Everything in life brings us to that one moment when we can give ourselves to God. (Christ on the Cross by Carl Heinrich Bloch, from Wikipedia)

All is given, all is received

  • November 10, 2022

“Our manuscript has gone safe to the Printer.” So wrote Sheldon Vanauken (“Van”) in A Severe Mercy, after his beloved wife’s painful and young death.

Van knew his suffering would have been different had she died before they became Christian, when they didn’t even know there was a divine “Printer” to receive the manuscript of their married life. In their “pagan” days, they shared a vow that if one died first, the other would take their boat out, sink it and go down with its nose pointing upwards — the only fitting conclusion to the love that was only about the two of them. As Christians, their response to death changed: not by becoming any less passionate or grief-stricken, but by answering death with life rather than death, and opening suffering to God’s call.

Being a writer, Van naturally used a publishing metaphor to express his sense their love, rather than being ended by her death, was fulfilled. It wasn’t his way of glorifying death or wallowing in pain. It was his experience of death itself being changed by the Christ who had — agonizingly, at first — come between them in their marriage, and so re-created it.

Jesus’ own death was preceded by total self-giving. At the Last Supper, before His death, He gave all. Every cell, DNA strand and atom: “This is my body, given for you.” Every drop of blood, every tear and sweat-drop: “This is my blood, shed for you.” Before He gave all on the Cross, Jesus gave Himself into the hands of His apostles at the Last Supper. Before He forgave those (us) who hurt Him, He gave His disciples the way to hold Him forever, a key that unlocks even the door of death He was about to utterly alter: “Do this in memory of me.”

All is given: the antidote to death. All is received: the way to life.

When we suffer the death of a beloved person, can we also live in a small way the commandment: “Do this in memory of me”? Give all, give your blood, your flesh, in releasing this person you love and long to hold onto, letting only God hold your beloved.

I’ve seen other people seemingly have everything taken away by one or another tragedy. I’ve had my own tragedies. The things that can make us want to die. A different but real death. A beloved person leaves forever. A life’s work or quest falls apart. A relationship disappears, beyond reach.

Christ gives us a way to offer such deaths to God, in rehearsal for our moment of death. It’s a response to the moment of death that’s nothing like trying to control death or resigning ourselves to it. We can imitate Christ in the intentional self-surrender that can really happen only at death. Everything in life brings us to that one moment when we can give ourselves to God. That’s why the moment of death stands alone. At God’s final call, will I freely surrender my life to God? Will you? It will be a divine call, and a human response, the most personal and decisive moment of our existence.

We get many chances to rehearse. Catholic tradition speaks of “daily deaths.” It’s a profound truth: we can meet death without denying, controlling or idolizing it. Today, tomorrow, every day, we can practice. We can stretch and tire our spiritual muscles so they will be available when death inevitably comes and seems to stare us down. We’ll hear God calling us.

The problem is rehearsing gets a lot harder when something precious is taken from us. Then we’ll need to be like a little child who refrains from screaming at not being chosen to sit beside her mother at church. Or like a young man who speaks kindly, not bitterly, about the love of his life who unexpectedly ditched him. Our rehearsals can be as small, and as vast, as those. In just one cell, just one blood-drop, can be everything.

But we know that words and pep-talks can’t answer the anguish of loss. Nothing “answers” death. Either God calls us through it in love, having conquered death by death, or death is the end before which we all stand defeated. My mother used to say that after their deaths she felt the presence of her beloved parents when she was receiving communion. It wasn’t some abstract pious hope, but a reality, and a profound insight into what we live always, every moment. It was the same food that helped Van remain in love beyond death.

Then, we too can finally say with St. Paul: “Death, where is your victory?”

(Marrocco can be reached at mary.marrocco@outlook.com.)