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Mary Marrocco: Living and loving in the face of death

By 
  • October 30, 2018

“I have been half in love with easeful Death.” So wrote poet John Keats two centuries ago. For him it was sorrowful, yet his succinct sentence could well describe our current perspective in this country. 

“Things are difficult, and it’s good to have death as an ally,” we seem to say. “We’ll keep it as one of the tools in our tool-kit.”

What lies underneath our deal-making with death? If it’s fear, misunderstanding, blind arrogance or even the human condition of anxiety, these are understandable. Death, our own or others’, is an implacable, inescapable, mysterious force that evokes deep response in us all, whether we’re aware of it or not. If we think we’re stronger than death, that’s our deadly mistake.

Richard and his wife were present when their one-year-old son was all but dead from cerebral spinal meningitis.  And they were present when, beyond all possibility, their young boy emerged to life again. The miracle of life out of death had happened.  Along the way, Richard says, he learned two things. The first was to “pray for nothing”; he could not possibly have asked for what did happen, and could only ask that God be God. 

Christianity has never seen death as an ally or a relief, but rather as an enemy, a foe so strong that only God could overcome it. Christ conquered death by surrendering into it, taking with Him only love and forgiveness. 

We’re not asked to deny death, nor to idolize it, but to keep it present to us: “In all you do, remember the end of your life” (Sirach 7:36). This is wisdom. The early Christian desert-dwellers had a sense that we need to “practise death” — by fasting, by regularly sacrificing our desires, by surrendering to something greater than ourselves.  They did so because they were seized by the reality of eternity, not because they recoiled from life’s unbearables. 

When we find ourselves in love with death, but afraid of life, we are in danger of wounding ourselves and others. When we think compassion is killing, and lives can be rated, then we have not only forgotten how to die, we’ve forgotten how to live. 

As Andy remarked to Red in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” We need to fall in love with life. It may seem cruel, given the shockingly painful realities people live — Christianity does not require us to be without compassion for those in great suffering, but to do everything possible to alleviate suffering. 

The doctor who participated in the miracle, when Richard’s little boy was in coma, used to come back in the evenings and sit and cry with the child’s mother. When the miracle of life beyond seeming death occurred, the doctor said: “I’m an atheist, but this is the true resurrection.” She shared in the agony as well as the healing, and she saw the gift.

Some of the most alive people I know are the ones who have stood up the most faithfully — at great personal cost — to death. Our hope is not that we will never die, nor that death is pretend, or painless; that would be denial. Our hope is that life is stronger than death. 

This is not a pink-fuzzy hope, but hope in the true sense of the word, the conviction that comes from God’s word and our faith response to it — even though that faith may be a wavering flame or a bruised reed (Isaiah 42:3). It’s what led Jesus to say to Jairus and his wife as they wept over their dead child: “She is not dead, but sleeping.” 

This is not an easy thing to say to parents whose child has just died. Perhaps it takes foolishness, or holiness, or child-like love, to dare to live. 

The second thing Richard learned was from Christophe, a child who’d been born hydrocephalic and spent much of his little life in hospital. Richard watched as, every day during his son’s illness, Christophe would go down pad-pad-pad to Intensive Care and leave one of his toys at the door, then pad-pad-pad again back to his own room. Christophe taught Richard what it means to be in God’s time, because he had maximized his potential to love. Though he died in his 12th year, he died fulfilled. 

What do we say when, in our fallen world, some die outside of God’s time? When they die too soon, or violently, or through mental illness or despair or others’ hatred? Here we draw on all the love we have, and more. We need to pray for and listen to our dead, who are held by the love that’s conquered death. 

All we need to know, and all we have in the face of death, is every day to come closer to fulfilling our potential to love. We may find it’s the dead who lead us into life.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca)

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