Christian reflections on being mortal - a personal view by Sarah Rowland Jones
Revd Canon Dr Sarah Rowland Jones
I was never a fan of the TV programme Sex in the City – but in the final series, I became fascinated by the handling of Samantha’s breast cancer. Carrie and her boyfriend nearly came to blows: Carrie repeatedly insisted ‘She’ll be OK’ and he repeatedly retorted ‘But she might not.’ Cut to Carrie repeatedly insisting to Samantha ‘You’ll be OK.’ Samantha takes her hand, sighs deeply, and says ‘Carrie, will you do me the favour of letting me this once talk about what I’m really afraid of.’ The scene ends, but we know that, finally, Carrie realises the best help she can be is to let her friend face the cancer and all its accompanying fears of mortality with complete honesty.
And yet talking isn’t easy. We shy away even from naming death, taking refuge behind a host of euphemisms. One recent wet and windy morning, a lady came into church struggling with flapping raincoat, umbrella and shopping bags, and said ‘Oh, Vicar, I’ve just heard my grandson’s passed.’ ‘Ahhh’ I said, in my best non-committal clergy tones, having no idea how to respond – it transpired he’d passed his driving test, but for a moment I half-feared something very different.
Fifteen years ago, I married for the first time. Three weeks before the wedding, Justus was diagnosed with smoking-related cancer; he died, at home, thirteen months later, aged 48. He was a Bishop in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, and a widower, so we did considerable theological reflection around mortality, illness, dying and death.
Death comes to us all, and so we should all have the opportunity, should we so wish, to talk about it. Where might we begin? There are two lines we might follow, both of which feature in these pages. The first is finding freedom to ask the ‘technical’ questions about what may lie ahead. Our fears may relate to mental or physical diminishment; lack of dignity; loss of control; the prospect of pain, or just not knowing what might happen. Careful conversations with medical professionals about possibilities and options can alleviate a lot of concerns.
The second line is the spiritual exploration of issues of life and death, and what it means for us to be mortal. ‘Mortal’ is a fascinating word – we don’t speak of animals or plants as mortal, though they die. To speak of ‘mortality’ freights human dying and death with meaning and significance, which is woven through all of life, from the first moment of existence. Christians understand this is the shape of the finite life, gifted by our Creator in whose image we are formed, and which we are called by Him to enjoy in fruitfulness and flourishing.
Indeed, though it may seem counter-intuitive, embracing our mortality generally enriches, rather than diminishes, our capacity to live the abundant life which Jesus offers (John 10:10). As Justus’ cancer developed, alongside discovering that knowing so starkly he was mortal made him understand better being truly human, he also reported a fuller appreciation of the Incarnation – what it means that, for our sakes, the eternal second person of the Trinity, becomes the Word made flesh; God in Jesus Christ embracing mortality, and becoming ‘obedient even unto death on the cross’ (Philippians 2).
Furthermore, being open with ourselves and with each other also opened us to the mercies of Christ’s companionship on this difficult journey; and the sense of God’s ‘peace that passes all understanding’ holding us safe, even in the awfulness of his deteriorating health. In contrast, some of his clergy couldn’t accept he might die; and, in being adamant he must be miraculously healed, cut themselves off from the profound grace and holy consolation that coloured our lives.
Similarly, the former Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, spoke movingly at his last Governing Body before retirement, of the need to talk more, from the experience of his wife’s cancer, and death the previous January. Her insistence on facing it, naming it, and owning it had enabled her, and so enabled both of them, to live with greater fullness of life in the time they had.
So what is the ‘flourishing’ that God calls us to enjoy in life? We must beware any idealised concept of the autonomous individual of Western late modernity, exercising agency and free choice through self-sufficiency, self-determination and economic productivity: a one-size-fits-all chimera, abstracted from life’s realities, and a very far cry from so many on our planet.
As Christians, we need a well-grounded, nuanced, theological understanding which embraces us all in all our variety, and which is anchored by the helpless newborn infant and the dying man on the cross. Redemption comes through God’s vulnerability, suffering and death, and is often more powerfully known in our weakness than our strength, in our darkness and failure, suffering and struggle, than in our ostensible successfulness.
What understanding of humanity is implicit in public debate on dying and death? How close are Christian and secular understandings of human dignity, mercy, even love? Is life as a ‘gift’ in any way like a Christmas present?! How do Christian concepts of choice and free will relate to secular ideas of autonomy and human rights? There is much to wrestle with, and to discuss, and we must both work with, and critique, contemporary cultural vocabulary.
We may live in a society that seems increasingly secular but we still remain haunted by transcendence. This was evident in the outpouring from people of all religions and none to the letter of Leonard Cohen (a practicing Jew) to his former lover Marianne as she was dying: ‘we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine …’
Let’s be encouraged by such candour. If followers of the God who became mortal and took the path of cross and resurrection cannot help people face death, then who can? To accompany the dying is a holy calling, and connects us with the deep mysteries of God. Let us walk with the good Shepherd in the valley of the shadow, and not be afraid to look to what lies beyond.
In the words of the ancient commendation at the time of death:
Go forth upon your journey, Christian soul,
in the name of God the Father who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you;
in communion with the blessed saints,
with angels and archangels and with all the heavenly host.
May you rest in peace, and may the City of God be your eternal dwelling. Amen.