Friday, April 17, 2009

To Die and Be Reborn

In various spiritual writings, there is talk of "dying before you die." I used to think this was a mysterious and unappealing concept. Don't most of us want to avoid thinking about dying? What would be the point of doing it ahead of time, when I didn't want to do it at all? And what was the purpose of dwelling on it? Wasn't that kind of morbid?

I loved my life; it was going really well. My marriage was great; our children were happy & doing well. I even wondered if it was going too well to last, a kind of superstitious thought...or maybe it was an intuition. Anyway, I had difficulty with the hair-shirt, sacrificial, self-flagellating kind of theology. I had seen enough of hell on earth to know what I was trying to avoid; I didn't want to give up the good that had been given to me, for some mysterious purpose that I didn't even understand.

Then, in October of 2006, all hell broke loose in our lives, in the form of a life-threatening tumor in our daughter's body, and I began to "die before I die."

I "died" in many ways; for example:
*my old life as semi-rural, semi-privileged homemaker ended
*much of my innocence ended, including any illusion of being "in control" of my life
*I moved out of my house, and into shared housing and/or hospital rooms
*I moved to a "country" (hospital) whose language, mores and rules I did not know, performing functions that were foreign & painful to me
*my privacy ended
*my quiet, private morning prayer routine ended
*I left my hobbies, church community, Bible Study, work in Stephen Ministry & as a Deacon
*my children left their schools, and I left my volunteer work for their schools
*I left my friends, many family members, pets, social life, free time
*my exercise routine ended
*I accompanied my daughter & family into a kind of hell on earth
*my intellect stopped functioning as it had done
*when we learned that Katie was going to die, many of my hopes died
*when she passed away, a part of me died, too.

A new life began, even before we understood that the old one had ended. We tried to hang onto the old life, as best we could. Some of its elements survived, and sustained us, such as our closeness as a foursome. But some of its elements had to be dismantled and allowed to lie unused, as if a well-run machine had been taken apart by a mechanic and its parts dropped, left to lie where they fell. We had to let them go; we had no way of carrying anything but the most essential elements with us, and no way of knowing if we would ever get them back again.

When disaster strikes, you have only who and what you are to work with. If you have faith in a higher power, you have that power with you.

You begin to find out who and what you really are. You don't find it by self-examination or thinking; you find it by doing what you have to do, as best you can do it. I don't know why the world works this way, but it does. And now, I think that perhaps this is what is meant by "dying before you die." It's not something you do to become worthy, or to make God love you more. It's an attitude of the heart, a willingness to let "what isn't me" go, so that I can function well for the need of the moment, and respond with the best that I am given, right now. There is a freedom in this kind of spareness and poverty, but it's not in "worthiness" or self-flagellation; it's travelling light, flexibility, openness. I daresay I would not have ever volunteered to live this way, in my old life; I liked my life too much to step out like this. But necessity - Katie's need - brought it out, and her need led the way into this new life. Here is what The Center for Action and Contemplation's email for yesterday had to say:
"Jesus didn’t move from Jesus to the Christ without death and resurrection. And we don’t move from our independent, historical body to the Christ consciousness without dying to our false self.
"We, like Jesus himself, have to let go of who we think we are, and who we think we need to be. 'Dying at 30, largely a failure?' We have to let go of the ego names by which we have named ourselves and become the naked self before the naked God. That will always feel like dying. We need to know, experientially, that 'I am who I am who I am', and THAT naked, undecorated self is already and forever the beloved child of God. Then we can begin to share in the universal Christ consciousness."

I love that phrase: "the ego names by which we have named ourselves..." That is what is dying. Those weren't bad names; they just aren't who I am, who we are. But it can be painful to let go of the self that I think I am.

And from CAC today: "When we finally allow life to take us through the Paschal Mystery of passion, death, and resurrection, we will be transformed. At this stage we’ll have found the capacity to hold the pain, to enter into solidarity with it, not to fear it or hate it or project it onto other people.
"Actually, it’s really God holding the pain in us, because the little self can’t do it. But the Big Self, God in us, can absorb it, can forgive it, can resolve it. We know it’s grace when we no longer need to hate or punish others, even in our mind. We know someone else is working through us, in us, in spite of us, and for us.
"Our life is not our own henceforward. Now we draw from the Christ mystery, the Christ nature, the Christ source. Oh, we’ll regress; but when we’ve experienced our true self, who we are in Christ, we’ll know what’s really real."

both from Richard Rohr, Adapted from The Cosmic Christ

Some days that pain is nearly overwhelming; on other days, it's barely there. I think it's all part of being human, of living here, and surviving what comes our way. Perhaps this sounds like a mind-game, some mystical mish-mash that means nothing; if you go through a death-experience, you may see it differently. If you do have to "die before you die," I pray that you will receive hope from these words.

