This Being Human

 

Spirit of Life, Source and Sustainer of all:

Now is the time of brilliant leaves against blue sky,
scudding clouds on the horizon,
shortening days.

As leaves fall, we become aware
of how temporary all things are,
and how beautiful.

We realize how small we are
in the face of the great mystery
that is life and death.

This being human is not easy:
being alive and knowing we have to die,
loving our world and knowing
its terrible pain.

How can we cope?

Perhaps if we breathe.
Perhaps if we lean a little
toward someone sitting next to us.

Perhaps if we think of a brilliant red maple leaf,
twirling down from the very top of a tall tree,
all the way to the ground.

Perhaps if we remember that this brief time
of being alive
is our one chance
to really love,
and our one chance
to heal what is wrong here.

Perhaps if we remember
that when we are finished,
we are gathered back into You–
like the leaf that lives
and then falls in a flash of scarlet
to become part of the whole again,
and nourish new life.

Blessed be.

Not the Opposite of Life

Aditi by Peg Green

I have a joyful story to share with you today.  Some years ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.  Three years after that, she died.  Whoa, whoa, back up, stop.  You might be wondering if you heard me right.

“What did she say?  Her grandmother ?  Her grandmother died of cancer?”

“How could that possibly be a joyful story?  Should this person be a minister, this woman who can so cheerfully announce the death of a loved one, from an illness so dreadful?  Is she crazy?”

Well, I might be crazy, but if I am, I got it from my grandmother.  My grandmother’s given name was Helen, but starting in her mid-seventies, she went by a different name, Pam, because she liked having a secret identity.  What my friends used to say when they met her was, wow, she’s a real character.  She was kind of like Lucille Ball, and Auntie Mame, and a slender Mae West all rolled up into one.  I can’t tell you how old she was when she died because according to her, a lady never reveals her age, but at that very advanced age, she was absolutely beautiful, with bright orange hair and a perfect figure.  She was an elementary school teacher, but people were always asking her, “Were you On Stage?”–in capital letters—because she was so dramatic, and so gifted at making people laugh, and she knew so much poetry by heart.

For about ten years, Pam lived in a retirement community a mile from my home. Friends told me how lucky I was to have such a vibrant woman as my role model for old age.  What they didn’t know was that for as long as I can remember, my grandmother went around neighborhoods and peered into other people’s windows when they weren’t home.  She also picked flowers from their yards!  And while my friends heard her recite Shakespeare and Robert Frost, they did not hear her repertoire of dirty limericks, nor her poems of horror.  Here’s one of her favorites:  “Love to eat them mousies, mousies what I love to eat, bite they little heads off, nibble on they tiny feet.”

And none of my friends ever knew Pam’s greatest secret, which I received her permission to reveal after she was diagnosed with cancer.  For the last twelve years of her life, what Pam wanted most in this world was to die, or as she put it, to “shuffle off this mortal coil.” She hated being old.  She missed her late husband.  For all her bright wit and beauty, she was depressed.

When this started, my mother was alarmed.  She took my grandmother to the doctor and they got her on antidepressants.  After a while Pam felt a bit less depressed, but the conversation about wanting to die stayed the same.   She put “DO NOT RESCUSCITATE” signs up all over her apartment, and made sure she had a copy of her DNR paperwork taped to her refrigerator.   She researched the Hemlock Society.  She researched methods of suicide.  She joined the ACLU so she could fight for the right to die.  She repeated at every opportunity:  “he yearns for immortality who doesn’t know what to do with himself on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

But here’s the strange thing.  During all those years, every time Pam’s heart rate got too high, or she fell, or got very sick, she called me in a panic and demanded to go to the emergency room.  She had dozens of near-death experiences, and she lived through every one.  She could have simply let go, but she did not.  Instead, she continued to loudly lament living.  I remember once when my then-college-age son and daughter visited her, and she brought out her scrapbook of information on how to commit suicide.  There the two tall kids sat, one on either side of their dear great-grandmother, nodding attentively, as she explained the helium method of dying.

Then, in 2009, my grandmother began to take to her bed for days at a time.  She gave up many of her activities because she had no energy.  My mother took her in for some tests, and we learned that she had between six months and two years to live.

With this terminal diagnosis, my grandmother bounded out of bed and resumed most of her activities.  When hospice came to meet with our family, they asked her where the patient was.  Soon, I could hardly get hold of her because she was so busy, and she said she had more energy than she’d had in years.

So this is why the terminal diagnosis was good news:  My grandmother was finally getting what she wanted.  She was going to die.  And we, her long-suffering family, began to cherish each moment we had with her.  We began to see her foibles not as unbearable, but quirky.  And best of all, once my grandmother knew that she was really and truly dying, she began to love her life.

This simple truth is at the heart of many religious teachings about life and death.  Francois de la Rochefoucauld said:  “You cannot stare into the face of the sun, or death.”[1] But religion—our religion–tells us that while staring into the face of the sun would blind us, staring directly at death can instead deepen and clarify our vision.

Death is something many people deeply fear.  Some fear it so much that they refuse to think about it or to acknowledge it will actually happen to them.  They won’t sign up for life insurance or make wills or advance directives or do anything that might bring death closer to their consciousness.

Others go to the opposite extreme and obsess over death, spending their nights sweating with anxiety.  This is particularly prone to happen when we get a strange test result, or develop a new health issue.

There is a simple reason for our fear:  the reptilian part of our brain.  Actually, both the reptilian brainstem, and the mammalian limbic system, are programmed to do all they can to keep us alive.  That’s why my grandmother used to go to the emergency room every time she was in trouble.  That ancient, instinctive fear is what makes it so hard for us to look directly at death.  But as long as we avoid the topic of death, especially our particular death, the fear prevents us from living fully.  Only if we confront it squarely can we overcome our fear and truly live.

How do we do that?  How do we learn to stare death in the face without flinching?

Well, there are many things we can do.  All of them may seem morbid to people who normally avoid thinking about death, but in fact they are anything but.

One is to be present at the deaths of others.  In this way we learn everything we can about what death looks like up close and personal; we learn that death, like birth, is a sacred transformation.

Another is to celebrate autumn festivals like Samhain, and Dia de los Muertos, in which we invite those who have died before us to join us in celebrating their lives.  When we join in these kinds of celebrations, we begin to understand that death is not truly the end of anyone.

A third thing we can do, and the one I really want to focus on today, is a particular spiritual practice around death.  It’s common to most of the religions of the world, though it takes a slightly different form in each.  This is contemplating the moment of death.

Episcopal priest Alan Jones writes:

“In my tradition we try to practice dying every day so that we may be fully alive.  What I understand of my prayer life is to place myself on the threshold of death, to participate in my dying, so that I may live each day and each moment as a gift.  What I cultivate is a grateful heart; each moment then becomes a new thing.  My gratitude comes from the sheer gift of life itself.”[2]

Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher and ecological activist, explains:

“To confront and accept the inevitability of our dying releases us from triviality and frees us to live boldly.  Meditation on the twofold fact that ‘death is certain,’ and ‘the time of death is uncertain’…  jolts us awake to life’s vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object and each being.”[3]

Now, if we are going to meditate on our death, or practice dying, this means imagining what happens to our consciousness at that moment.   This is where our theology comes in, or our idea of ultimate reality.

In my experience, some ideas about ultimate reality are helpful when it comes to death and some are not.  I worked as a chaplain for a year, in a hospital where many people died.  I noticed that the people most afraid of dying were fundamentalist Christians whose idea of God was that vengeful deity who would condemn some people to hell.  The people who were least afraid were Buddhists, and Christians whose concept of God was all loving.

Buddhists hope to achieve nirvana, the state of enlightenment in which the ephemeral self disappears.  Why should the disappearance of self be desired?  Because it disappears as a separate, fearful, grasping thing, into oneness with all that is: from small and limited it becomes infinite. But if the Buddhist does not achieve nirvana, he or she is reborn as another being with another chance to achieve enlightenment.  So there is nothing to fear.

Many Christians who believe in an all-loving God believe that at death, they will become one with God, meaning they will rest in a love so large that it holds all that is.  We might say this is another way that the small self disappears, into the infinite Self of God.  This is what our Universalist ancestor Hosea Ballou taught:  that at the moment of death, all people are immediately united with God, which is love.  All pain, all sorrow, all illness vanishes as we are welcomed into infinite love.

My own understanding of ultimate reality is informed by my life experience as an ecologist and mystic.  It falls somewhere between the perspectives of religious naturalism and process theology.  Religious naturalism says our starry universe and this living planet are worthy of reverence for their own sake.  It says that when we die, our molecules disperse into the larger universe and become available for the creation of new life, and that this is such an astounding and beautiful thing that we need not look for any further meaning.

But I am also a mystic, and I often experience the universe as having not just more meaning, but consciousness.  At those times I lean toward process theology.  Process theology is a union of contemporary physics and mysticism.  It says the universe is alive, in a constant process of becoming. What some people call “God” is the creative, generative love that animates the universe and is its consciousness; the universe is the Body of God.  Humans and all other beings are members of this body and this consciousness, so that we are in God and God is in us.  We ourselves are ever in process, changing from one moment to the next, influenced by and influencing all other beings.  Thus we are co-creators of all that is.

In process theology, our death is merely a change from one being-state to another:  when we die, the energy and matter of our bodies, as well as our consciousness, are gathered back into the larger whole, which continues to body forth in new and beautiful forms.  Life and death are two halves of a cycle, neither of which is possible without the other.

This is the way of things, here, within the divine body:  each time something dies, something new begins.  This is the great and sacred mystery.

All of these ways of understanding the moment of death—Buddhist, Christian, religious naturalism, process theology, — all have something in common.  This is a deep knowing that we are part of something larger than ourselves, so that when we die, instead of being forever separated from all we love, we actually become forever part of it.

So, far from being morbid or life-denying, practices of looking death in the face are deeply life-affirming.  This is why nearly every indigenous culture in the world has a festival like the Day of the Dead, and why nearly every religion recommends contemplating death.

So I invite you to try this practice.  Put on some soft music, or go out to a sacred place, and meditate on the moment of your death.  Practice dying.  Imagine what happens at each step.  Imagine your self dissolving into a love, or a consciousness, or a starry universe so vast you cannot comprehend it.  In doing this, may you be freed from fear.  May you be awakened to the vivid beauty of this life.  And may you seize the time you have to live boldly.

May it ever be so.

[1] De La Rochefoucauld, Francois, as quoted on p. iii in Yalom, Irvin D., Staring at the Sun:  Overcoming the Terror of Death.  (San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass, 2008, 2009.)

[2] Jones, Alan, p. 23 in Stillwater, Michael, and  Gary Remal Malkin, (eds.)  Graceful Passages: A Companion for

Living and Dying. (Novato, California, Wisdom of the World, Inc., 2003.)

[3]Macy, Joanna, and Molly Young Brown, p. 187 in Coming Back to Life:  Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World.  (Vancouver, Canada, New Society Publishers, 1998.)

The Greatest Mystery We Know

For Marcia

Spirit of Life, Breath of our Breath:

Now is the time when new cottonwood leaves
tremble in the breeze,
ferns and lilies decorate the forests,
and lush peonies and roses
fill the air with sweet fragrance.

How can it be that this riot of green,
these extravagant petals,
will fade and fall,
scattered on the wind?

How can it be that one moment,
a loved one breathes,
and the next they do not?

And how can it be
that the molecules of all the departed
are then gathered into new life?

This is the mystery.
This is the greatest mystery we know.
May our whole beings be filled with awe
at the mystery of life.

Blessed be.

Looking In and Looking Out

In these extraordinary days, when enormous numbers of terrifying things are happening so fast we can’t keep up, we are in need of restoration. We are in need of time and space to nourish our souls for the great work of healing the world.  We are in need of time in the quiet, slow places on the living Earth, the places where we can reconnect to our Source and remember who we really are.  But for how many of us is this possible? Where can we go?  It is easy to lose ourselves in wonder in places where there are living waters, or ancient trees, or deep canyons, or tall mountains—but if, is is the case for so many of us, we do not live near such places, how can we recharge?

By looking in, and looking out.

By looking in I mean finding some small, ordinary thing—a leaf, a stone, a shell, a flower—and looking deeply into its interior. We can even look into our own interior—our hand, our brain, our lungs. Look into this thing and truly see it. See how it was formed. See what is happening inside it now. See what it will become. See how it is related to all other things. I once heard a minister friend, Lynn Ungar, say, “Beauty is seeing the whole in the particular.” What is the whole that is manifested in this particular thing?

Inside every leaf, photosynthesis is taking place. The leaf takes sunlight falling on its surface, and carbon and hydrogen—ancient stardust—from the atmosphere, and combines them into sugars that it then uses to build its own structure and the structure of its parent plant. Is this not a miracle? And here is another miracle: this leaf knows how to carry out photosynthesis, and what shape to grow into, and how big to get, and when and if to reproduce, and when to stop living, because its DNA tells it what to do. This particular sequence of DNA has evolved in response to interactions with other living things–with earth, air, water, and fire–in a sacred dance that has lasted eons.

The whole that is manifested in this particular thing, then, is the entire universe, from the beginning of time until this very moment. It is this way for all things: the uncurling spiral of the new fern leaf, the nest of the paper wasp, the fuzzy peach whose juice runs down our chin, the smooth pebble on the beach. In focusing our awareness on the processes going on inside some small thing, we become aware of how they are connected with the larger processes that created and sustain life: evolution, the intersecting cycles of matter, the flow of energy. We return to the very beginning of life itself, the mystery we can never fully grasp. Many theologians and particle physicists call this mystery God. In this way of thinking, the universe is the Body of God, divine love becoming manifest.

Sometimes, looking in can be intoxicating, as we marvel at the beauty and intricacy of the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are part. But other times, it can lead to greater pain than that with which we started, because we know that all this exquisite beauty, wrought over millions of years, is in danger of being destroyed forever. It can hurt too much to bear.

Then, must we look out. By looking out I mean traveling to the farthest reaches of space and time, to the beginnings and endings of all things. Human beings think we know how the universe started but we do not know, and we do not know why. If conditions at the very beginning had been only slightly different, no universe would have come into being at all. But somehow, billions of years ago, it did. And somehow, life emerged on a planet orbiting an ordinary star.

In this vast expanse of time and space, particular organisms—ourselves included—are but temporary aggregations of molecules, coalesced for the briefest moment of time. We are beautiful, but ephemeral, like raindrops, or clouds. Soon we will be gone. But life, itself, will go on.  Think of how lichen grows on granite, how dandelions spring up in tiny cracks in parking lots and sidewalks. Even if a catastrophic event destroyed most life on our planet, eventually new forms of life and new ecosystems would evolve.

And then, billions of years from now, if our astronomers are correct, our sun will become a red giant and even this planet will die. The matter of planet Earth will then become available for other solar systems to use.

If we can place our small selves, our short time frame, within this larger mystery, we can find rest. We are free to wonder at the diversity and intricacy of life on earth: it seems all the more marvelous for its impermanence, for its contingency. We can use the power of our own temporary being to do all we can to preserve the conditions for life, but we do not have to solve everything all by ourselves. We have many companions. Life itself—divine love shaped into all its wondrous forms–is on our side.

So may it ever be. Amen.

For reflection:

  1. Find some small, beautiful thing—a feather, a shell, a piece of freshly picked fruit, a part of your own body–and spend ten minutes looking deeply into it. What is happening inside this thing? How was it made? How did it come to be this shape? What was its journey before it came to you? (If you don’t know, do some research on it and then return to looking in.) Journal about your experience.
  2. Spend ten minutes traveling in your mind to the furthest reaches of space and time, from the beginning of all things to the end of the earth. Then, locate your own small body and time frame within this larger one. Imagine your body as a cloud of molecules coalescing for a brief time and then dispersing again. Journal about your experience.
  3. What does the idea of the universe as the Body of God mean to you? Is this an idea that resonates for you, or not? Why, or why not?

Meditation on Dying

(To be read by a leader to a group, with a time for journaling and discussion afterward.  May also be read by one individual to another, with slight adaptation. This is most effective when read with a few notes of guitar or harp music in each place marked with (M).  The person(s) receiving the meditation should be able to lie down comfortably with pillows on the floor, or lie all the way back in a reclining chair or bed.)

(M)

Lie back.

It’s time.

You know it’s time.

Your body is so tired.

Let it relax.

Completely relax.

(M)

Feel yourself begin to float.

Feel yourself begin to deepen.

Gently, slowly, let your awareness expand in all directions.

(M)

See your body in the center.

Thank your body, with tenderness.

Let it go.

(M)

Continue to expand,

floating and deepening.

(M)

Become aware that you are bathed in love.

This love is a consciousness, a radiance

so vast,

that it is everything.

(M)

It cradles you.

It welcomes you.

You are a precious gift, returning home.

(M)

Feel yourself dissolve into this love,

becoming one with it.

Infinite consciousness,

infinite love.

(M)

Now, when you are ready, I invite you to slowly return to your body:

to this room,

to these beloved companions.

When you are ready, open your eyes.

Behold the beauty of this world.

Behold the beauty in the faces around you.

Look into one another’s eyes.

See their light.

See how all of you shine.

Blessed be.

(M)

Reflection questions:

What was this experience like for you?  What did you discover?  Journal about your experience for a few minutes.  Then talk about it with the other members of the group.

We are Safe Here

Spirit of Life, greening power of spring,
you who bring trees and porcupines
and fish and ferns—and us!—to life
and gather us back in after we die:

Help us know we are  safe here.
Help us know that this green and blue place,
this great Mother Earth,
holds all that we are.

In our greatest joy, we are held.
In our deepest sorrow, we are held.

May we feel the support of Earth
as we walk and as we sit
and as we stand and as we lie down.

In every moment, may we feel Earth holding us
and may we remember to be thankful.

Blessed be.