In the last few years I have blogged about experiences I have had as a young seminarian one of which tell the tale of me praying over the body of a dead man whose life, name, even corpse faded into nothing. He was a lonely man with almost no family who died in a small yellow, broken house forgotten - no one to weep for him.
As I have been thinking of my experiences as a leader of God's people, now an atheist, I, perhaps true to my Catholic upbringing, keep finding myself dwelling on the mystery of death. Our passing at the end of our lives seems to be much of the motivator for humanity's continuation in belief in the divine. In thinking about death many are afraid, some are excited for they believe they'll live forever, and some are ambiguous, not sure what they're facing. I am in a category that might be a little more solitary - I don't mind death - in fact it will be fine.
I think that much of our experience as faith filled people, especially in the western traditions, is centered around three elements - creation, death, and resurrection/the next life. Philosophies vary from theological system to theological system, but most certainly there is a common drive behind base theology in a mono-theistic and even in some poly-theistic points of view. That common view is the possibility that our lives will continue in some fashion after we expire on this world.
I don't want to wax on the philosophy of death and life, so many philosophers, most better than I have already done so. Instead I want to ponder my own experience of death. I've interestingly enough had several experiences of death, not my own, but in being privileged enough to be asked to participate in the very personal time of a person's passing.
The first time death had a large impact on me was when I still a Freshman in seminary college. Part of our training was to spend each Saturday in ministerial service to the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the dying. One mission I was assigned to was to go on those Saturdays to the mental hospital in St. Josephs, Missouri. We were assigned to different floors in the hospital, some of us visited young people on suicide watch, others visited residents who were there for the long hale due to very deep seeded mental and emotional disadvantages. Now this was 1989, and the state of mental health care was poor indeed.
One of my Saturdays I was on the ward for folks on suicide watch and folks who were very seriously clinically depressed. I met a young man named Sandy who had tried to kill himself the weekend prior. We talked for hours about music, life, where he was from, about his hopes and dreams. He told me about his hobbies, his passion for painting, that he was afraid to die, but that he was more afraid to live. I felt a connection to him and loved seeing him. Sandy wasn't much older than I, he was the only boy in his family. He was originally from a town outside of Kansas City. He was a handsome man, he had a sweet smile that seemed to escape from the mask of sadness he wore. When he did laugh, when he did smile, all the sorrow in his face washed away and he filled the room with brightness. Looked back with the wisdom of my years I know now I had a crush on Sandy, maybe the first one I really had for another man. We were friends as much as we could be with him at the St. Joe's Mental Hospital.
These visits went on for several Saturday sessions. I was so excited to have the chance to be a moment of hope, new experience for Sandy. his family wasn't coming to see him, and his ability to leave the hospital would happen only after he was deemed fit to not be a threat to himself or others. We were very closely monitored by the staff at St. Joe's, and after a month or so I was pulled aside by a doctor at the hospital. "Hi, I know you've been spending time with Sandy, I want to warn about him." My mind raced, warn me about what? Sure I could tell that Sandy was struggling with depression and other issues, very serious issues, but at the same time I loved meeting Sandy, he made my newly found ministry as a servant of the church seem so real. "Okay?" was my reply.
"Well I want you to know that Sandy has that disease AIDS and he's dying." I had heard of AIDS of course, but this was still 1989 and at this time the disease was still a death sentence for many, and most certainly it was a stigma related only to gay men. The crisis had already killed so many, in fact Robert Mapplethorpe had just died of AIDS that March, and so hearing this news I was shocked. First, Sandy seemed fine except he was sad. He had told me that he had used drugs to help find escape from his sadness, from his loneliness, so I knew that Sandy had some serious demons. But to think that Sand was dying, it was inconceivable to me.
I told the hospital administrator that I didn't care he had AIDS or any other issue. I was there to care for him, to be his friend, to be a listening board. I was there to show him that someone cared, that someone loved him. I remember driving back on the back-roads of Missouri after hearing Sandy's condition. I had to pull my little crappy car over on the side of the road. I cried. I stared at the Missouri grey sky and asked God why did he allow us to suffer? Why was God going to let Sandy die?
The hospital must have also said something to the monk who was the head of my apostolic program, the person in charge of assigning us to our Saturday ministries. I was reassigned the next weekend to a Catholic nursing home in Maryville, a town much closer to the monastery. It was safe, the elderly loved to pray rosaries, read from the bible and tell stories of their families and children.
