I don’t want to sound too morose, but death is a likely place to start in examining what life is all about. How we respond to death is how we respond to life. This is not understood when we’re young. We think we will live forever and don’t consider how the single act of leaving this zone might reflect on the bigger meaning of existence and the knuckleheaded acts we commit in the first place.
We survive. We make do. We live day to day with a goal of getting through what needs to be done for that day. We make our “to do lists” with an eye on climbing the mountain and tackling tasks one at a time. One rock, one intention. One cliff face, one even, steady movement with nature. We have our tackle and gear, our survival guide that has been passed from the wisdom of others, and we dress ourselves for the day’s journey. We accumulate the specimens of understanding and what we need with an eye on retirement, where we will have all the time we need to participate in the gift of life and examine our beautiful finds and nuggets of solace.
Some see life’s poetry every day. Some only see it when they’ve been given a chance to see it on holidays or vacations. If you’re lucky, you can sniff the bloom of life in the rose of a day. If you’re in a bad place, you beg to be able to see a rose to keep you going and call for hope that you may smell the pleasant aroma of existence another day. The great writers I’ve read, use death as a reference point to participate in Mystery.
The still small voice of being present to the day is only acquired if we are willing to slip into the secret wonder of sitting in stillness and being with ourselves – creating a bond of sanctity with something whole. Some people can’t stand that act for a minute, but when we do daily, we learn to be with moments of life in deeper ways. In quiet we let the rapture of life settle to the bottom, so the muddy glass of the world that’s been stirred by chaos can be sedentary and clear again.
I’ve just returned from a wake where my friend has lost three brothers in the last six years. They all died young, in their forties and fifties. A teenage student of mine just lost his father at a young age. Those who are grieving for the young who’ve died, glimpse mortality in all its beauty. For a time, they may have an understanding of presence of mind in identifying with the holiness of life and the sacred act of staying honest to being alive, but that may slip away in time out of necessity as they re-enter the grind of daily obligation. That’s okay. It is what it is and what it needs to be.
Whether it lives for a moment or stays throughout your life, there’s something to be said for opening the treasure of the imagination and the possibility to wander into the wonder of a day. Death forces our hands at seeing this.
There’s more here than meets the eye. Death points us to that reality. We think we know and we endeavor to learn more based on the foundations of what we understand, but sometimes that goes to pot, and we have to re-evaluate and wonder some more to ground ourselves in the reality of being. We are informed again and again that there is more.
When we’ve ventured to a new place of understanding, we fit that piece into the puzzle of our lives. It all comes together. It has to. Every breath we breathe, every sight we see, every sound we hear, every sense we experience plants something in the soul. The wise monk, Thomas Merton, called it the “germs of spiritual vitality.” He said, these germs “come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men.” Experience may be fleeting but the bi-product of grace it creates stays with us. It can’t be explained. Experience is an unspoken truth that nestles in your heart and mind to be accessed when needed.
I want to write something that speaks to the heart of grief for my friend and student. I want to say something that can’t be said at wakes or funerals. But no words are adequate to those who’ve been slammed by the reality of loss — those who have fallen hard. No one can articulate pointed pieces of prose that will make it easier as they rise to meet the days ahead.
I surmise that presence is enough. There is something in the silent awe of presence. It’s enough to let another know that he is not alone. We are here together. We are all fumbling in darkness to understand, but we have also seen the promise of light. The presence of our communal light during this time of darkness points to something greater.
It’s been a dark winter, but the sun is out today. I look out my window and the blue sky, the purity of trillions of snow white crystals inspires us to see the vibrance of life. Abundance, something more. The snow piled high and blanketing the scene will melt and reveal what’s underneath again. Maybe not now, but we will see what’s there again. What is seen below is witnessed above.
Those we’ve lost have encountered the same. They too read the moments of poetry in nature. They experienced the sublime and surreal quality of being. The naked trees with branches that reach boldly and starkly into the air are alive. They will wear new leaves in the spring but for the time they are rich in vulnerability. The tangled vines on the side of the garage that seem barren, wretched with a residue of nothingness now, will wear a dress of new red roses soon and inspire new realizations of life.
Rest with this thought for now. The promise of new life is everywhere.