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Archive for July 6th, 2009

Death

I assume that anyone who visits this site is familiar with Maclin Horton’s blog, Light on Dark Water, which is linked here. It is consistently good; Maclin in recent years has moved out into the depths, and between his meditative posts and the ensuing conversations- among the most erudite and witty I have encountered on the web- he seems to have staked out a unique presence on the internet. A light on dark water, indeed.

He recently posted an essay called “I Hate Death”, a typically Hortonian musing, inspired by the discovery of a dead possum and the deep unease that any manifestation of death sparks in a reasonably healthy soul.

It got me thinking about a recent experience of my own, not with a dead possum, but with the corpse of a man I had never met.

He was the husband of a lady in my parish, Joanne, who had taken my iconography course a few years ago. The funeral was on my day off, and to show support for my friend in her grief and to supply a couple of altar servers two of my sons and I attended.

The Byzantine funeral liturgy, like all Byzantine liturgies, is very beautiful, with repeated pleas for mercy and reminders to God- or really, to ourselves- that everyone sins, but that God is good and loves mankind. And there are prayers for the forgiveness of sins committed “knowingly and unknowingly”, that I find particularly comforting. Of course we know that no subjective guilt is imputed for a sin committed in ignorance, but these prayers acknowledge the utter transcendent perfection which no man can attain. I suspect that even our virtues are tainted in the light of this perfection.

Between the repeated prayers for mercy and the beauty of the liturgy, I know this is the way I want to be dispatched.

The casket was open before and during the service. When I entered the church, after bowing to and kissing the icons, I approached the coffin and prayed briefly for the dead man’s soul. Later, in line to receive communion, I again passed the body and prayed. Both times, and whenever I looked at the casket during the liturgy, I was stunned by the incomprehensibility of the thing. The absence of the vivifying soul was tangible, and I marveled that anyone could believe death a physical thing, the mere disruption of a material process. I have always been struck by a sense of unreality when seeing a lifeless body, but this time I had a unique perception of the reality of the soul, made vivid by its absence.

The materialist is a great mystery to me. He would describe death as the equivalent of an irreparable mechanical breakdown. But I have had a couple of cars blow their engines. They were goners, that was it, the end of the line. But I did not have the sense that they were no longer automobiles, that something essential had departed. They didn’t seem suddenly unreal.

I have only been present at the death of one person, my father, some ten years ago. I was there with my mother and my sisters. After that last desperate breath had left him they fled the room crying. My instinct was quite other and I dropped to my knees and pulled the rosary from my pocket. But as I prayed I was acutely aware that my father was no longer present, that he had gone far away. It was nothing like when the Toyota blew its engine on the way home from work. It was still my car, hopelessly broken down, but my car. But this was not my father; this was a husk, an empty shell. The person I was praying for was no longer in the room.

But just as the body without the soul seems unreal, if we had the ability to perceive it the disembodied soul would itself seem incomplete, despite retaining consciousness and will.

And so we await in faith the reuniting of soul and body in the mystery of resurrection. And we cling to our Pioneer, our Pathfinder, the God-man who, in the words of the Divine Liturgy, by death conquered death and granted life to those in the tombs.

—Daniel Nichols

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