Go and await the day of your death

In the 15th chapter of the Voyage of St Brendan, the saint meets a monk who lives alone on a deserted island.

The monk tells the tale of how he came to be there.

The dead St Patrick had appeared to him and instructed him to go down to the sea shore, where he would find a boat. He was to set sail in it and it would bring him,

‘to the spot where you will await the day of your death’.

He had followed the instructions, found the boat, climbed in and set sail, and it had brought him to this island where for 90 years he had lived as a solitary monk.

So the injunction ‘to await the day of your death’ was not a statement about an impending doom, but rather a call to live his whole life oriented towards the certainty of his own death, and hence focused resolutely and singularly, upon God.

I recently watched a brilliant film by the independent film-maker Nick HAMER. It was called ‘Outside the City’ and was based on the life of the monastery of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, Leicestershire.

During the course of the 18 months the film-maker spent with the monks several of them died.

It was very moving to hear the monks talk of their approaching death with calm and a sense of completion.

What was more striking was that even the young monks spoke often of their own death and of their desire to live and die well.

This monastic outlook that stares death squarely in the face in peaceful acceptance, is in stark contrast to our contemporary culture.

In our culture death is denied, pushed out of sight, it is seen in entirely negative terms.

It is interesting to look at St Francis of Assisi’s view of death. As he lay on his own death-bed he wrote a final verse to his great Canticle of the Sun.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom she will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, composed 1224-1226

We see here death personified as a ‘sister’, a friend whose ministry completes our human life.

For St Francis it was not Sister Death that we need to fear, but rather meeting her unprepared.

For the faithful follower of Jesus, Sister Death is harmless, merely the mechanism by whose ministry we are released into the full presence of God.

It strikes me that the monks of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey can fully embrace life precisely because they fully embrace death.

Holding their own death before them does not lead to depression or morbidity, but rather to the ability to focus on the important, that which brings life, to enjoy the joy of each moment of life, which is a gift. A gift that we take, give thanks for and offer back to God.

So I invite you to ‘go, and await the hour of your death.’

The Approaching Footfall – a poem

the_dying_detective_by_herrmagermilch-d4pmbqo

There have been several recent deaths that have touched my life.

There is also a nagging encroachment into my life of the signs of my own mortality.

All of which leaves me no choice but to think.

As I struggle to corral my thoughts and set them in some kind of framework. I find that, as with all of the most profound human experiences, it is only poetry that has the strength to carry the weight of the mystery I find myself staring at; prose just cannot do it.

And so I found myself in the small hours of last night crafting a poem that expresses something of what I am feeling at present, and of something that I am holding on to.

 

The Approaching Footfall

There is flat, focussed footfall,
At the edge of my perception.
Close by, afar?
Impossible to tell.
Yet gaining.

There is no advantage won in running,
Yet nothing lost in standing still.
The meeting, though obscure,
Is fixed inviolate in time.

– And that acceptance made,
The fear is less, the when
And more, the how.

A peaceful passing?
Old and full of years,
A slow decline into the dark abyss;
A live coal that flames,
Then glows,
Then cools,
Then cold extinguished,
Lost to sight.
Or a wild, explosive raging at the dying of the light?

– Do not speak of legacy, that charade,
That myth of lasting worth,
As if a fistful of years,
Would not suffice,
To wipe the greatest from the earth.
The Ozymandian conceit
Is merciless laid bare
– The wind blows,
The sands shift,
No trace remains.
All gone.

-What value then, a life?
If there is a heart,
From which the universe receives its pulse,
And if that heart regards a man,
And scrutes him path and deed and thought
Then only in that heart survives
An estimation, value, worth.

And if that heart were moved so to,
It might recognise itself in dim reflect
And cede that as an offspring child
From which no Father can himself de-turn
But gathers in and shares his life
And suffers not to part again.

Stephen John MARCH the Feast of St Scholastica, 2017