I just came upon this evocative sermon on death by John Henry Newman called “The Lapse of Time.”
Such is death considered in its inevitable necessity, and its unspeakable importance—nor can we ensure to ourselves any certain interval before its coming. The time may be long; but it may also be short. It is plain, a man may die any day; all we can say is, that it is unlikely that he will die. But of this, at least, we are certain, that, come it sooner or later, death is continually on the move towards us. We are ever nearer and nearer to it. Every morning we rise we are nearer that grave in which there is no work, nor device, than we were. We are now nearer the grave, than when we entered this Church. Thus life is ever crumbling away under us. What should we say to a man, who was placed on some precipitous ground, which was ever crumbling under his feet, and affording less and less secure footing, yet was careless about it? Or what should we say to one who suffered some precious liquor to run from its receptacle into the thoroughfare of men, without a thought to stop it? who carelessly looked on and saw the waste of it, becoming greater and greater every minute? But what treasure can equal time? It is the seed of eternity: yet we suffer ourselves to go on, year after year, hardly using it at all in God’s service, or thinking it enough to give Him at most a tithe or a seventh of it
It is rare to think with this level of attention about the brevity of life.
However, some people do.
A couple years ago, I went to meet someone at his office where I noticed a poster with many small dots on it in rows and columns.
When I asked this man about it, he explained that it is a sort of life calendar depicting how many weeks he has to live if he lives the average lifespan of someone in his demographic.
He showed me the point in the poster at which he is now and explained that having this reminder in his office of the shortness of life spurs him on to tackle his tasks with resolve, gratitude, urgency, and enthusiasm.
To me, this memento mori exemplified the conscientious of which Newman speaks.
When I was in high school, a family friend of ours died quite suddenly and unexpectedly in her mid-50s. She was the mother of a close friend of mine and our moms had been good friends throughout our whole lives.
This woman was very devoted to her family and to her work. She seemed to do everything in order. And yet, she was also someone who seemed to always be waiting for retirement to do several of the things she longed to do most.
She would often say, “When I retire…” and express her hopes and dreams for what she would do with greater leisure, time, and money.
It was striking, then, when she died relatively young because one of the things that hit me most as a high schooler was that she was never going to do these things she had put off.
Sometimes I wonder about how we will look back at this Covid period of our lives.
Will this time be regarded as “lost years” or “missing years”?
Will we be able to recall events clearly or will they be blurred, absent the ordinarily vivid and communal expressions of milestones?
And, will trauma and grief be suppressed by gradual good humour and selective nostalgia?
In The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs writes about the effects of the end of World War II saying, “As war comes to an end, and its exigencies cease, and people return to a freedom absent for so long that its return is discomforting, they think of the apparent lawlessness of Nature and Man alike…”
A few pages later, Jacobs says:
Yesterday, I was flipping through a new book by Rabbi Steve Leder titled, The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. The book emerged from a popular sermon the rabbi delivered about death on Yom Kippur, from the rabbi’s extensive experience accompanying the dying and their grieving families and, importantly, from the fruit of his own experience suffering the loss of his father.
I read the initial chapters and this paragraph in particular really struck me:
Whoever wrote the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (later made famous by the Byrds) was right. There really is a time for everything. Most people are ready for death the way we are all ready for sleep after a long and exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around our aching heads and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed about it. We are not afraid of it. Disease, age, and life itself prepare us for death. There is a time for everything, and when it is our time to die, death is as natural a thing as life itself. Consider this very good news for those of us who fear death. Dying people are not afraid of dying. If you are afraid of dying, it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living. So if you are worried and anxious about dying, you’re not dying. Which means you have time to let death teach you about living and loving your life.
Do you have any reason to dispute Rabbi Leder on this?
If not, does this explanation change your understanding of death?
Lastly, does hearing of the peace that comes with rest alter the anxiety of living at all?
It would be understandable if, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, a person were to retreat, to withdraw.
But that’s not Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka’s way. Instead, as ever, he continues to show leadership, to give example, and, above all, to generously go outside of himself for the good of others.
It seems that every time there is a tragedy or crisis, particularly in which his community or he himself is implicated, Rabbi Bulka has something to say with humility, sincerity, and gratitude.