For some reason I have been talking with people lately about 'what happens when you die."
Actually, I have no idea--not any, not one--about what happens when we die.
Since I'm a priest, I'm around death a lot and I'm not much help. People seem to assume I know what this whole 'hereafter' thing is all about. Imagine their surprise!
(A joke from years ago: A boy says to his date, "do you believe in the 'hereafter'?
Being a Christian girl she says, "of course I do." Then he says, "well, let's have sex." She is horrified. "Why would you ask that?" she says. He replies, "that's what I'm 'here after'.")
"Is Daddy in a better place?" I've been asked more than once by the death bed after giving last rites and watching the person slip away through that unmarked door.
First I smile sadly. Usually that is enough. The one left behind bursts into tears and I hold them. But some are tougher--"Well?" they say. And I say, "I have no idea."
Once someone said to me, "Why are you a priest if you don't have some belief about the after-life?"
I resisted my first impulse to say, "I'm not a priest for the 'after-life', I'm a priest for the living and the dying." Instead I said, meaning it with all my being, "I simply leave 'what happens next' to God."
That's what I do. Oh, I do believe there is something after death--so long as you are willing to acknowledge that the 'something' might be 'nothing'. I would think no less of God if when life ends, it simply ends. Dead as a doornail--whatever a door-nail is.
As I grow older--I'm over 60 now (I never imagined being this old!)--I do ponder death more than when I was 22 or 37 or even 53. Even if I live to be 80 some, that's only 20 or so more Springs, more Christmases, more baseball seasons. My granddaughters will be in their 20's--except for Ellie--when I shuffle off this mortal coil, if I'm lucky enough to be 80-something, and my children will be 50 or so, but there will be, as the song says, "a lotta things happening" after I'm dead and gone.
One thing I know, I hope there is an option to the streets of gold and angel wings for me. In fact, since I know (because I'm theologically educated) that noone ever suggested the dead become angels--angels are a whole other species of beings--I'm just worried about those streets of gold. Doesn't sound like good urban planning to me.
I wrote a poem about finitude a few years ago. I thought I'd share it here.
The Difficulty with Finitude
I try, from time to time,
usually late at night or after one too many glasses of wine,
to consider my mortality.
(I've been led to believe
that such consideration is valuable
in a spiritual way.
God knows where I got that....
Well, of course God knows,
I'm just not sure.)
But try as I might, I'm not adroit at such thoughts.
It seems to me that I have always been alive.
I don't remember not being alive.
I have no personal recollections
of when most of North America was covered with ice
or of the Bronze Age
or the French Revolution
or the Black Sox scandal.
But I do know about all that through things I've read
and musicals I've seen
and the History Channel.
I know intellectually that I've not always been alive,
but I don't know it, as they say, 'in my gut'.
(What a strange phrase that is
since I am sure my 'gut'
is a totally dark part of my body
awash with digestive fluids
and whatever remains of the chicken and peas
I had for dinner and strange compounds
moving inexorably--I hope--through my large
and small intestines.)
My problem is I have no emotional connection to finitude.
All I know and feel is tangled up with being alive.
Dwelling on the certainty of my own death
is beyond my ken, outside my imagination,
much like trying to imagine
the vast expanse of space
when I live in Connecticut.
So, whenever someone suggests that
I consider my mortality,
I screw up my face and breathe deeply
pretending I am imagining the world
without me alive in it.
What I'm actually doing is remembering
things I seldom remember--
my father's smell, an old lover's face,
the feel of sand beneath my feet,
the taste of watermelon,
the sound of thunder rolling toward me
from miles away.
Perhaps when I come to die
(perish the thought!)
there will be a moment, an instant,
some flash of knowledge
or a stunning realization:
"Ah", I will say to myself,
just before oblivian sets in,
"this is finitude...."
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