In this season of Lent leading to Easter, we contemplate the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In a reflection adapted from her new book, How to Live, Judith Valente considers a well-known line from The Rule of St Benedict which underscores a question Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister once raised: the key question for a Christian isn’t, is there life after death, but is there life before death?
BY Judith Valente
There is a wonderful scene in the novel Zorba the Greek, where the indefatigable Zorba recounts meeting a 90-year-old man who has planted an almond grove.
“What, Grandfather, planting an almond tree!” Zorba exclaims, guessing the old man won’t live long enough to see his trees bear fruit.
“My son, I carry on as if I should never die,” the old man says.
Zorba replies, “And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.”
Who is right, the old man or Zorba? Both I suspect.
I’ve always had a terrible fear of death. It often grips me in the middle of the night. At those times, I wake seized with the anxiety that I will one day no longer occupy the chair at my work desk, my place at the kitchen table, or my side of the bed. This fear began at an early age. It may have something to do with having parents who were older when I was born. They looked like my friends’ grandparents. Grandparents had the unfortunate habit of dying. I feared my parents would die and I’d be left alone.
No wonder, then, that when I first began reading The Rule of St Benedict, few passages leaped out at me more than “Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die”. As an adolescent, I liked characters in literature who refused to sleepwalk through life: Larry Darrell, the spiritual seeker in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge; Eugene Gant, who yearns to leave the emotional confines of his small town and fractured family in Look Homeward, Angel; and of course, the insouciant Zorba.
For a time, as I focused on my writing career, I was able to put aside my fear of death, like a book I’d read and put back on its shelf. Then something happened. My mother died suddenly of a stroke. Death, my old adversary, re-announced itself as the fundamental struggle of my life. It was an adversary my life-loving mother could not overcome, and one I knew no measure of my own will could vanquish either.
What haunted me most about my mother’s death was its suddenness. How could a person who was talking, joking, and enjoying a meal of eggplant parmesan one Sunday no longer exist the next? Walking into my parents’ living room for the first time after my mother’s death, I was overwhelmed by the stillness. The house reeked of silence.
I wondered if her death – or any death – might be easier to cope with if there had been some warning that it was imminent. Or is it better we don’t know it’s the last year, the last week, the last day, and we simply live our lives and love who we love right up to the end? As The Rule advises, “Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you wherever you may be”.
Around the time my mother died, I had another extraordinary experience. I was walking in downtown Chicago when I noticed a police cordon in front of an office tower. I asked a bystander what had happened, and he told me a window had fallen out of the 21st floor of the building. It struck a woman who had been walking with her daughter, killing the young mother instantly. As unpredictable a death as you can imagine. Once again, death seemed like some maniacal sharp shooter, randomly picking its targets.
I could not stop thinking about that woman. One minute she was walking along holding her little girl’s hand, and the next barrelling through to the afterlife. It reminded me of a line in “For the anniversary of my death” a poem by W.S. Merwin. “Every year without knowing it, we pass the date of our death.”
I thought about the possibility of my own death. I hoped it would not just show up at my door, a discourteous guest, but drop a note in the mail instead, months or weeks before, as polite company would do.
A few years after my mother’s death, when I began spending extended periods at Mount St Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas, one of the first friends I made was then 89-year-old Sister Lillian Harrington. I got to know Sister Lillian very well, and felt comfortable enough with her to share my intense fear of dying. One day, I asked her if she ever thought about the moment of death. She drilled her steely blue eyes into mine and told me something I’ve never forgotten. “I don’t think about dying,” she said, “I think about living.”
Living mindfully, looking beyond the obvious – these were things Sister Lillian did, along with drinking strawberry daiquiris and enjoying birthday cake just a few days before she died at the age of 96.
Witnessing the dying, death, and burial of a sister at Mount St Scholastica was another profound experience. The sisters confront death not begrudgingly, but rather lovingly, tenderly. Unless a sister dies suddenly, or away from the monastery, no one dies alone. The sisters keep a 24-hour vigil at the bedside of the dying. They call it “sitting with” the person. As a woman without children of my own and a husband who is nine years older, I sometimes wonder who will be sitting with me.
When the casket returns from the funeral home bearing a sister’s body, every member of the community lines up to meet it, as a bell tolls in the monastery tower. The night before the burial is for storytelling – a time for the community to remember the sister they lost – her gifts, shortcomings, eccentricities, and all.
The next morning, with one sister carrying high a crucifix, community members march behind the casket to the cemetery. They stride with purpose and abandon to the gravesite. The first time I witnessed this, I remember thinking, these must be the only truly free people in America.
I don’t think the sisters’ fearlessness in the face of death comes solely from their belief in eternal life. As Sister Lillian once said to me, “We don’t know what happens to us after death, we just believe”. I think their equanimity comes from the confidence that each one of them has lived a meaningful life. In the same chapter of The Rule in which Benedict asks us to daily remind ourselves we are going to die, he also gives us a blueprint for how to live: “Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ. If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with him before the sun goes down. And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy”.
These are things we probably should have been taught in pre-school.
I once interviewed a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an association of non-believers. She happened to be a cancer survivor. She said death is what gives meaning to life. Believing that nothing awaits us beyond this life spurs us to make the most of this life. I think she has it wrong. I believe it is life that gives meaning to death. As Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister writes, “The fundamental question for a Christian isn’t whether there’s life after death, but whether there’s life before death”.
The philosopher Steve Cave gave a talk a few years ago on our National Public Radio’s TED Radio Hour. His topic was “Why are human beings afraid to die?” Cave spoke of his own fear of death from an early age. It sounded very similar to mine. He said he eventually discovered a new way of thinking about death that helped with his fear.
“I find it helps to see life as being like a book,” Cave said. “A book is bound by its covers… so our lives are bounded by birth and death.” He continued by saying that the characters in a book know no horizons. They are not afraid of reaching the last chapter, because they only know the moments that make up their story. We humans who are characters in life “need not worry how long our story is, if it’s a comic strip or an epic,” Cave said. “The only thing that matters is that it’s a good story.”
The only thing that matters is that it’s a good story. That is why we keep death daily before our eyes.
There is a beautiful dedication that comes at the beginning of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. Steinbeck wrote it for his editor. He likens his book to an exquisitely carved box. What he says about his box, I’d like to say about my life at the end:
“Here is your box. Nearly everything I have is in it… Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad, and evil thoughts and good thoughts… the pleasure of design and some despair… and the indescribable joy of creation. And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you. And still the box is not full.”
This is what the living do. We put everything we have into our life. And on top of it all the gratitude and love we have for one another. May our boxes never empty.
This reflection is adapted from How to Live: What The Rule of St Benedict Teaches us about Happiness, Meaning and Community by Judith Valente © copyright by Judith Valente. Available in November 2018 from HarperCollins Publishers.