Practice Dying

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“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. . . . So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Ps. 90:9, 12).

Behind the altar on the east wing of the chapel of a Trappist monastery high up in the Rocky Mountains hangs a simple wooden cross. It remains there until it is taken down to mark the grave of the next brother to die. Until then it hangs on the wall so that whenever the monks turn and face the altar, they also face the simple and immediate symbol of their own death.

Death is our wake-up call, a reminder that our days are numbered, that the sands in the hourglass are slowly slipping away. For this very reason, Plato, when asked on his deathbed for one final word of advice, said to his pupils, “Practice dying.” He knew that facing death made life more precious, and every day is a gift. Still many people, even in their last years, either deny death or shove it under the table. Most people seem to choose to fill their traveling years with conversation about the scenery, rather than the final destination. Many of us deny and fear death because we fear the pain of our death and the loss of ourselves.

Living in a community where the angel of death often visits, I cannot escape thoughts of death. Our community memorial board hangs a few feet from our apartment. Every time I pass that board I cannot help but wonder, When will my name appear? I attend many funerals of residents and stand at gravesides. One wintry day as the tent poles clanked in the wind, I reflected on the time when everyone would return from the cemetery except me. Once I clicked on a Web site, www.DeathClock.org, to see how many years I have left and got the following result: “Sorry, your life has expired. Have a good day!”

Some believe that Moses, who lived to be 120 years old, wrote Psalm 90. He contrasts the eternity of God with the transience of human life. If Moses were writing the psalm today, he might have written, “If we are fortunate to reach the ripe old age of ninety or the unusual age of one hundred, our lives come to an end like a sigh.”

The psalm tells us to “count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Keeping death at arm’s length can prevent us from embracing our lives. This is why the rule of St. Benedict asserts: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” (The Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 4). Rather than reflecting a morbid obsession with death, our awareness of our mortality helps us focus our minds and hearts on the essentials. It can sharpen our sense of what is important as we realize that any moment could be our last. So we choose to invest our energy and time in matters of significance.

“Is there life after death,” a disciple once asked a Holy One. And the Holy One answered, “The great spiritual question is not “Is there life after death?” but “Is there life before death?” Practice dying. Life and death are one process. Paul said it well, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8).

Reflection

  • As you grow older do you find yourself thinking more or less about your death? Explain.
  • Do you believe there is a "happy death?" If so, what would that be like?"
  • Write out your wishes for your death, answering such questions as thes: Where do you want to be when you die? Whom do you want with you when you die? What would be your music preference as you die?
  • Describe other wishes. You might want to include these wishes with your Living Will and memorial or funeral plans.

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This article is excerpted from: Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life: 7 Gateways to Spiritual Growth by Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L. Morgan. Read another excerpt here.

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