The hero is the man of self-achieved submission. But submission to what? That precisely is the riddle that today we have to ask ourselves and that it is everywhere the primary virtue and historic deed of the hero to have solved. Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old again, but of something new. Within the soul, within the body social, there must be a continuous “recurrence of birth” a rebirth, to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death. For it is by means of our own victories, if we are not regenerated, that the work of Nemesis is wrought: doom breaks from the shell of our very virtue. Peace then is a snare; war is a snare; permanence is a snare. When our day is come for victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do except be crucified—and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn. (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Voices, 1949)
Proximity to, reflection on, confrontation with and fear of the fact, the image, the metaphor and the existential and eschatological implications of death…these are some of the more obvious and also deleterious avoidances of contemporary western culture. Whether death is considered an evil, or an ambiguous and mysterious end, or a passing through to another realm, it enters our consciousness from a wide range of experiences. We read about death in literature; we see death occurring in our news reports; we read death notices and obituaries of colleagues, friends and even family. Occasionally, we are faced with a tragic death of a young boy or girl, seemingly an inexplicable event that, once again, generates confusion, anxiety and becomes another of the transformational moments seemingly begging if not demanding our attention, at the moment, and likely for the rest of our lives. We can only guess that Joseph Campbell’s words hint at and infer an intimate, indissoluble connection between some kind of birth and death. Facing the moment of death, when we are stripped of will and agency, we are then at the gate of rebirth. So it is not surprising that a reflective, deliberate and designed pathway toward some role in pastoral care would bring aspiring candidates face to face with death.
While a student of theology and also of pastoral counselling, I had occasion to enter into two different deaths, not merely of different individuals, but more importantly in very different circumstances. In one instance, I was assigned to a parish in which a clergy had, tragically, taken his life, two years prior to my arrival. This assignment followed on the heels of a clinical pastoral education unit in hospital chaplaincy, in which one of the requirements was to attend an autopsy.
It is to the latter experience that I refer first.
Five colleagues comprised the class with a supervising chaplain. We were informed early one morning that, at 1:00 p.m. we would be attending an autopsy and then preparing a theological reflection on our experience. In my mid-forties, I had visited family members of friends, colleagues and associates who had recently experienced the death of a loved one. My immediate reaction to the information of the impending afternoon with the pathologist was heightened nerves, rapid and short breathing, and questions to myself about my ‘strength’ to endure such an experience. I had been assigned to the emergency room, and to the palliative care ward and had visited patients near death, in a coma, and with families accompanying their loved one near their death. I had participated in one or two funerals, as an intern, and, while this new direction was not unexpected, it was nevertheless a challenge.
Just prior to the pre-determined time, I met with the supervisor, who, in considerable wisdom and sensitivity, and likely based on a similar experience with other chaplain apprentices, quietly uttered these words: “Just go to the autopsy and if you find you have to leave, give yourself permission to leave!” I had already been required to participate as witness to a hernia surgery during which I had been taken out of the operating room by a nurse who noticed my potential to faint. After a few moments, I returned to experience the last stages of the operation. The supervisor’s “gate-opening” to leave the autopsy came as a momentous relief, given the gravity of the experience as I then conceived it.
We five put on scrubs upon entering the pathology lab with the pathologist and his assistant, noting the covered body of a middle-aged woman who had died earlier that morning. The suspected cause of death was heart attack…and with that the procedure began. Remaining some feet away from the foot of the gurney, I tentatively and intermittently glanced toward the body, as the pathologist began his quiet, careful and sensitive work. Upon seeing the heart, he opined that the heart was completely healthy, thereby removing the alleged cause of death. It was only when he opened the lungs that he found a baseball-size tumour that had obviously been a cause of her death. He later found a small, metastasized tumour, about the size of the end of a little finger on her brain, that had also been instrumental in causing her death.
As the process unfolded, I found myself moving closer to the foot-end of the gurney, mesmerized and fascinated at the highly complex, inter-connected complexity of organs, vessels, and the sheer awe and wonder at how mystical, mysterious and perhaps even miraculous was the human body. Of course, the experience itself had its own significant contribution to my heightened consciousness, and lowered anxieties. Engrossed, engaged, and even overwhelmed are words that are still capturing the experience in memory, thirty-one years later. After an energized and protracted walk around the campus of the hospital of about three hours, time needed to “come down” from the impact of what I had witnessed, felt, and thought in that perhaps one or two hours, I finally settled enough to begin the “reflection.” The symmetry, the poetry, the complexity and the fragility of the human body, and all of its many complex and diversely deployed organs simply and symphonically intoned a truth to which I had previously been deaf and dumb.