In the spirit of God in us, and re-birth, here is a beautiful prayer, set to music.

A Prayer Of Saint Patrick - Cambridge Singers
Thank you for this link, Jennifer!


shauna said...

That was a great post. Thank you for all the support you've shown me on my blog... I think of you and your family often... and of course Katie.

kentucky said...

Amazing thoughts, Karen. And I'm also happy to see that we share a love for the Cambridge Singers!

Jennifer said...

Boy, Karen, again you knock it outta the park. You articulate clearly and get at the essence of what "dying before you die" is all about. I have been working on sorting out and writing down my own thoughts on this topic, though my experience is nowhere near as shattering as the death of a child, as you live with daily. But I have never read elsewhere what you have written here, and I have done a lot of reading on the subject of suffering. It is both a relief and an odd encouragement to read it, as you helped me greatly in framing what I have been going through. Especially these words: "You begin to find out who and what you really are. You don't find it by self-examination or thinking; you find it by doing what you have to do, as best you can do it ... It's not something you do to become worthy or to make God love you more ..." and the rest of that powerful, truth-filled paragraph. The CAC quote also hit me: "We need to know, experientially, that 'I am who I am who I am,' and THAT naked, undecorated self is already and forever the beloved child of God." Not the self that strives; the self that IS, at the core. (That self, incidentally, is what you were describing when you spoke of when disaster strikes, you have only who and what you are to work with. True. And that is what God sees and embraces. Nothing more.

So often I have heard it proclaimed (almost exclusively in the church or by church folk) that a true Christian must move through suffering in such a way that it gives glory to God, and they interpret that as meaning the following: they are best who move through heartbreak, grief and trial without complaining, being a "witness" to others, being very vocal about how one's faith/belief in the goodness of God doesn't change, always being thankful, always having a smile on your face, always looking to be an "example" and encouraging others.

They are talking about how a person should act and behave outwardly -- a kind of performing. You, instead, are speaking of -- well, girl, you're speaking of HOW IT REALLY IS. You're speaking of being. (You speak of doing, too, but it's not doing in order to "prove" anything.) You're speaking of what it's truly like -- the surviving, the traveling lighter, the response to the need of the moment with what you have, what you're given, right then and the shedding of the false self. (And, for me anyway, I didn't even KNOW what was false until my life went "under the knife," so to speak.)

Those other ways of talking about suffering made me feel that I was being measured against a yardstick and continually falling short. And it never matched up with either my experience or my shifting understanding of who God is. ("Shifting" meaning not that it shifts around all the time; rather that it HAS shifted from what it was when I was a conservative evangelical. Perhaps "maturing" is a better term.)

Your words, conversely, give me hope and light and goodness.

Okay, the length of this comment is gonna bust your comment box wide open, but I wanted to send along another prayer set to music. This one is a 13th century English prayer, and it sprang to mind along with the "Prayer of St. Patrick" when I read your post with the picture of the Celtic prayer MB sent you.

God be in my head, and in my understanding
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking
God be in my mouth and in my speaking
God be in my heart, and in my thinking
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

God bless you richly, Karen. And thank you.


Anonymous said...

a book must be written... and yes by you. You are not the end of the rope... others will go through what you have gone through and continue to experience each day of this process. I read your posts on a regular basis... this one by far is my favorite. but i must admit several back I would have made the same declaration and I am sure I will make this declaration again in the future. Your thoughts put into typed words make so much sense out of a very painful and difficult situation for humans to suffer and go through... it is not fair, I grieve for you daily even though you do not know me nor do I know you... our common denominator is that we are both mothers... my only goal in life. You, my precious one, give so much to others... be blessed and find joy, for you so deserve it... my love to you and yours.

Renee said...

To die before you die; I know it very well.

Thank you for this post.

Love Renee xoxo