Sandy died that spring, I don't know if it was self inflicted or if he had succumb to AIDS. Another seminarian, David, who was still working at the mental hospital came and told me one Saturday evening a month or so later. "Thom, I wanted to let you know that Sandy died last week." He put his hand on my shoulder, an act of kindness. Tears in my eyes, "How?" David, who was a second career seminarian, older than I, shook his head, "I'm sorry I don't know." I felt a tear run down my cheek. "Thanks David." I found myself in the seminarian chapel. I loved the chapel, it was always quiet, I could go there and be alone, and not a soul would bother me. In that chapel, looking at the crucifix I tried to justify Sandy's death in the possibility he would be resurrected. Then there in that chapel I wondered if he had died by his own hand? Would he go to heaven? Wasn't suicide unforgivable, the most destructive act one could commit to God's gift of life? Then I wondered, what if Sandy were gay too? He had contracted a disease that at the time many were saying was a plague given to gay men as a punishment. In that sense then did God decide that Sandy should die?
Even today as I type these memories of Sandy I'm moved to tears. Not because of any theology but because I remember that young man who was stuck in a horrible mental hospital the last days of his life alone in a room with another mental patient. I cry because I wanted to be his friend, but when the leaders of our apostolic program believed I was too close to a person I was ministering to they pulled me away. No other seminarian went to see Sandy, he didn't have any external visitors again for the rest of his life - his family had disowned him, he was in a state institution that painted with broad strokes in its treatment of the mentally ill. Sandy is gone from the earth, and I wonder who else remembers him.
That death seemed so lonely to me and over the years death was lonely in many more instances. I remember Tom, a seminarian who had struggled with a personality that was very odd. He died one summer in between my Junior and Senior year at Conception. Tom had always been held at a distance from other seminarians. He was passionate about his faith, his ministry. He was an odd bird, and had been told at the end of my junior year, his senior year, that he would not be moving forward into graduate school for ministry. That summer he was working for his father, who had a business serving electrical companies. They were using a hydraulic lift to work on wires above head. The tires of the device shifted, Tom was thrown from the basket and died on impact to the ground. What struck me as lonely was that Tom, in his eccentricities didn't have any friends at the seminary. He and I weren't close, but he always smiled, he was clearly in love with his faith. That fall in 1991 we had a small memorial service for him. Following the service a couple of seminarians were mocking him and that they were surprised that college would bother to remember him. I grew angry and reminded them that in their own faith Jesus loved and tended to the fringes of society. They just laughed at me and walked away. Even when Tom was remembered, then in that moment most people who knew him, except his family, laughed at his passing.
So death - our fear of it - in my experience seems to come from our fear to be alive. We are so held back in our ability, our desire to know those people who are outside of our comfort zones. I had encountered hundreds of times since these days death. As a priest I ministered 100s of funerals. I've lost family to death. I've lost pets who were like children to death. As I've gotten older and older I am less inclined to be afraid to die. Certainly in working with faith groups I found many people unwilling to really minister in the areas that seemed uncomfortable.
In the 10s of thousands of years in human history we've been running from death. And in our running, we've created elaborate systems of explaining away the finality of death. Heaven, hell, Valhalla, reincarnation, are all ways to make us feel better about not having fully lived before the bell tolls. My experiences of death, some very personal, others I was on the edges, have all lead me to experience death in the same way. The light of life goes out. That's it. There is no white tunnel of light to greet us. There is no coming back. There is no second chance. Life is but a moment, a flicker of a perfect combination of cells and atoms that for a moment bring awareness and consciousness to beings we call human. Nothing in all my readings on the philosophy of life, death, afterlife, theology, science, have been able to indicate anything other than what we all experience. That when the final breath escapes our lips, the final beat of our hearts thumps against our ribs, we are no more. We're gone. The matter that charged that self awareness simply ceases to charge.
I don't think that that is so horrible. My matter, my material being is what matters while I am aware of it. The final reality that someday my awareness of my situation will end is no sadder than thinking my awareness of my situation didn't exist before I came to be. I do not mourn for lack of life before February 25, 1970, I shall not mourn for my life when it ceases at some time after today. What matters then? For me it's the awareness of life while we have it. I was on the train yesterday coming home from work, and looking at the people standing around me I realized I love humanity. I love its flaws, its greatness. I love that we scurry in our brief moments of existence to connect to one another. I love that we build monuments and temples to our folly. I love that we sing, we dance, we cry, I love that we mourn. The sorrow at death comes because in a world of limitless possibilities, there are limits, defined by death. Those limits piss us off, and we try to find ways around them. But there are no ways around our friend death. But that's okay, because we know this is true. In knowing we cannot escape death we should be moved to love life even more. We should be moved to embrace the humanity around us.
I loved Sandy all those years ago. I am hurt that I was no longer able to be his friend because of fear. I loved Tom too. His weird eccentric life was brilliant, and his death was sad because that life that shone so bright was shut off too soon. But I am reminded by these young men's passing's and as I say quite often, we are none of us getting of the rock alive.
"Remember oh man you are star dust and unto star dust you shall return."