“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.
It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.
It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.
It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.
Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.
Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.
And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.
A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.
After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations. We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.
This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:
“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8
In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.
While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33
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