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In Every Arrival, a Leavetaking

I promise to return to less morbid topics shortly, but after returning from my grandfather’s funeral, hearing of the passing of a member of our congregation’s mother, and continuing to watch the ongoing crisis in Haiti unfold, death is on my mind.  I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once said that the ability (and burden) of being aware of and anticipating our own deaths is uniquely human.  Regardless of how we may feel about it, death is something we have to learn to live with.

These words from Henri Nouwen’s A Letter of Consolation strike me as a realistic, yet gracious and hopeful assessment of how we might begin to do this:

Mortification—literally, “making death”—is what life is all about, a slow discovery of the mortality of all that is created so that we can appreciate its beauty without clinging to it as if it were a lasting possession.  Our lives can indeed be seen as a process of becoming familiar with death, as a school in the art of dying.  I do not mean this in a morbid way.  On the contrary, when we see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift.  The pictures, letters, and books of the past reveal life to us as a constant saying of farewell to beautiful places, good people, and wonderful experience…. All these times have passed by like friendly visitors, leaving [us] with the sad recognition of the shortness of life.  In every arrival there is a leavetaking; in each one’s growing up there is a growing old; in every smile there is a tear; and in every success there is a loss.  All living is dying and all celebration is mortification too.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. I can’t help but wonder that for some its not “a free gift.” For some are born into atrocious conditions, for lack of a better expression their experience of life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

    I know its not the point of the post, but it is something that I often contemplate.

    January 20, 2010
    • Ken #

      It is like William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence. “Every night and every morn, some to misery are born. Every morn and every night some are born to sweet delight, some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to endless night.”

      January 20, 2010
    • Yes, I had similar thoughts to yours Tyler. For some lives, the word “gift” seems not only inapplicable but offensive as a descriptor—at least from the outside looking in. And yet, it is amazing to read and hear about how even those whose lives we see as ones of unrelenting tragedy see goodness and hope in their lives (even in places like Haiti). I do not suggest that this is always the case, but certainly more often than we might think. The gift of life always comes as mixed blessing, but human beings have an incredible capacity for gratitude.

      January 21, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Yes, Nouwen and you have it right. Sooner or later, each of us comes to “the sad recognition of the shortness of life” and a broken heart. And in that life, God is our only hope.

    January 20, 2010
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Father Nouwen, is wrong. Life is not an inexorable procession towards death. That point of view is an anathema to the Christian.

    Rather physical life on earth is the precursor to eternal life; with or without God.

    January 21, 2010
    • Nouwen is not wrong, nor is his point of view “anathema.” He is simply describing life as it is experienced. We experience loss, we experience decay, we experience pain, etc. The life that we are familiar with is an inexorable procession towards death. Paul tells the Thessalonian church that we do not grieve as those who have no hope, but he does not say that we do not grieve.

      Whatever we believe about eternal life and how it is related to this life, there is pain that accompanies the transition from one to the other—for the individual and for those must say goodbye. It is not especially pious or obligatory to pretend otherwise.

      January 21, 2010
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Where in the quote you present of Father Nouwen does it affirm the connection with physical death to eternal life? Where is the resurrection spirit, my brother?

    What in my response in any way asserts that the loss of physical life is anything other than, in of itself, a moment of great sadness and tragedy?

    Perhaps I misunderstand the last sentence in your response but, on reflection, your low opinion of my comment, seems unwarranted.

    January 21, 2010
    • Over time I have noticed in your responses to quotes that I post that you seem to expect more from isolated paragraphs than any one quote can deliver on. One quote cannot possibly accomplish the things you seem to expect sometimes. Different aspects of someone’s thought and experience will resonate with different people at different times and places. Of course the quotes I am drawn to don’t have to (and seem often not to) resonate with you. That’s OK. But it doesn’t mean that the quote in question is “wrong.”

      I’ve read enough of Henri Nouwen to know that there is plenty of “resurrection spirit” in his theology and practice. This particular quote comes from a letter to Nouwen’s father after the death of his mother. He is writing to someone in the midst of grief. It’s not a theology textbook. There are certainly parts of this book that affirm the Christian hope—that death in this life is not the end—in powerful and moving ways. The fact that this theme does not appear in this particular paragraph doesn’t call into question Nouwen’s orthodoxy or the (necessarily limited) truth about the human condition that it communicates.

