A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on March 29, 2009
The Quick and The Dead: A Reflection on Death and the Spiritual Path
Look, the trees/are turning/their own bodies/into pillars
of light,/are giving off the rich/fragrance of cinnamon/and fulfillment,
the long tapers/of cattails/are bursting and floating away over/the blue shoulders
of the ponds,/and every pond,/no matter what its/name is, is
nameless now./Every year/everything/I have ever learned
in my lifetime/leads back to this: the fires/and the black river of loss/whose other side
is salvation,/whose meaning/none of us will ever know./To live in this world
you must be able/to do three things:/to love what is mortal;/to hold it
against your bones knowing/your own life depends on it;/and, when the time comes to
let/it go,/to let it go.
—Mary Oliver, In Blackwater Woods
One of my most vivid memories from my early adolescence was standing in a schoolyard at night looking up at the night sky. Probably it was spring, because I remember the cool and dark bright. I don’t recall seeing the moon. I do remember that sweet night smell. And I recall seeing, really noticing the arching Milky Way above me. I thought, or not quite thought, more felt, how beautiful. Then I thought, well, again more felt, how big. And then I felt, didn’t think at all, “And how small I am.” Then I felt a tingling wave of panic and a sickness in the pit of my stomach, knowing for real and for true that I was infinitesimally small in a very large, and I knew to my bones, a not particularly friendly universe.
I had in a moment realized with a sickening certainty, I was not immortal. This may well have been the first time in my young life that unpleasant dime dropped. It is the moment I recall knowing I would, somewhere along the line, die. Much of my life since then has been about this mortality thing. It has been one of the great goads for me, pushing me along a lifetime quest.
As I thought about this and today’s sermon, and how we all meet this issue in our own way, which also needs noting, I recalled that story that has been worked by, it seems, any number of western authors, certainly including Somerset Maugham and John O’Hara. I’ve even found it presented as a logic problem. Its source appears to be in Islamic folklore, and dates at least back to the ninth century. I first ran across it in an anthology of stories about the redoubtable Mulla Nasruddin, a trickster figure similar to the American Coyote or the Japanese Ikkyu. In an anthology composed by Idris Shaw and adapted for our purposes by me, the story goes something like this.
One day in Baghdad, a disciple of the Mulla was sitting in the corner of an inn when he overheard two people at another table talking. Let’s say his name was Jimmy, Sufi Jimmy. From what the two were saying, and particularly because of a peculiar odor surrounding one the speakers the Sufi realized that one of them was the Angel of Death. He gulped and continued to eavesdrop on the conversation. Eventually the angel mentioned, “I have several calls to make here during the next three weeks,” Terrified at what this could mean, and he intuited it had something to do with him, Sufi Jimmy decided if he left Baghdad right then he would not be touched by death. He left the inn, rented the fastest horse available and took off towards Damascus.
Later that day Death met the Mulla Nasruddin for a cup of coffee (the Mulla prefers skim lattes, extra hot, Death has a taste for soy chai). They talked about various people. “So,” asked Death. “Where is your disciple Sufi Jimmy?” The Mulla replied “He should be at home attending to some spiritual disciplines I’ve recommended for him. He tends to over think things, and I’m trying to get him to notice the flow of his mind a little better.” “Hah? That’s rather surprising,” said the Angel. “Because I’m sure he’s on my list.” At which Death looked through his PDA. “Yes, here he is. I have to collect him in four weeks. In Damascus, of all places."
The UU minister Forrest Church suggests that religion births out of two things. The first thing is our knowing we are alive. And the second, our knowing we will die. I agree. Completely. From the soles of my feet. Religion, spirituality, the great quest, give it any name you wish; this enterprise we are gathered together in this room to reflect upon is rooted in our awareness of our lives, well not of our lives in any vague or general way, of my life, of your life. This isn’t abstract. It is about your life and mine. And haunting that knowledge of our living, is that other knowing, that we, that you will die, that I will die.
So, what do we do about that knowing? In another account of the Mulla Nasruddin, he was sitting drinking coffee (he really liked those Lattes) with some old friends. The conversation turned to death. As was their custom one proposed a question to focus their discussion. “When you’re lying there in your casket, what is it you’d like your family and friends to say about you?” One replied, “I’d like them to say she was an amazing doctor.” Another said, “I’d like them to say I was a great school teacher.” The Mulla looked at them and said, “I’d like to hear them say, look! He’s moving!”
I understand that one. Just rather it not happen to me. Another way of facing death, as Dylan Thomas famously sang, has it, “Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It’s a sentiment hard to argue with. Not now, not now. But, as Mark Twain observed, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” And while denial has a certain utility, at some point a too full embrace of that strategy betrays us. I mean do you really want to die angry?
Some of us in this Meeting House came into this church in the wake of 9/11. Lots of people joined a lot of different communities of faith in the wake of that horror. Noticing death up close is a major antidote to denial. I suspect just about all of us have had in our own way that evening moment staring at the stars and realizing the harsh truth. Gentle or hard, sooner or later, death comes for us all.
