Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Life is full of loss. There are little losses and big losses. Ultimately, no matter how hard we try to stave it off, death itself will come to us and to those we love.
Whenever we are faced with any difficulty, it is likely to have woven into it the fear of some kind of loss, some kind of death.
I soon realized that even though the kind of breast cancer I had was not life threatening, I was faced with a variety of little deaths. And with death itself. All of these deaths seemed to call out to be acknowledged.
Often we try to ignore the losses of life. We tend to think of death as something that happens to other people or that is very far away from us. We forget that every breath we draw, every beat of our heart is a gift given and received. We forget that we have little or no control over our life or our death and we pay a high price for our systematic inattentiveness to the many losses we experience. Our losses, while painful, are also the soil in which growth is made possible.
One of the gifts that our many losses bring to us is the possibility, as the psalmist puts it, of “gaining a heart of wisdom.”
Christmas day, only a few days after first hearing the doctor explain that I had cancer, I wrote this about death:
Tomorrow I will meet with the surgeon. And the chances are 100% that she will need to take some or all of my breast. I am beginning to lose parts of my body. At times this seems a small event. And it is, in the larger perspective of things. It is a small death in a world of horrible, startling deaths. Yet it is a death. A death of being whole in body. At the same time I am experiencing a death of more and more of my pride, of more and more of my ego. Perhaps these deaths are an invitation to seek gifts from You. Gifts of humility and courage and grace and humor and openness to love. I want these gifts. I ask for all the humility and all the courage and all the grace and all the tenderhearted openness and all the humor I need for each step of this journey.
Later that day I continued with this prayer.
God, I offer you this new dying, this new death. May your life be born in this new letting go of self. Open my hands and heart and mind to release, to open up, to let go, to be emptied of pride and self-reliance and fear and self-serving. May your kingdom come and your will be done.
Nearly a month later, still waiting for what would be my first surgery, I wrote, again about death.
God. I am so sad today. I feel like I am going to die. And I am. Some day. This feels like the first of a long series of deaths. It also feels like a baptism into the absolute truth of my mortality.
It is not easy living in a body. It is at times glorious. But often it is painful. Because to fully inhabit our bodies and be here with others is to know loss upon loss.
The religious culture I was raised in mostly avoided this pain by preaching a kind of disembodied spirituality. In this way of thinking the body doesn’t really matter and death is seen as a kind of inconvenience. Today I cannot abide this Gnostic defense against the reality of loss and grief. Teach me to live fully present, fully embodied, fully human. Help me to be willing to acknowledge death.”
This struggle to acknowledge in a deeper, truer way that I, too, am going to die, that in many ways I am in the process of dying, brought gifts of wisdom and grace. With clearer eyes and a more tender heart I saw the exquisite beauty of the gift of life. And I caught glimpses of the gift of eternity. My sorrow began to mix with gratitude for these gifts of clearer sight. Six weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer I wrote about this gratitude.
Thank you for this experience. Thank you that I know in a deeper way that I am mortal. Thank you for this gentle new baptism into the joyful reality of eternity. Eternity here and now, and ongoing. Eternity meaning You here with us each and all. Eternity meaning the beauty and truth and goodness of You now and always with us, in us, around us…Thank you for the surprising joy of mortality, for the hope of the bliss of seeing You one day face to face.
Death. Our instinct is to resist, to avoid, to deny. Still it is with us every day. We can keep resisting or we can give ourselves to God and ask for the strength and courage and humility to open ourselves to what seems to us to be impossibly difficult. Perhaps this openness is the ultimate vulnerability, the deepest surrender.
When you don’t know what to do…acknowledge death.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What losses have you experienced?
2. What confrontation with death have you experienced?
3. How have these losses and confrontations impacted you?