      The last sentence in my response may have come across harshly, but I find myself at a loss to know how to respond to your use of words like “wrong” and “anathema” to describe a quote that I found meaningful during a time of grief.

      January 21, 2010
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Fair enough, but what am I to do with isolated quotes other than to respond to them in isolation, as it were. Ryan, an existential view that affirms, “Mortification—literally,… “making death”—is what life is all about”,… I’m sorry brother, I’m pushing back. Participating in life eternal is what life material, is all about.

    Yes, I read further and understand Father Nouwen to find a sense of sublime beauty. I am truly touched and were I exclusively material in my worldview I would be a heartless fool to disagree. I just don’t think the overall tone is right witness. I think the majority view to such a perspective is more likely to be the lament “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” or a Pink Floyd “shorter of breath, one day closer to death” kind of apathy.

    Death isn’t life; period. What we describe as death, it’s physical experience has been redeemed by the cross. It is but a stage in the ongoing majesty and mystery that is still life. It is an end to worldly suffering and the beginning of our glorious spiritual journey home. Yes it is a heart breaking seperation, but to the heart that loves, it is a seperation that promises an eternal reunion.

    The only real “life or death” issue that plagues us, is salvation.

    Please forgive me if I offend you or the memory of Father Nouwen. Such thoughts are the furthest thing from my intentions.

    January 21, 2010
    • Re: the “mortification” language, part of what it means to learn how to live is coming to terms with death. There are inherent limitations (physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, etc) that are part of what it means to be human. We need to come to terms with them—intellectually and existentially—in order to live well and to be good disciples of Jesus. These are some of the things that I understand Nouwen to be saying in the quote cited.

      Participating in life eternal is what life material, is all about.

      I think I understand what you are getting at here, although I wouldn’t phrase it this way. I don’t see our lives here and now as the means to get us to the end of eternal life. I see eternal life as the fulfillment, validation, and consummation of the best that we experience in “life material.” Perhaps we’re saying the same thing here, I don’t know…

      January 21, 2010
  6. Ken #

    I think Nouwen understood life, if lived to its fullest, as communion with God. I think he would express eternal life, as he did in The Way of the Heart, as “a never-ending communion.” He wrote, “the same Lord who sent us into the world calls us back to be with him in a never-ending communion.” It is the fulfillment sought by every passionate lover in heaven and earth.

    January 21, 2010
    • It is the fulfillment sought by every passionate lover in heaven and earth.

      Well said, Ken.

      January 22, 2010
  7. Paul Johnston #

    A never ending communion, now that’s what I’m talkin about!!! Thanks Ken.

    Ryan, I hit with a blunt stick, I know…In Catholic culture when we pray the glorious mysteries of the most Holy Rosary; the fourth decade, we pray for a happy death. I come from a culture that believes such a thing possible. I come from a mother that believes to think otherwise, is to be lacking in faith and understanding. As cold and as heartless as that may sound at times, I agree with that understanding.

    ” I go to prepare a room for you…if it were not so I would not have told you.” If I don’t have that, all I have in Christianity is a counter intuitive world view that will likely expire. If not around me, then probably within me.

    If we don’t have that I fear that Dawkins wins; Hitchens wins.

    If we don’t have that, however noble and brave our dreams are, they end in defeat. They end in dispair. They end as lie.

    Life on earth, however it is experienced; good or bad, glorious or tragic, is but a part of the adventure of salvation. There is much more to come. The part about eternal glory that isn’t compromised by pain or suffering. The eternal communion with our God.

    If this understanding does not trump our dispair over loss, our dispair over injustice, our dispair over all suffering, why are we Christian? Why should anybody be Christian?

    January 22, 2010
  8. Ken #

    It is hard to speak to others about any death, our own or someone we love, out of its context. And even in context, it is hard.

    Sometimes, at certain moments of intense grief, there are no words that are equivalent to the pain, no matter how much hope and faith and love for God we have, and even while God remains in our hearts. And other times even just a word or two reminds us of what is everlasting. Every encounter with grief, with death, leaves us stumbling, even if only for a while.

    It is not for nothing that St. Paul called death the final enemy.

    January 22, 2010

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