisure. In former centuries when there was much less free time for anybody, and vacations, for instance, were unheard of, people were leisurely while working; now they work hard at being leisurely. You find people who work from nine to five with this attitude of “Let’s get it done, let’s take things in hand,” totally purpose oriented, and when five o’clock comes they are exhausted and have no time for real leisure either. If you don’t work leisurely, you won’t be able to play leisurely. So they collapse, or else they pick up their tennis racket or their golf clubs and continue working, giving themselves a workout as they say.

We can laugh about it, but it goes deep. The letting go is a real death, a real dying; it costs us an enormous amount of energy, the price, as it were, which life exacts from us over and over again for being truly alive. For this seems to be one of the basic laws of life; we have only what we give up. We all have had the experience of a friend admiring something we owned, when for a moment we had an impulse to give that thing away. If we follow this impulse-and something may be at stake that we really like, and it pains for a moment- then for ever and ever we will have this thing; it is really ours; in our memory it is something we have and can never lose.

It is all the more so with personal relationships. If we are truly friends with someone, we have to give up that friend all the time, we have to give freedom to that friend-like a mother who gives up her child continually. If the mother hangs on to the child, first of all it will never be born; it will die in the womb. But even after it is born physically it has to be set free and let go over and over again. So many difficulties that we have with our mothers, and that mothers have with their children, spring exactly from this, that they can’t let go; and apparently it is much more difficult for a mother to give birth to a teenager than to a baby. But this giving up is not restricted to mothers; we must all mother each other, whether we are men or women. I think mothering is just like dying, in this respect; it is something that we must do all through life. And whenever we do give up a person or a thing or a position, when we truly give it up, we die-yes, but we die into greater aliveness. We die into a real oneness with life. Not to die, not to give up, means to exclude ourselves from that free flow of life.

Buttermere 32' by Jeff Teasdale

Buttermere 32′ by Jeff Teasdale

But giving up is very different from letting someone down; in fact, the two are exact opposites. It is an upward gesture, not a downward one. Giving up the child, the mother upholds and supports him, as friends must support one another. We cannot let down responsibilities that are given to us, but we must be ready to give them up, and this is the risk of living, the risk of the give and take. There is a tremendous risk involved, because when you really give up, you don’t know what is going to happen to the thing or to the child. If you knew, the sting would be taken out of it, but it wouldn’t be a real giving up. When you hand over responsibility, you have to trust. That trust in life is central to all the religious traditions. It is called by different names; Christians know it as faith, and in Zen Buddhism, to my surprise, it is also called faith, though with a connotation different from the one it has in the Biblical tradition. It isn’t faith in anything or anyone, but there is a lot of emphasis in Buddhist monasteries on the tension between faith and doubt, faith always being a nose’s length ahead of doubt. The greater your doubt, the greater your faith will be-faith in ultimate reality, faith in yourself, if you wish, your true Self. But in the Buddhist as well as in the Christian tradition faith is courage-the courage to take upon yourself the risk of living, and dying, because the two are inseparable.

Thus, one could distinguish between two ways of dying: a mere giving in, which means you are being killed without really dying; and a vital way of dying, a giving up, which is this giving of yourself and so dying into deeper life. But that takes a great deal of courage, because it is always a risk, a step into something unknown. It also takes a great deal of vitality, and that is why I am a little reluctant to accept what Karl Rahner and Ladislas Boros have to say about death. They are two German Catholic theologians who have written with a great deal of insight on death, but both put much weight on their ideas of what happens in a person’s last moments. I would much rather say: Die when you are alive, because you don’t know how well you will be able to do something that takes all your energy when you are senile, weak, or very sick.

Here again is one of the points where I think birth and death come very close to one another: neither of the two events can be precisely pinned down to a moment in time. We don’t really know when a person is born. We can point to the physical fact of the umbilical cord being cut, but some people come to life maybe after forty years, or even later. When does a person come to life? I can imagine that the very moment in which someone comes to life is also the moment in which he really dies. And everything that led up to that, for forty-five years perhaps, is time spent in practicing for the important moment; and everything that follows is time spent letting nature run its course. Maybe in some people’s lives this happens all of a sudden, at one moment, while with others it is a gradual thing that goes laboriously through many stages.