Of course, I came away with a profound respect for the professionalism of both pathologist and his assistant as well as an even more enriched reverence for God and this ‘piece’ of his creation. Humbling, and stimulating, enervating and enlivening, that day is indelibly carved in my memory and my being as part of how I see each person, and, so long as my defences are not over-wrought, how I prefer to remain in awe of each person’s personhood, different from his/her identity, in the conventional sense of that word. In participation in the process of the dying, the visiting with the dying family member, the funeral preparations and burial, I have brought these reflections into each succeeding chapter of ministry practice as would anyone who had shared in the experience.
Certainly, a rebirth of consciousness, a new depth of the overpowering complexity of this “universe” of the human being, infused me with a new spirit of honour, respect, humility and determination that bore heavily on my decision to pursue a path of “inner reflection” when I undertook these studies.
The assignment as intern to a small parish where the clergy had taken his life, however, came some two years following the event. As a cataclysmic tragedy in the life of such a fragile, small and struggling church community, this death seemed to hang like a kind of cloud over the ethos of this group. When I preached on the second anniversary of the death, and mentioned the name of the deceased clergy, I was unaware that that was the first utterance of the name in the intervening two years, from the pulpit. Tears were evident on the faces of some in the pews, following the service, and they expressed gratitude as they departed.
Organizational grief work, while important, is nevertheless not paramount as a specific diocesan priority in most regions so “professionals” are often called in from other areas. As I later learned, when, with my faculty advisor and the support of the clergy, together we proposed, designed and delivered a “grief” process as part of the Lenten Study of the parish. Resistance, in the form and words of, “This is all in the past and we want to leave it there!” came from some of the members of the parish who had been there at the time of the incident. Others, however, hesitatingly put their toes into the ‘water’ of the conversations, following an introductory homily by the faculty advisor. This death, while serving as the clergy, left a deep residue of not only grief but also of betrayal, anger, disappointment and deep questions of “faith” and the meaning and purpose of faith in a clergy leader in the Christian church.
Pivotal, again, is the occurrence of death in the lives of any who are closely connected in any way to the death, especially if that death is self-inflicted, and even more so if that death is the result of one’s own actions. In a faith community, self-inflicted death could potentially be the most nefarious, unexpected and thereby traumatic event to which a parish is or can be exposed. “Picking up the pieces” and putting things back “to normal” as organizations seek to do, however, is not easily congruent with a pastoral grieving process. Grieving, a highly private, and even spiritual process, evokes the totality of one’s person, his/her consciousness, his/her faith, his/her sense of where God is in all of this, and his/her sense of hope, one of the sine qua non’s of any faith pilgrimage.
In the evening Lenten study sessions, I learned, virtually by accident, of how important and relevant is the process of grieving, if opened up and accessible to minds, spirits and hearts that are themselves open and vulnerable to the truth of their experience, including their deepest emotions. One of the significant figures in the Easter narrative is Judas, the Betrayer, and clearly this congregation felt betrayed by the act of their clergy. Almost as if these words came from a cloud hovering near the ceiling of the room, I uttered them, without fully grasping their source or their impact: “If we are going to look at how we have been betrayed, we could and must also look at how we have been a betrayer to others.” The clergy immediately inquired, “How have you been a betrayer?” (We had had no prior conversations about how this session would proceed!) Apparently feeling very little anxiety amid these people who had embraced my internship fully, I responded: “When I left my marriage, I did not intend to betray my daughters; yet I have no doubt that they would have felt betrayed by my leaving.”
The next morning, upon reporting to the bishop the content of the evening’s session, the clergy heard these words from the bishop: “That’s evil and must be stopped” The bishop was apparently enforcing his authority to supervise and monitor the “theological process” that was taking place in one of his parishes. Without further sanction from either clergy or faculty advisor, we continued the process. It was at the funeral of that same faculty advisor, two years later, that the clergy and I were approached by that bishop who uttered these words: “The process of grief work that was undertaken in that parish was healing and the parish has benefitted from it!”
It is not only the anatomical mystery that accompanies death, if the cause at first is unapparent; it is also the social, cultural, theological and spiritual mystery that parallels the anatomical symmetry and complexity and musicality of the human being.
There is little doubt that our life is bordered by both birth and death and the vulnerability of which Joseph Campbell writes, incapsulating the new life that can come only from our surrender, can be and is metaphorically and psychically connected to the new life that always accompanies a death. That we are not always or often conscious of the new life, in the midst of our grief, however, is not evidence of its absence, rather evidence of our then inability to access its depth and gift.
From Professor Campbell’s, The Power of Myth, we find these words:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I thing that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
To be sure, the pursuit of purpose and meaning, in the existential (Frankl) explication, need not exclude Campbell’s “rapture of being alive”. In fact, it seems to this scribe that each is a complement to the other, rather than an exclusion of the other.
It is not cognition that can or will explain the mystery of death, nor is it science that can open the mysteries of death. Even faith, a belief in things unseen. From a Jewish perspective, “faith is confidence in what we hope for and the assurance that the lord is working even though we cannot see it…and given that death is our most complex mystery, no words, no experiences, no emotions and no prescriptions can either explain or anatomize the beauty and the gift of death.