by Lucy Mull
Lucy is a CTA 20/30 member living in Massachusetts.
Their exit has no grace or mystery.
It’s a little death, hanging dry and measly
like a fruit inside them that never ripened.
God, give us each our own death,
the dying that proceeds
from each of our lives:
the way we loved,
the meanings we made,
For we are only the rind and the leaf.
The great death, that each of us carries inside,
is the fruit.
Everything enfolds it.
– Rainier Maria Rilke
Death sits heavy in the air today, Palm Sunday, with the Passion narrative and Jesus’ conscience-shattering crucifixion. In the liturgy, I’ve never been able to join in the mob’s “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The treachery cuts me too deep. As death creeps its way into our minds and hearts this Lent, Richard Rohr reminds us that we die non literal deaths everyday. These deaths, he says, are “anything… uncomfortable, difficult, unfamiliar, dangerous, or demanding.” This especially includes “sadness, failure, loss, and humiliation.” And these deaths, he says, are key to fully living our lives and ultimately dying a ripe death.
What are my deaths?
In Rohr terms, I’ve died many deaths over the last few years, and I’ve never felt so thoroughly bereft. I’ve lost physical and mental abilities and the self image and esteem attached to them. I’ve lost supportive professors at the hands of church politics. I’ve ended relationships I didn’t remember how to live without. I let go of the self images and dreams tied to them. I’ve lost career aspirations and admitted failure and weakness. I’ve lost much of my religious imagination and literal beliefs. My closest community will soon dissipate.
Control is a fast disappearing concept in my life. Aloneness is a growing one. I think back to Jesus praying in the Garden of Gesthemane. Sometimes, as with Jesus’ friends falling asleep at his darkest hour, the comfort I desire is just not there. A sense of God’s presence is just not there.
How do I ripen in and for death?
Rohr warns that our ego tries to protect us from the pain of death, literal or no, by smothering it with any number of escapist, soul-numbing habits. But if such half-living continues, Rilke says our death will reflect our life; in this case, the unlived life yields a dry, withered fruit.
According to comedian Louis C.K., if we want to be ripely human, we must allow ourselves at times to be fully alone — to grieve the fundamental loneliness of our human state. For Louis, he meets this part of himself while driving. When he detects the wave of loneliness rising, his impulse is to reach for the phone. If he can make a connection, then he can break the wave. But the waves will keep crashing. So, he leaves the phone. He lets the choking sadness, the aching loneliness, well up from the deepest darkest place of his being. Then, he pulls over and weeps.
See Louis C.K.’s more comical telling here:
So, I’m allowing myself to be in the loneliness: to fully experience all these non literal deaths. In the Garden, Jesus models a willingness to accept and fully experience his own death when he pleads, in essence, “Spare me from this horrible suffering, God…but if not…here we go.” Jesus’ refusal of drugged wine while on the cross is another example of his decision to be fully present to his suffering (Mt 27:34).
Each time I resist an escapist antidote to my loneliness — such as sugar binging or entertaining a return to an old boyfriend — I feel my Rilkan fruit ripening. When I stumbled into a couple of dangerous situations in the southwestern desert last month, I found myself doing a “death check,” where I asked “Could I be ok dying right now? Are things right between me and the world? Between me, myself and God?” The death check showed that, despite the outside turmoil and inner losses, despite the aloneness and stuckness, I’m growing and ripening; I’m right where I need to be. If I’m someone I can live with, then I’m someone I think I can more easily die with; I can die ripe.
In the midst of all this dying and ripening, I experience moments of reassurance that somehow, I am and will be radically okay. Josh Radin is saying as much on the radio right now: “Everything’s gonna be alright. Now I know it’ll be alright.” And Julian of Norwich delivers the same radical message in my reading: “All shall be well. All will be well. All manner of things shall be well.”
But when I’m not feeling radically okay…?
Then, I’m still duking it out with God, like Gerard Manley Hopkins spluttering out his lament psalm that shocks him into awe; or like a child swinging my fists at my mom, because I need a hug, and a nap.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (Best read aloud)
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, more weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Bridges, Robert. Oxford University Press, London: 1931.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. “The Book of Poverty and Death.” III,4/5 – III,7. Translation by Anita Barrows and Jonna Macy. Berkeley Publishing Group, New York: 1996.
Rohr, Richard. “Leaving the Garden: Splitting Life from Death.” E-letter, 2/26/14. Adapted from Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking.