“Keep death before you daily”

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ne of my wife’s running jokes regarding the shape of my ministry is that “Jamie goes for coffee for a living.” Truth be told, I do a great deal of my pastoral work over cups of coffee. Not that I’m complaining, of course. This is just the reality of being a part of a fairly young congregation. In my previous parishes I spent a lot more time doing hospital or nursing home visits, and that simply isn’t the reality at saint benedict’s table. Whereas my last parish had a running list of some fifteen or so shut-ins, on the whole we’re a pretty mobile bunch. Meeting for coffee (or a seasonal alternative…) works in our context.

And whereas in previous parishes it was not unusual to have a dozen or more funerals a year, in the seven years that we’ve been gathering as saint benedict’s table, our community has been involved in just four funerals. I’ve been asked to officiate at funerals for others with whom I have some significant personal connection, including the grandfather of a friend and the father of my sister-in-law, but in terms of our own community, the total is just four. Two of these took place in our church, and two were held at other churches in which the deceased persons had also been active. A parish pastor in a more conventional congregation would hardly be able to fathom these kinds of numbers; seven years of ministry in a church that often has a couple of hundred people in worship on an average Sunday night, and just four deaths?

And the thing is, each of those four funerals was marked by some very real tragedy. Two were for people who died of cancer—a woman in her forties, and a man who had just turned fifty—one was a suicide of a man in his fifties, and the most recent was for a man killed in an automobile accident at the age of forty-one. In different ways, each of these deaths posed incredible challenges to the community, and more particularly to the grieving families. How very different from a funeral for someone who had lived a long and full life, and then in their eighties or nineties slipped away into death. To be sure, there is still a sense of loss and grief in those situations, but it is generally tempered by a real sense that the deceased person had been able to move from life into death in a way that brings peace and resolution.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal over this past week or two, since the July 9 funeral of Allan Malazdrewich. There’s just no sense that Allan’s death was a movement of peace and resolution, for he lost his life in a sudden and violent automobile accident out on the highway. That morning when he got up, there was nothing to suggest that it was going to be his final day of his life. For his wife and kids it probably felt pretty much like any other morning, marked by the usual routines and maybe an argument about whose turn it was to wash the breakfast dishes. And then later that day… well, nothing would ever be the same again.

So this has got me thinking about the fragility of our lives, and about just how much we take for granted. Clearly, it also got Allan’s family thinking about the same things, and in fact at his funeral both his son Matthew and his daughter Kaitylan said as much in their memorial reflections.

And I think it got our whole church community thinking about the stuff of life and death, which in itself is not a bad thing. Not that Allan’s death was by any means a good thing, but I was aware how significant it was for us—a church that has so seldom been in the position of holding funerals—to be drawn up short in the face of such a tragic death. The word went out via e-mail, and a host of volunteers materialized. People came out to set up the parish hall for the reception, to help with the service itself, to provide music by for the congregation (and child care for the son of one of the musicians…), and to take care of the all the clean-up after the 375 mourners had departed. What I really appreciated was several of these volunteers hadn’t really even known Allan; they just knew that he and his family were a part of us, and so they wanted to respond.

Again, I need to say that there is just no sense in which Allan’s death was a good thing. Yet our congregation having to face the reality of death was, in some very real sense, good for us. Not that I’m suggesting that God allowed Allan’s death in order to teach something to our church (that would be an appalling claim, wouldn’t it?), but I do believe it allowed us to do a bit of wrestling with the truth of our own mortality. In his instructions to his monks, St Benedict instructs them to “keep death before you daily,” which on first glance might seem a rather morbid thing to say. However, as Columba Stewart points out in his book on the Benedictine tradition, in the 6th century when Benedict was writing his Rule, a monk in his twenties had only a one in ten chance of making it to his seventies. Their world simply didn’t offer the kind of life expectancy that most of us take for granted, and so Benedict’s advice was a kind of “don’t kid yourself; we are mortal and fragile… live accordingly.”

While part of what it means to “live accordingly” is to be deeply mindful of our mortality, I think another part has to do with learning to savour each moment and each day as a gift and an opportunity to really live. And as I write that, I am aware that this is exactly what Allan’s teenaged daughter Kaitylan said so very profoundly in her reflection at her dad’s funeral.

So yes, we do need to mourn those tragic deaths and to come around the survivors with love and compassion. But we also need to stand in face of such deaths with a renewed sense both of our mortality and of the gift that each day really is. In that sense, we are well advised to keep death before us daily…

Jamie Howison

One Response to “Keep death before you daily”

  1. Byron says:

    In first grade my son Will had to stand before the class and say what his father did.
    “He goes to Safeway,” he proudly pronounced!
    This was based on my penchant for shopping for specials and markdowns almost daily as we attempted to stretch a desperately tight family food budget.

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