|"Sleep and his half brother Death" - William Waterhouse|
And yet, April 15th always catches many of us by surprise.
So does death, when it comes.
I have several friends who are struggling with death. One friend wrote me this morning to report the 12th death in his family and circle of friends since his own mother died on Christmas Day.
This one was his 18 year old cousin who committed suicide.
In my former congregation, I know of four deaths since the beginning of the year - one of them the tragic loss of a man who fell down the stairs and broke his neck. He had broken his neck in the same place in a car accident about five or six years ago and had never fully recovered - physically, emotionally or spiritually.
A dear friend of mine recently lost a neighbor - a young man with a young family and a son in her son's class. He apparently died of a very sudden heart attack.
Here and smiling and joking one minute. Gone the next.
A clergy colleague - now in his eighties but you'd never know it - has lost two former parishioners this week. Because older folks can't often get to church as they once did, and, in many congregations, "out of sight, out of mind" seems to be an operational dynamic, he was involved in the pastoral care of each as well as their family members. He will be presiding at both funerals.
While neither death came as much of a surprise, he says he is startled by how deeply both deaths have affected him.
In Greek mythology, Thanatos (Θάνατος, "death") is the personification of death. His twin brother, Hypnos (Ὕπνος, "sleep"), is the personification of sleep. their mother was the primordial goddess Nyx (Νύξ, "night").
The palace of Hypnos was a dark cave underneath a Greek island where the sun never shines. Through this cave flowed Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. At the entrance were a number of poppies and other hypnogogic plants. His dwelling has no door or gate so that he might not be awakened by the creaking of hinges.
Psychiatrist and novelist, Irvin Yallom, has authored a new book entitled, "Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death". In the first chapter he writes:
Self awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is foreshadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom and, inevitably, diminish and die.All of us are wounded by mortality. Some of us call in Hypnos to anesthetize us from our conscious awareness of the constant presence of Thanatos. And then, suddenly, one day, it hits us from seemingly out of nowhere (ex nihilo) - usually through the death of another.
Mortality has haunted us from the beginning of history. Four thousand years ago the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh reflected on the death of his friend, Enkidu...'Thou has become dark and cannot hear me. When I die, shall I not be like Enkidu? Sorrow enters my heart. I am afraid of death".
Gilgamesh speaks for us all. As he feared death so do we all - every man, woman and child. For some of us the fear of death manifests only indirectly, either as generalized unrest or masqueraded as another psychological symptom; other individuals experience an explicit and conscious stream of anxiety about death; and for some of us the fear of death erupts into terror that negates all happiness and fulfillment."
During the height of the AIDS crises, I attended more funerals than I care to remember. Some of them were unbearably sad. Others were an incredible celebration of life. Some featured a chorus of gay men in top hats, white coats and gloves and tails. Others featured specially commissioned music for the mass and/or hymns.
I wept a bit at each one, but it took the funeral of a young Lutheran pastor to break me down. I had gotten to the church late and it was an SRO congregation. A very kind gentleman in the back got up to offer me his seat which I took with gratitude.
Just as I was getting settled, the casket was borne into the church. I could see the pall covering the casket from the corner of my eye. As I turned round, I glanced at the top of the casket. There was his stole, set out on top, as it would have been in the sacristy before he vested.
I. Lost. It.
I felt punched in the gut as I bet over and began sobbing uncontrollably. I was vaguely aware that I was causing a scene and was mildly annoyed with myself and embarrassed, but I simply could not help myself.
I cried for that young Lutheran pastor and all the young men and women for whom I could not deeply grieve because to do so would have been, in itself, paralyzing. So, I had unconsciously bid Hypnos to come and render me unaware to the depth of pain I was feeling for all the losses I, personally - and we, as a community - had suffered.
It was more than that, however. Seeing that stole on the top of that casket came a little too close to my own life. There was my own mortality, staring me in the face.
All of us are wounded by mortality.
All of us try to anesthetize ourselves from the pain of that wound.
Critics of Christianity note that our focus on eternal life as the gift of the Resurrection of Jesus is our own religious anesthesia. That may well be true. One of the prayers we pray in the Burial Office is "may your faith be your consolation."
Well, if faith is the consolation prize for the wound of our mortality, I'll take it. I've certainly known those who have chosen worse possibilities - everything from taking daredevil risks to abusing drugs and alcohol to being emotionally unavailable and unable to enjoy any depth of intimacy.
Thanatos and Hypnos, the twin sons of of Nyx, are two constant companions in life. The former will not be denied, but the latter can be defied.
As painful as it is to be aware of the limits of our time here on this earthly plane, self awareness, as Yallom says, is a treasured, precious gift.
So, I offer this to my friends who are grieving: Do not be afraid to feel the pain of your loss. Do not be afraid to feel your own fear of death. It only means that you understand the precious gift of life.
Go ahead: Weep. Cry. Sob. Lament. Each one honors God. Each tear we shed falls as a drop of thanksgiving for the gift of our creation and the incarnation of the life force within.
Thanatos may torment you. Hypnos may tempt you to ignore the fullness of life.
In the face of both, may your faith be your consolation.