Most of what I have said simply means: let’s learn to die so that, when our last hour comes and if we are still alert to it, we will be able to die well. But at any rate let’s learn it, and that means let’s learn to give ourselves over and over again to that which takes us; let go of things, or rather give up as a mother gives up. Let go is a little too passive, it comes too close to letting down; giving up is the truly sacrificial gesture. So in many traditions you have this notion that throughout our lives we train for a right dying; and that means to train for flowing with life, for giving ourselves. And this suggests some more symptomatic idioms of taking and giving that show ways we can make the inner gesture of dying: giving thanks instead of taking for granted; giving up rather than taking possession: for-giving as, opposed to taking offense. What we take for granted does not make us happy; what we hold on to deteriorates in our grasp; what we take offense at we make into a hurdle we can’t get past. But in giving thanks, giving up, forgiving, we die here and now and become more fully alive.

We speak, for instance, of a good death versus a bad death: I suppose the death we call bad is the one in which we struggle and cannot die peacefully. There are many cases when the doctor says: “I don’t know how this patient keeps on living,” but perhaps he never learned to let go, so he hangs on for dear life, as we say. He will eventually be killed, but he has not learned to give himself freely. After all, it is not a dogma or a theory but something that anyone can check out and experience in his own life, that when we really give up and actively die, we die not into death but into a richer life; and when we drag on and hang on to something that we should have already let go of, we are dead and decaying. Thus we know-not from any revelation but from our own personal daily experience-that the fruit of a good death, a death to which we give ourselves, is greater fullness of life, and the fruit of a death against the grain, in which we are just killed and do not give ourselves, is destruction, or what the Bible calls the second death.

Now the difficulty that comes in here is that when it is a matter of our final physical death, what is given up by us is all of life. I feel rather strongly that we sometimes fail-especially, I think, people who speak from a religious perspective-to stress the seriousness of dying. It may be a beautiful image, but it just won’t do to say that “we fall asleep.” Death is no falling asleep; there is a rather drastic difference. Nor is it the same as going into a tunnel and coming out on the other side. I do not like to speak of “afterlife.” I have seen this book, Life After Life; it is interesting, and I think that there may be whole dimensions, a whole world of things going on after what we observe as dying; but I am not concerned with all that. As I have said, I am convinced that we cannot pinpoint our real death. It is that real death, however, which concerns us here: the event through which all we know of life comes to an end, in every respect. To speak of life after death makes no sense if death is the end of time for the one who dies. And that is just what I mean. Death is the event which has no after. To blur this fact means losing sight of the seriousness of dying.

It is an all too harmless picture of death if we think that the body dies but the soul lives. Is there really an independent soul over against a body with its own independent existence? Concretely we experience ourselves as body-soul beings. The total person, experienced from the outside, is body. Experienced from the inside, that same total person is soul. In that event we call death, the total person comes to an end. But the total person that sits here now and talks, knows that whenever in his life anything truly died, it did not mean destruction, but always a step into greater life; and therefore, that total person can take the leap of faith and can say yes, I believe that in this ultimate death also, what I am going toward is ultimate life. And that is faith in the resurrection, in the Christian context, because resurrection is not survival; it is not revivification, or coming back to life, or any sort of reversal at all. The flow of life cannot ever be reversed. By faith we die forward into fullness of life.

This is why eminent Christian theologians today can dispense with the notion of an immortal soul without jeopardizing the Good News of resurrection and eternal life. In fact, as soon as we no longer feel obliged to hold on to such intellectual abstractions as the notion of an immortal soul we are able to enter more freely and more fully into the existential approach on which Biblical statements about the resurrection are based. We might be surprised to discover that even the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body is simply based on the experience that soul and body are existentially one in the human person. It is not possible to speak of a disembodied human being, because that is no longer a human being. The body absolutely belongs to it. Therefore, when St. Paul speaks of resurrection life-life beyond death as I would call it, rather than after death (if death is the end of time, then what’s after it?)-he speaks about life that must be embodied. What happens in the course of our lives is that we become somebody. Who we become will depend on the decisions we make and somehow bodily enact. It will depend on the responses we give to God’s calling which reaches us in many different forms, and these responses, too, will be bodily enacted. That in this way we become somebody is obviously as much a statement about our bodies as it is a statement about our souls. But the body we call our own in this sense is not limited by our skins. It comprises all those elements of the cosmos by which we have expressed our own personal uniqueness; it is the total person, seen from the outside. But if the total person has died, resurrection of life, as St. Paul sees it, must be a new creation of the total person-soul and body-by God who alone provides the continuity between the old and the new life. All St. Paul can say about our immortal life, the Christ-life within us, is that it is “hidden with Christ in God” (Cor. 3:3). This holds true whether we have died or not. In either case, “your real life is Christ,” as St. Paul puts it in the same passage.

Passages like these make it clear that the Christian vision of immortal life is far closer to what has been branded as “Eastern” notions than it is to those popular Western beliefs tied to an immortality of the soul. When Christians practising under some guru from the East learn to realize “I am not my body, I am not my mind,” they are making room for an understanding of St. Paul’s words: “Your real life is Christ.” All too often this understanding is blocked by the misconception “I am not my body, but I am my mind,” a misconception perpetuated by the doctrine of the immortal soul.

This is closely connected with another area in which current Eastern influences tend to help Christians recover their own authentic tradition regarding life beyond life. It sometimes appears as a threat to Christians that Oriental thought seems to challenge the Western emphasis on individual survival. But is that popular emphasis really in tune with the Christian message? The one thing that is certainly true about it is that personhood. what we have made of ourselves in becoming somebody, is something that will never be lost; but that is a different thing from individuality. We are born as individuals and we become persons, laboriously so. We become persons through relationships with others-interrelationship is what defines you as a person. What separates us defines us as individuals, but what relates us to others makes us persons. It is in the relationship of a deep love that we become most truly persons. When we give and lose ourselves, we paradoxically find our true self. What St. Paul calls our real life, the Christ-self within us, is universal interrelatedness in love; and it is not difficult to see that this is more readily compatible with “Buddha nature” or “Atman” than with insistence on perpetuating individual separateness.

But now St. Paul says of that Christ self, which is our real immortal life, not only that it is hidden with Christ in God, but that “when Christ appears, then you too will appear with Him and share His glory.” This seems so central to the Christian message that I for one feel that I cannot be agnostic about it. I cannot say: “Well, just give me the rest of Christian life and teaching and forget about eschatology.” To do something right we must start out with the end clearly in mind. If not even a meal will turn out right if we start with the ingredients instead of a clearly planned menu, we had better keep our eyes on the end of our spiritual life also, which means we ought to clarify our eschatology.

Brother David Steindl-Rast

Brother David Steindl-Rast

Our problem at the moment seems to be that we have outgrown our child-like integrity in dealing with eschatological myths, but have not yet achieved the integrity of mature minds capable of accepting these myths more fully than the child could. We are like awkward adolescents who laugh at fairy tales that were deeply meaningful to them not long ago and will be more meaningful still a short time hence.

We might do well to take a fresh look at what we might call the Christian mythology of heaven, hell, purgatory, judgment, and so on. It is more important than we might guess. We cannot assume that it is just something we have outgrown; we have only seen that certain images must not and cannot be taken literally any longer. On the other hand, a Christian can still fully believe in the reality these images try to depict. I can say that I believe in the resurrection of the body and in the last judgment; I do believe in these truths, but I wouldn’t press the imagery. I believe in the reality that stands behind it and I take the expression very lightly. It is meant to be an image, a beautiful poetic image, but no more. Actually the myth of purgatory comes very close to the myth of reincarnation; it tries in general to answer the same questions and it comes up with largely the same answers-that there is justice and that you have to work out your karma. But just as I would not press the image of purgatory as if there were actually a fire burning somewhere with so many degrees of heat, so I personally would not press the imagery of reincarnation. But I can say that I do believe in both.

One reason why Christian tradition has always steered me away from preoccupation with reincarnation has not so much to do with doctrine as with spiritual practice. The finality of death is meant to challenge us to decision, the decision to be fully present here now, and so begin eternal life. For eternity rightly understood is not the perpetuation of time, on and on, but rather the overcoming of time by the now that does not pass away. But we are always looking for opportunities to postpone the decision. So if you say: “Oh, after this I will have another life and another life,” you might never live, but keep dragging along half dead because you never face death. Don Juan says to Carlos Castaneda, “That is why you are so moody and not fully alive, because you forget you are to die; you live as if you were going to live forever.” What remembrance of death is meant to do, as I understand it, is to help us make the decision. Don Juan stresses death as the adviser. Death makes us warriors. If you become aware that death is right over your left shoulder and if you turn quickly enough you can see him there, that makes you alive and alert to decisions.

