Life can overcome death

  • October 23, 2008
My friend Susan had been thinking about death. “What if there’s nothing after?” she mused to me, with some alarm. “How do we know? I love life — with all its suffering. Life is too wonderful for it just to end in nothing. But how do I know?”

Our culture makes it easy to ignore death (up to a point). The reality of death can get lost among our flurried lives, just another “issue” we might or might not decide to put on today’s to-do list.
But no one has yet escaped death or passed through death to report back (assuming those who believe in reincarnation are mistaken). Christ didn’t report back about death. Nor did Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter. The Gospels aren’t concerned with telling us what it’s like to die, whether there is a tunnel and bright lights, whether it’s difficult or easy. They tell us that life transcends death — not by erasing or ending death, but by breaking into it, breaking out from it.

“You broke the lock of the tomb,” one of the early church hymns sings to Christ. He didn’t end the need for tombs; but He changed the nature of them. That’s why St. Paul doesn’t tell Christians not to grieve, but “not to grieve like those who have no hope.” Death is real, irreversible and inevitable, Christianity teaches; but death has been breached. The question “is there something after?” has been answered.

We may find, like my friend Susan, that just knowing and repeating Christian teachings is not enough. Death is far too real, too big, too final, for that. It’s natural to say: “Wait a minute. I can no longer just accept what I’m told. I need to find out for myself.”

But how?

The feast of All Souls (Nov. 2) invites, urges us to do so. In several ways.

One way I’ve discovered to be surprisingly helpful is by living. Life has overcome death, the church says. Sometimes we’re content with something less than full life; “living and partly living,” as T.S. Eliot put it. What if we were to dive into life to find out how it could possibly overcome death?

Another way is by allowing ourselves to taste the reality of death. Not going deliberately out to find death, but ceasing to run away from it. Last year at All Souls, my father prayed with us for the souls of the dead. This year, he’s among them, he’s crossed the line which can’t be uncrossed. His death has been a reality of both body and soul: the absolute stillness of his body deprived of breath; the loss of physical presence, the ear to listen, the hand to hold; the unspeakable moment of his body’s descent into the earth. I miss him greatly, every day. Since then, he has also been present to me in surprising ways and places, ways I never knew while he remained on Earth. How much better to let these things speak to me, than to flee or spurn them. 

A third way is by loving, since love is the only answer to death. Can love bring back one who has died? Not physically, or in the clumsy, rather literal-minded spiritual sense of the Ouija-board set. Perhaps, by their love, the dead can come back to us, or come forward to be with us. Mother Teresa thought so: “If I ever become a saint,” she wrote, “I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven — to light the light of those in darkness on Earth.” Could it be that Teresa, or lesser-knowns (such as our own beloved dead) might be present among us? Might their love have brought them back to us? Might our love open us to a greater reality?

“The great and sad mistake of many people,” wrote theologian Karl Rahner, “…is to imagine that those whom death has taken, leave us. They do not leave us. They remain! Where are they? In darkness? Oh, no! It is we who are in darkness. We do not see them, but they see us. Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes full of tears. Oh, infinite consolation! Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent.”

The church asks us to pray for our dead, and also to be open to the ways the dead are present in our lives: the feast of All Saints, preceding All Souls by one day, seeks to awaken us to the presence among us of those who have died and are with God.

At the least, we might use these feast days to help us reflect with one another on the questions of death and life. And perhaps we could be attentive to the presence of our own dead, who may well be eager to show us the glory in which they dwell.