COVID Positive or:
How I learned to stop worrying and embrace death
“Unto God the Lord belong the issues of death, that is, the disposition and manner of our death; what kind of issue and transmigration we shall have out of this world, whether prepared or sudden, whether violent or natural, whether in our perfect senses or shaken and disordered by sickness, there is no condemnation to be argued out of that, no judgement to be made upon that, for, howsoever they die, precious in his sight is the death of his saints, and with him are the issues of death; the ways of our departing out of this life are in his hands. And so in this sense of the words, this exitus mortis, the issues of death, is liberatio in morte, a deliverance in death; not that God will deliver us from dying, but that he will have a care of us in the hour of death, of what kind soever our passage be.”
-John Donne, Death’s Duel
In the beginning we were microbe, packets of DNA enclosed by membrane. These packets were self-replicating, they could create themselves over and over again, but only in this simplest single-celled form called prokaryote. They were archaea and bacteria, two beings alone together, churning out copies of themselves ad infinitum, each as simple as the last for a billion years. One day Bacteria nuzzled Archaea, longing to feel something different, anything to break the endless monotony of aeons; Archaea embraced Bacteria in return, feeling the warmth of the electrical spark in that other body kindling the flame in its own. The heat between them growing, they longed to crawl into one another’s membranes, intuiting the incandescent possibilities of deeper union. This compulsion grew, like a coiled spring twisted tighter and tighter, til Bacteria could bear it no longer and in a fit of desire overcame Archaea’s barriers and invaded. Or perhaps Archaea overcame Bacteria and swallowed it whole. In either event, they both promptly died.
But of course they were legion, Archaea and Bacteria, those long lonely years of grinding asexual reproduction having not been in vain; their clones promptly had another go. And so, on the millionth or billionth or trillionth try, a miracle: this dance of lust and longing and violence alchemized, ending not in death, but in the creation of something entirely new— the endosymbiotic cell, a chimeric fusion of the two that would become a eukaryote, the progenitor of dazzlingly various and increasingly complex forms of life, from plant to animal to fungi.
The bacteria that once fused with archaea became mitochondria, the power plants within our cells that fuel all essential life functions, allowing our hearts to pump blood, our bones to grow tall and strong, and our muscles to run and jump and dance. In the intervening millennia bacteria continued to play a key role in our evolution, mutating alongside us in a delicate symbiotic dance that resulted in what we now know as the microbiome— the retinue of attendant tiny organisms that help to regulate a vast number of complex biological processes—immunity, digestion, even cognition.
When bacteria first came to the widespread attention of humans, it was as an interloper, the cause of devastating disease that culled large swaths of the population and kept millions immiserated. Our first reaction was to pummel bacteria with antibiotics, an intervention that has prolonged the average human lifespan while leading to more chronic illness as the helpful bacteria are killed off along with the invaders. We are now coming to understand that our microbial symbiants are a complex ecosystem, requiring the right kind of nourishment and balance to keep our bodies in good working order. They are far more friend than enemy. By now the wisdom of cultivating a healthy microbiome is widely accepted— bacteria-laden foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi are are touted for their health benefits and have become quite trendy, and doctors have become much more judicious in their use of antibiotics. But bacterium’s more mysterious cousin, virus, has also been a major driver of our evolution through the ages.
Viruses, unlike bacteria, do not meet the definition of a single-celled organism, the cell being the basic functional unit of what we commonly call life. Like bacteria and all other cells, viruses are enclosed packets of genetic information—the double-helixed DNA and its single-stranded counterpart, RNA— that allows it to self-replicate; unlike a bacterium, the virus cannot produce the energy required to do that on its own. It must invade and commandeer a host cell in order to reproduce. RNA viruses are eventually incorporated into the host genome— approximately half of our DNA is commonly accepted to be of viral origin, and some scientists believe it could be as much as 80%. The other viruses seem to play an important role in maintaining the microbiome and regulating our immune system; we are only in the nascent stages of understanding their full importance. When our protean cells initially met these viruses, however, it was a battle royale. First they sickened and even killed us. Then they made us stronger.
“I believe in science” is the popular refrain of our secular religion, an assertion that one’s values and moral character are standing on a firm foundation. People who believe in Science know that we are the product of long millennia of evolution, not the six-day art project of an imaginary god; they trust in the power of human reason and intellect and revere those who possess it in great quantity; they listen to the experts and do what they say. They recycle, out of prudence and respect for our limited resources, until they learn that our production of plastic has outstripped any ability to meaningfully reuse it. They ate low fat, high carb diets in the 80’s, then learned that some fats are good and some carbs are bad, now they might eat vegan, because animals are sentient and modern livestock farming worsens climate change. They diet and exercise to keep themselves slim, to promote longevity and good health, until they learn that their bodies are not meant to conform to a single standard; then they turn to psychological and social science experts to tell them they must accept their bodies as they are. People who believe in Science always trust the experts; when the experts change their minds, they do too, when the experts disagree, they trust the true experts, the chosen, those ordained by academic and governmental institutions to mediate between Science and man. If the chosen still disagree, people who believe in Science must choose for themselves which experts they will believe, a confounding endeavor for those who until now have outsourced all their decision making to experts.
I do believe in science. I have opened with a vignette depicting the origins of life as understood by scientists, or at least some scientists. I have spent the better part of two decades in a career, nursing, that is dependent on a scientific understanding of the human body. Vaccinations, antibiotics, surgical technology, and other wonders of modern scientific medicine have undoubtedly extended the human lifespan and reduced physical suffering.
But to work in a profession where one is essentially an end-user of scientific knowledge without being a creator or innovator of it oneself is to see its limitations. One day you’re pushing the newest wonder drug that will revolutionize ICU outcomes, the next you’re tossing all those protocols because the drug companies manipulated data. You see physicians shout at one another in disagreement over how best to treat a patient, and you understand that they have conflicting goals and perspectives. One is focused on the diseased lungs and the other on the fractured bone, for both their sense of worth as a human is tied up in being correct. For all that the scientific endeavor is an attempt to observe the world as it is in truth, in the end it subject to the same myopic frailties that any human effort is.
In the 17th century, a Dutch draper wanted a closer look at the threads of the fine cloth he was selling. Disappointed in the poor quality of available magnification lenses, he learned to grind his own, refining his capacity to see smaller and smaller detail until one day he tumbled through the looking-glass and discovered a whole new world full of wondrous creatures he named “animalcules.” Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, father of microbiology, was the first to observe muscle fibers, red blood cells, sperm, and our old friends, bacteria. In doing so, he inaugurated a whole new era of scientific discovery, one that allowed us to look not only outward and upward, but inward, deeper, into innumerable spiraling fractal layers of complexity.
To be a scientist these days is to specialize; the more we observe, the more complexity unfurls. It is all too much for any one person to comprehend and so we have particle physicists and geophysicists, molecular biologists and zoo-biologists to name a few, fairly broad categories. To understand anything in depth, you have to slice it down to a manageable size, the way one creates a cross section for a slide to view through a microscope. While on the one hand, this allows for more thorough investigation, on the other it prevents one from seeing the “forest for the trees,” as the saying goes. It is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, to forget that a cell is but one small part of a larger body.
In the spring of 2020, a new phenomenon occurred— people across the world began reporting strange dreams. Dreams about bug infestations; dreams about vague, inchoate threats encroaching upon cozy, safe spaces; dreams about feeling anxious in crowds. The themes were startlingly similar across populations. They were, of course, not unrelated; the dreams were precipitated by a worldwide pandemic, a viral infection known as Coronavirus Disease 2019.
