Mysticism (VI): How to Live and How to Die

I end my recent series of posts on Frederick Bauerschmidt’s book “Why the Mystics Matter Now” by discussing what is maybe the most difficult teacher we face: Death. Perhaps because of the fairly early death of my mom when I was 14, this is a topic that has greatly troubled me personally. It is a topic that has caused me great anxiety, possibly being the core psychological insecurity behind much of my religious and spiritual quest.

I find in Bauerschmidt’s writing the best portray of my personal feelings toward death that I have ever read before. He writes:

“Perhaps. . . the fundamental human desire. . . [is] to in some way to evade that which is most certain about our lives: the fact that they will end. . . But why would this be a difficult thought to face? Perhaps it is because death involves a massive ‘undoing’ of the self. Death involves a ‘dispiriting’ and decomposition of the body in which the fundamental structures of our lives as living beings break down. It severs us from those human ties – parenthood, friendship, vocation – that gives us our identity. Our own death is unthinkable because it is unraveling of the ‘I’ that thinks. . . The fragility of life makes death a constant possibility that other things are not. . . Perhaps death is unthinkable because it would force us to think of ourselves as ultimately, finally, completely without control.”

Interestingly, Bauerschmidt points out, most of us approach life and death in a paradoxical way. That is, we often completely avoid the realization of our lack of control, as mentioned above. Yet, we also fail to take responsibility over what we do control in life. As he says:

“Between the illusions of absolute mastery and absolute non-responsibility we find the uneasy, paradoxical space where real human beings dwell.”

To address these problems, Bauerschmidt brings in the insights of the fairly contemporary mystic, Thomas Merton. In a prayer that addresses his rawest feelings on these matters, Merton states:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. . . Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

In his attempt to summarize and extend this, Bauerschmidt notes:

“. . . life is not a problem to be solved; it is an uncontrollable mystery into which we must enter in faith, hope, and love. . . To confess ourselves lost is to recognize that we are in the shadow of death. To surrender the illusion of absolute control is to awaken to the reality of that which most forcefully demonstrates our lack of control. I may manage death’s arrival, seeking out the best technology to preserve my life or hasten its end, but in the end the arrival of death is unmanageable. We cannot see the path ahead because when we look ahead we can discern only the darkness of death. Yet when we look in faith and hope we can see something else, something no less dark, but something that can be trusted. We see the ‘you’ to whom Merton addresses his prayer, the God to whom he confesses his lostness. This is not a god that lifts me out of our world and gives me an all-seeing view of the journey ahead. Rather God, for Merton, is the one whom I trust while still in darkness. God is the one who is ‘ever with me,’ not only in darkness, but as the darkness, for what ultimately makes my life incomprehensible to me is that, at its root, it is a gift given by the God that no human mind can grasp. . . It is not the shadowy darkness of death, the darkness of light blocked, but the darkness of a light so vast that we are blinded, and so must trust that light to lead us on the path.”

I take all of this very much to heart. The Bible encourages us to “number our days” (Psalm 90:12) so that we can appreciate the significance of what we have, the opportunities afforded us every day. Rather than avoiding or living life out of a sense of crippling fear, I resonate with the mystics’ honest acceptance that we cannot know spiritual truths for certain, but still are capable of facing life’s mysteries with faith, hope, and love. Perhaps this is the ultimate reason why the mystics continue to matter now.

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