We do not have to wait for death to know her blessings...

"We are all eventually heading towards (a) collapse: "Sister Death," as St. Francis calls her in his Canticle of the Sun, is coming for each one of us. As frightened as we are of her, she is our sister. She comes in love to free us from our ego - the ego of our nation, our religious tradition, our species, our culture and our many separatenesses. We will all eventually need to meet her, at the moment of our death. But we do not have to wait until then to get to know her blessings. For it is now that we need to do the work of dying to the way in which our ego claims to be the center, rather than serving the Center. It is now, both individually and collectively, that we need to be freed from the imprisonments that keep us in exile from the true heart of one another." (J. Philip Newell, Rebirthing God, p. 55)
What a marvelously upside-down and paradoxical blessing, yes? "We do not have to wait until (the moment of our death to meet "Sister Death") to know her blessings." We can be free now as we practice dying and letting go over and over and over. And even while I resist and try to hang on to control of so much of my life, I know this dying to self to be the grace-filled way of the Lord. St. Paul states this with clarity in I Corinthians:

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through education and obvious reason, God decided, through the foolishness of the gospel, to save those who believe. For some demand signs and others desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to the old religion and foolishness to those caught up in the status quo, but to those who are the called and listen – people of every race, gender, age and class – Christ reveals the power and the wisdom of God: and God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

All week long I have been aware of the sacred invitation to let go: my favorite
music event of the year had to be cancelled because of the storm; the heavy, wet snow took out some of our most beautiful trees; my grief over my father's death was unlocked in waves of sorrow; my anxieties about serving a lively but struggling congregation in transition were brought up to the surface; and my nation's ugly and fear-based history of race hatred broke through our collective denial again after the grand jury in Ferguson chose not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.  That is a lot of external death and dying - and there is more to come to be sure. In Newell's small gem of a book, however, I keep finding clues that point me back to the blessings Sister Death aches to share.

+ In a chapter on Thomas Merton, Newell writes: "... in order to be strong for the work of the transformation of the world...this involves dying to the way in which the ego wants to be the center - whether that be our individual ego or our collective ego - the ego of our nation, religious tradition or species. Jesus said, 'Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.' (John 12: 24)" He goes on to write: "We need to die on a certain level of our being in order to find ourselves alive and free at another... (because) spiritual practice is about being turned completely inside out."

+ In another section of Rebirthing of God, where Newell considers the wisdom of Carl Jung, he writes: "We live in a painful fragmentariness... a division of the parts. We have separated what God has joined together, the oneness of the universe." What is needed for healthy and holy living, he continues, is the embrace of creation's opposite. "There is the sun and the moon, the feminine and the masculine, the east and the west. Nothing exists without its opposite: everything has its complementarity. Life wants all days to be followed by nights, the emergence of seed-force in spring to be balanced by seeds falling back into the ground in autumn." All too often, however, we live in captivity to the opposites rather than their embrace. Consequently, Jung calls for us to "celebrate a Last Supper with our ego. We need to die to the way in which our ego claims to be Lord so that we can truly live the dignity of our selfhood in the commonweal of relationship with all things. And we need to celebrate this last supper not just once, but again and again and again, in every moment, encounter and relationship if we are to be truly free."
+ And in yet another chapter on Mary Oliver, he includes the following: "My work is loving the world,' says Oliver, 'which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.'"

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones, just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Sister Death is speaking clearly to me these days - even when I don't want to listen - urging me, luring me, encouraging and guiding me to let go so that I might have more room within for the blessings of grace. I am a slow learner. I get angry when I can't play the songs that make my heart sing. I become resentful when congregational leaders let themselves be captured by fear or loyalties to the old status quo. I tremble with insecurity when asked to help others deepen their spiritual intimacy; hell, I am stumbling all over the place with my own journey. And I weep tears of sadness at the oddest times remembering my father's absence.
At the same time - simultaneously and concurrently - I trust that the wisdom of the cross reveals the greatness of God's grace. Not always very well do I trust this. Sometimes it is just a faint intellectual notion in the back of my brain; other times it is a haunting but calm chant from somewhere deep inside that I hear, but not clearly. Maybe that's why I feel so grounded in the poetry of Mary Oliver:

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

I know this and trust this even when I don't always feel it. I am so grateful to know that we do not have to wait for our own death to know the tender gifts of Sister Death. I pray that I might practice being with her and dying a bit to myself each day of this Advent quest.
photo credits: Dianne De Mott

Comments

Peter said…
"You are worth more broken", from Broken for You, by Stephanie Kallos.

As am I, swimming this surging current.

God's Grace, my man.
ddl said…
Peter, I have that book sitting on my shelf...someone recommended it...and I haven't read it yet.

RJ--Yep. Love the poem...and your commentary. And the photos. I am sorry about your concert. Exhausted after holiday... I was telling a parishioner that these words hope, peace, joy, love can NOT be empty abstractions...grief demands real. It's just part of the journey, I suppose.
Phil Ewing said…
Thanks for telling how it is - as always with beauty.I came across this poem by Jane Hirshfield after I read your post - somehow it resonated. Peaceand blessings my friend.
For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.

There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
RJ said…
Oh, my dear friends: your words and presence mean the world to me. Brother Peter, I have read and reread that boo after your recommendation; and we continue to swim upstream - apart but together. DDL - please be gentle to yourself and give it a read. And Phil... wow. I love her work, too and this is new to me. I am blessed. Thank you.

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