As human beings, here and now, not as believers of this or that doctrine, we all know what life beyond time means. If we can say now, and know what we mean when we say now, we are speaking about a reality that is not in time. The now is; time is only possibility for becoming. Dying in all its forms and stages is our opportunity to pass from time into the now that does not pass away, from the mere possibility of becoming to being real.

In our human experience time is, to use a fine expression I heard somewhere, a measure for the energy it takes to grow. In that sense it has nothing to do with minutes and hours, years and eons, with clock time. And growing means to die to what we are in order to become what we are not yet. The seed has to die to become a plant, and we have to die to being children in order to become adolescents, and so on. But our most important death has to do with dying to our independence, as individuals, and so coming to life as persons in our interdependence. We find this terribly difficult because we always want to retain our independence, the feeling that “I don’t owe anybody anything.” Then comes the moment of death, whether it is the ultimate death or a moment in the middle of life, and we give up our independence and come to life in interdependence, which is the joy of be-longing and of being together. This is what we really most want, but except for such moments we hang on to something which we don’t really want and yet are afraid to let go of-our independence and the isolation which necessarily goes with it. The moment we let it go, we die into the joy of interdependence. The importance of our physical death fades away in comparison with this dying into what St. Paul calls the real life, Christ in us. He says in another passage: “I live, yet not I; Christ lives in me.” This is not a private statement about himself; he means that each one of us ought to be able to say that. As believers, you and I can say that as well as St. Paul; and that means that it is the true Self that lives in all of us; I-“yet not I; Christ lives in me.” The face we had before we were born, as the Buddhists put it, is the Christ-reality. That doesn’t mean, narrowly, Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth; it means the Christ. It is not separated from Jesus of Nazareth but is not limited to him. It comes very close to what Buddhists call Buddha nature, and Hindus call Atman, the lasting reality. But we are still afraid of losing our individuality in this all-embracing unity. I think we could overcome this fear by seeing that Divine Oneness is not achieved by the imposition of uniformity, but by the embracing of limitless variety; there is room for all our personal differences within it.

One time I talked with Eido Roshi about the question of the personality or impersonality of this ultimate reality, for here there seems to be what is generally thought of as an important difference of concepts between East and West, or between the Buddhists and the Christians. The Buddhists use the image of waves on the sea; each of us is just one wave that comes out and goes back into the sea. I told him that a Westerner does not readily accept this; he says, “I am somebody with self-consciousness, awareness, and self-possession. Am I just going back into some cosmic custard? If that sea out of which I came is impersonal and I am personal, then I would be more than the sea.” The answer Eido Roshi gave me was simple enough: “If the sea did not have all the perfection of personhood, from where would the waves have gotten it?” That is a beautiful Buddhist answer, and it does full justice to the Christian concern. But we could also say: All right, the wave goes back into the ocean, and that is a beautiful picture; but that high point, when the wave was cresting, the moment when it was most alive, that, as T.S. Eliot said, is a moment that was not only in time but “in and out of time.” It was one of those now moments that does not pass away, that is eternity. And therefore anything that happens, at that moment of the fullest personhood, simply is; it does not belong to was or will be but to that which can never again be lost; maybe because it never was unrealized, maybe because it is a bursting forth of the eternal now into time. I experience it as being realized, but perhaps it is my homecoming.

I like the suggestion too that the virgin energy of a life in which personhood was never developed simply returns to the source, a wave that never crested. This image somehow connects with the idea of time running out. But the turning point of the spiritual life is the moment when time running out is turned into time being fulfilled. It rests with us whether death will be a fizzling out when our time runs out or an explosion of the fullness of time into the now of eternity. In the book of Deuteronomy God says: “I place before you today life and death; choose life.” Choose life! Life is something we have to choose. One isn’t alive simply vegetating; it is by choosing, making a decision, that you become alive. In every spiritual tradition life is not something that you automatically have, it is something that you must choose, and what makes you choose life is the challenge of death-learning to die, not eventually, but here and now.

Source: Daily Good

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