My own life has been constantly marked by such rude moments of reminder. I vividly recall one of the first deaths among my intimates, a dear friend who died of Leukemia when we all were in our thirties. It wasn’t an easy death. And my strong memories include sitting in the hospital during those hard times, his breathing getting more and more labored, and eventually slower and slower, until with a great gasp, he died. Another marker I cannot quite forget comes from when I was a chaplain watching a medical team vainly trying to revive an eleven-year old girl who had experienced a massive heart attack. I still picture it, vividly, the physician pounding on her chest, her small naked body bouncing on the bed. Some things you never forget.
Certainly when death passes close it takes more imagination than I have to push it aside, to pretend it isn’t, always, sitting just behind us, behind you, behind me. So, what to do? Isn’t that the question, in a life marked by inescapable death, what to do?
I’ve found there are at least two major ways of perceiving the mess of life and death. One is that it is like a river, flowing in one direction. Here you and I are discrete things, separate from each other, following our own trajectory from dark to dark. In many ways this is our ordinary experience.
But it isn’t the only way to experience things and the relationship of things. The other is that it is like a web, interconnected in every direction, complete, with all lives and deaths from ants to stars and very much with each of us all and for always a part of a whole. Here the “you,” and the “I,” and the divine collapse together into an endless is, or rather an endless and boundless is-ing.
Both images speak to our human experience, and to deep and inescapable truths. But, in most moments, we mainly get the first intuition; we are inclined to feel the rush of that river carrying us from night to night. The experience can be exhilarating, and it can be terrifying. Indeed, it is from this perspective that we feel fear and out of which we weave stories about that which we don’t know, in order to mitigate that fear. I suggest we need to discover that other perspective, as well, not as the seventh principal of the current UUA Principles and Purposes, but rather as our own experienced reality.
The good news is how we do that is as easy as falling off a log. The secret, I find, of dealing with death, is the universal spiritual solvent: Don’t turn away. This is not like heading to the top of a roller coaster and grabbing the bars just as you top, holding on tightly for your very life. Don’t tighten up, loosen up. The way to go, I strongly suggest, is in the moment, in this moment, to open up wide. Just be present to who you are and to what is happening. If you notice your breath, it will guide you.
So, just a small example of what I mean about this opening up and where it can go. Friday night Jan & I drove up to Boston to watch the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Boston Symphony Hall. It was such a lovely and moving experience. Basically Preservation opened for the Blind Boys, although there were some powerful moments when they came together.
At one point near the end when they all were playing and singing "Down by the Riverside" Jan & I were in the upper right balcony and the stage door slipped open where those of us sitting at that angle, could see a young couple caught up and dancing together with, and it ain't a cliché when it aptly describes something, reckless abandon. And not just them. Everybody was moving. I mean Pentecostal, hand clapping, body swaying, moving...
Of course today’s sermon wasn’t far from my mind. And, of course, how could my attention miss the deep Christian faith that informs the Blind Boys work? My first thought was my usual criticism of the Christian faith, how dualistic the message is, only about that flowing river, not at all about the web. In its most common form the faith seems predicated in a promise of a future and endless life, for most with literal houses and streets. No web in this story. This life even for those who don't posit buildings it is still about a separation between the divine and the individual; and so to my experience of the great way, cut off from our true inheritance, the real promise of our existence.
And in reality that analysis, true or not, in my life was a clinching, a closing off from larger gifts their story points to. However, grace abides. If we’re willing to open ourselves, and truthfully, even sometimes when we’d rather not, the universe and our hearts crack open, revealing the great matter. For me, in the midst of that clapping and singing and dancing, in a startling moment of clarity, a heartbeat shift of perspective, and I recalled the forgotten. I noticed how the content of religion is so much less than the action, that movement of the heart. (And as the Chinese word xin reveals, heart and mind are really one thing.) The stories of religions are just superstructure. The story of a rising and dying god, the story of rational religion and endless progress, they’re stories. Maybe helpful, often are, but stories, not the thing in itself. Pointers. Not end places.
At that moment, I felt the sense of liberation. I felt along with those calling on Jesus, that connection, the real connection between each and all of us. So, considering life and death. The important thing is the doing, is our opening to what is. So, someone calls upon Jesus, someone else calls on the Buddha Amida, another surrenders to Allah, and another just notices; whichever of these paths, the action is one of surrender. Letting go of our certainties. Just putting it all down. That’s when the web part of our knowing becomes apparent.
And what follows that experience is liberation. In that moment death, which a heart beat before loomed a monster, simply becomes one more part of the way things are.
Of course this isn’t the end of the story. Our lives are a sequence of rememberings and forgettings, and doing it again. In all this we are both river and web. And in all this actions count. But actions informed by a full noticing of who we are and how we are connected, well, I suggest, that unites the quick and the dead into one thing, heaven.