15 May 2017

"When We are Born We Start to Die": Embracing Death as Decision

[[ Hi Sister, what you write on death as decision makes me think of the kinds of things people say like, "When we are born we start to die." Except I always thought of this as something we moved towards like we might approach a terrible and destructive thing. I mean weren't we meant to be immortal? We aren't meant to die! But your posts made me see the saying about "When we are born we start to.die" as something positive. If we are saved from death and if we were originally immortal then how can this be?]]

Thanks for your questions. Some are easier than others! Let me begin with your observations about the old saying, "When we are born we start to die." In one sense, the one we all learned, this saying is a bit depressing and scary. Once we are born we begin the inexorable movement toward the complete end of the life we know here. We move toward the moment "when this world has neither time nor place for us" as my major theology professor used to say. This is death in the sense of dissolution, loss, impermanence, and the threat of nothingness. But, if death is a decision, and especially if it is, as Jesus shows us, an act of entrusting ourselves totally, exhaustively to the God whose love for us is eternal and stronger than death, then the saying, "When we are born we start to die," takes on an entirely new sense, something positive as you say, and immensely challenging. It defines the nature of being human, of maturing in that -- growing into wholeness and holiness; and it describes the task underlying Christian discipleship, namely, dying to self and living into God.

Remember that to say we are "meant to be immortal" means to say we are meant to exist in and from God, nothing less and nothing else. We live eternally in and from God. That has always been true. Our souls are immortal because God never ceases "breathing" them forth, not because they stand as immortal in and of themselves. Whether we are speaking about our own original condition or our destiny the idea of immortality or eternal life is based on our relationship with the God who is eternal source of life. Even the story of the Garden of Eden centers on the rupture of the relationship between mankind and God, and with that rupture comes the loss of eternal life. That is a central lesson of the narrative. It is also possible to read the narrative in what is sometimes called a "diachronic" sense -- that is, as an account of what lays ahead of us as well as an account of primordial origins.

At every moment, according to the Genesis accounts, we choose either life or death. That is, we choose to know (in the intimate Biblical sense) both good and evil or we choose to know only God and what is of and from God. And as we make those choices we either die to self and live unto God, or we reject that choice. With each decision we grow in our humanity or we reject it and all it entails. With each choice we prepare ourselves for the final choice, the definitive act of entrusting ourselves to God --- or we fail to do so. Either we mature towards death-as-decision and eternal life in and from God, or we do not.

When we understand death as a decision we have spent our entire lives preparing for, there is no question that we are meant to die. Death is then the most natural event of our lives, the fulfilment of faith -- of trust in God, the most human act we are called to. But only when we understand death as decision, and more specifically, as decision for God.  What we are not meant for is what the Scriptures know as sinful or godless death --- death unto loveless, empty, nothingness, meaninglessness, oblivion. This is the death that gains ascendency whenever we fail to choose life with and from God, whenever we choose false self over the true self, whenever we grasp at life rather than receiving it as gift, whenever greed overtakes gratitude and we fill our lives with the ultimately disappointing and empty. Ultimately this pattern of choices leads to the potential of grasping at self and choosing emptiness in an absolute or ultimate way. This is the death you rightly say we are not made for.

In each of these you can see the antithetical meanings of the saying, "When we are born we start to die." In actual fact the two forms of death: physical dissolution, and preparation for our definitive choice of God overlap or coincide throughout our lives. But it is up to us to decide which one of these primarily defines our understanding of the saying. When I was born I began the move towards physical dissolution, but at the same time I began to make choices for life in and from God, choices for eternal life which is experienced here and now in a proleptic and partial way and which can and is meant to be chosen in an ultimate and absolute sense --- the decision we know as death. If we let physical dissolution occasion the primary meaning of this saying, we might miss completely the real meaning --- the definitive choice for God and eternal life which we prepare and create a greater (or lesser) capacity for every day of our lives.

This latter sense of the saying is what we mean by "dying to self". It is the dynamic of prayer; when we learn to pray we learn to die and vice versa--- both mean saying yes to living in and from God. Both require a dying to (false) self and a living from the Spirit. Whatever helps us to say yes to living also helps us to say yes in death. It is what we are talking about when we speak of  seeking or doing the "will of God" or the process of kenosis (self-emptying) which is really the core dynamic of the selfless love of Christ. This is all a very different approach to dying than is common today. It asks us to learn to welcome it, to nurture our capacity for it rather than distracting ourselves from it, ignoring and evading it,  fighting it in every way we can, and otherwise treating it as an enemy. What once was an enemy is no longer that in Christ; instead it is the event we are meant for in which we give ourselves over entirely to God.. When Christians repeat the statement, "When we are born we start to die," they must also mean, "When we are born we start to [learn to] give ourselves over to Life itself."

Paul described this double movement or meaning in next Sunday's second reading: For Christ also suffered for sins once. . . Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. Remember that "flesh" means the whole self under the sway of sin. Thus, this saying of Paul describes both Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection and the daily dynamic of kenosis we are each called to embrace as we prepare ourselves for the radical decision we call death.