Friday, October 7, 2011

dying and caring

Not a lot of people want to talk about death, right? I quickly push it aside, refusing to fear or think about it, writing if off since I believe in Jesus Christ, and remind myself of hope in light of His resurrection. While Christians should find comfort in life after death, what does it mean in itself to die well? Shouldn't we discuss this type of thing?

Henri Nouwen does a beautiful job in his book Our Greatest Gift of discussing the personal and communal implications of death. While I want to write about what this book taught me, I'm just not there yet. For now, I'll share some of the most challenging and inspirational passages for me. In weeks to come, I hope to dissect some of these words so this type of conversation may transform my heart and allow it to challenge the way in which I live and care for others.

 "To care well for the dying, we must trust deeply that these people are loved as much as we are, and we must make that love visible by our presence; we must trust that their dying and death deepen their solidarity with the human family, and we must guide them in becoming part of the communion of saints; and finally, we must trust that their death, just as ours, will make their lives fruitful for generations to come. We must encourage them to let go of their fears and to hope beyond the boundaries of death...
When we have the courage to let go of our need to cure, our care can truly heal in ways far beyond our own dreams and expectations. With our gift of care, we can gently lead our dying brothers and sisters always deeper into the heart of God and God's universe."

Has anyone else read Our Greatest Gift? Or any other favorite quotes by Henri Nouwen? Next on my list is to read The Inner Voice of Love. Here are some more quotes from Our Greatest Gift, let me know what you think.

"This is the mystery of Jesus' death and of the deaths of all who have lived in his Spirit. Their lives yield fruit far beyond the limits of their short and often localized existence. Years after my mother's death, she continues to bear fruit in my life. I am deeply aware that many of my major decisions since her death have been guided by the Spirit of Jesus, which she continues to send me.

Nonetheless, I trust that God's Spirit will manifest itself in my weakness and move where it wants and bear fruit from my deteriorating body and mind...

So my death will indeed be a rebirth. Something new will come to be, something about which I cannot say or think much. It lies beyond my own chronology. It is something that will last and carry on from generation to generation. In this way, I become a new parent, a parent of the future."

'Don't be afraid. God is close to you, much closer than I am. Please trust that the time ahead of you will be the most important time of your life, not just for you, but for all of us whom you love and who love you.' As I said these words, I felt Rick's body relax and a smile came through his tears. He said, 'Thank you, thank you.' Then he reached out his arms and pulled me close to him and whispered in my ear,' I want to believe you. I really do, but it is so hard.'

'It is for your own good that I am going, because if I go I can send the Spirit to you, and the Spirit will reveal to you the things to come.' Isn't this what Marina wants to say when she makes poems and paintings that will give new life to those who will mourn her death? Isn't 'sending the Spirit' the best expression for not leaving, those you love alone but offering them a new bond, deeper than the bond that existed in life? Doesn't dying for others' mean dying so that others can continue to live, strengthened by the Spirit of our love?

Some were successful and famous; others suffered from endless failures and rejections. But all truly great me and women who have shaped our ways of thinking and acting have borne fruit that they themselves couldn't see or predict.

A friend who was very ill had a great devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and decided to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, to ask for healing. When she left, I was afraid that she would be disillusioned if no miracle happened. But on her return, she said, 'Never did I see so many sick people. When I came face-to-face with that human suffering, I no longer wanted a miracle. I no longer wanted to be the exemption. I experienced a deep desire to be one of them, to belong to these wounded people. Instead of praying for a cure, I prayed that I would have the grace to bear my illness in solidarity with them. And I trust that the mother of Jesus will bring my prayer to her Son.'

A good death is a death in solidarity with others. To prepare ourselves for a good death, we must develop or deepen this sense of solidarity. If we live toward death as toward an event that separates us from people, death cannot be other than a sad and sorrowful event. But if we grow in awareness that our mortality, more than anything else, will lead us into solidarity with others, then death can become a celebration of our unity with the human race. Instead of separating us from others, death can unite us with others; instead of being sorrowful, it can give rise to new joy; instead of simply ending life, it can begin something new.

But all of us will die and participate in the same end. In light of this great human sameness, the many differences in how we live and die no longer have to separate us but can, to the contrary, deepen our sense of communion with one another. This communion with the whole human family, this profound sense of belong to each other, takes the sting out of dying and points us far beyond the limits of our chronology.

All at once, I knew that all human dependencies are embedded in a divine dependence and that that divine dependence makes dying part of a greater and much vaster way of living. This experience was so real, so basic, and so all-pervasive that i changed radically my sense of self and affected profoundly my state of consciousness. There is a strange paradox here: dependence on people often leads to slavery, but dependence on God leads to freedom. When we know that God holds us safely -- whatever happens -- we don't have to fear anything or anyone but can walk through life with great confidence.This is a radical perspective; we are accustomed to thinking of the ways in which people are oppressed and exploited as signs of their dependence and therefore perceive of true freedom only as the result of independence. We can think about this in another way, however. When we claim our most intimate dependence on God not as a curse but as a gift, then we can discover the freedom of the children of God. This deep inner freedom allows us to confront our enemies, throw off the yoke of oppression, and build social and economic structures that allow us to live as brothers and sisters, as children of the one God whose name is love. This I believe, is the way in which Jesus spoke about freedom. It is the freedom rooted in being a child of God.

We are fearful people. We are afraid of conflict, war, an uncertain future, illness, and, most of all, death. This fear takes away our freedom and gives our society the power manipulate us with threats and promises. When we can reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge -- a knowledge more of the heart than of the mind -- that we are born out of live and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love and that this love is our true Father and, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us and become painful but hopeful reminders of our true divine childhood.

Jesus' resurrection was the full affirmation of his Father's love...

The resurrection does not solve our problems about dying and death. It is not the happy ending to our life's struggle, nor is it the big surprise that God has kept in store for us. No, the resurrection is the expression of God's faithfulness to Jesus and to all God's children... an to us God has said, 'You indeed are my beloved children, and my love is everlasting.' The resurrection is God's way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste... But it does reveal to us that, indeed, love is stronger than death. After that revelation, we must remain silent, leave the whys, wheres, hows, and whens behind, and simply trust...

Still, when we keep our eyes fixed on the risen Lord, we may find not only that love is stronger than death, but also that our faith is stronger than our skepticism."


  1. Em, I really enjoy reading your blog. I wish I had that much time to bake. Fall donuts are our favorites too. ~ Julia

  2. oh emilie, i'd love to discuss this with you sometime. death and dying are such an important part of the human experience, and i am learning so much. difficult, but beautiful. i am putting this book on my "to read" list, and i have some books for you if you're interested.

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  4. julia, thank you. i need to have you put my new email on your blog. i can't remember my old password!

    and courtney, yes, we need to see each other soon. logan flies out of JFK on the 23rd and will be gone for a week. can i come see you sometime during then? we'll buy bagels and make pumpkin lattes and talk for long hours in a park somewhere.