I did not have any particularly memorable dreams during this time save one. In the dream I found myself in a warm moist space suffused with a faint reddish glow, like firelight diffused through frosted glass, and I was falling, or not falling exactly, but sliding, as if in a tube, though the surface I was sliding on was membranous and slick. It was not unpleasant, though I had no control over my movement and was rapidly picking up speed. I felt safe and held, comforted in some way and slightly euphoric. It was then that I heard a voice: My own inner voice, yet also an omniscient voice of authority: “You are being shat through the colon of God.” I was a turd, and I was happy.
I texted some friends about it at the time. The dream felt portentous, if slightly absurd and embarrassing, and I wanted someone to tell me it was profound and to divine its meaning. Nobody responded, because really, what does one say to something like that?
“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
-Ecclesiastes 3: 19-20
In 1900, the average life expectancy in Europe and North America was scarcely more than forty. Half of all children born would not live to puberty, a mortality rate that had persisted across cultures since the dawn of humanity. Over the course of the next century, these numbers would see a dramatic shift; today, over 99% of children born in Western countries will reach the age of 15; the average life expectancy is 80.
This sea-change was powered powered by Leeuwenhoek’s finely ground lenses and the discoveries they wrought; Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, Joseph Lister’s antisepsis, Alexander Fleming’s penicillin. In 1900, the leading causes of death were tuberculosis, influenza/pneumonia, and gastroenteritis; infectious diseases that could strike at any age. 50 years later it would be diseases of longevity— heart disease, cancer, and stroke— that did the job.
Fewer infections and longer lives are not the only ways our relationship to disease and death changed. For most of human history, we cared ourselves for our loved ones in extremis— we sponged their lips and cleaned soiled linen as they lay dying in the upstairs bedrooms. We washed their bodies and anointed them with spices, touching cold skin with our warm hands in one final act of caressing. We laid them out in our nicest rooms, the formal parlors kept immaculately clean for just these occasions, keeping vigil as their spirits made the crossing into the next life. In the end, we buried them in simple shrouds and coffins constructed by our own hands, bones laid to rest in the corner of the farmstead or the churchyard passed through every Sunday morning. To live in community with others, which was the only way anyone could live, was to be constantly confronted with mortality.
What was once a constant and intimate part of life became, in the 20th century, something to be outsourced, specialized and alien. Dying now largely occurs in institutions, hospitals and the like, where the care is provided by strangers and the messy details kept hidden from loved ones. Once death has been declared, a nurse hastily wipes down the body, zips it into a plastic bag, and sends it down to the basement to wait for the funeral home where it will be fluffed and buffed into a facsimile of vibrance. The vast majority will never know the sights and smells and touch of death until it comes for us personally. In the meantime, we forget our lives are finite, and when death finally pays a call, it comes not as a tragic but unavoidable necessity, but as a cataclysm of epic proportions, a cruel interruption to our fever dream of endless possibility.
In the waning months of 1630, according to the old Julian calendar in which the New Year began on March 25, the famous poet and priest John Donne lay ill and close to death, having left his home in London to recuperate in the Essex countryside. Rumors reached London that he may have already died, and it was assumed regardless that he would not be able to preach his Lenten sermon before the King’s court, as he had done every year since his appointment as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. After being omitted from the court roster, Donne wrote to a friend that he had every intention of delivering that sermon, expressing his love of preaching and his desire to die in the pulpit and adding, “so long as I am living, and not speechless, I would not willingly decline that service.”
Donne preached his last sermon on February 25, entitled Death’s Duell, or, a Consolation to the Soule against the dying Life, and the living Death, of the Body. He had dragged himself back to London for the occasion. The Court was amazed to see him looking gaunt and emaciated and felt, as reported by Izaak Walton, that the appointed text for the day, “Unto God the Lord belong the issues of death” (Psalm 68), was prophetically chosen that he might “preach… mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face.” In a frail, diminished voice, Donne delivered what was said to be his own funeral sermon.
Seven years earlier Donne had endured a prolonged illness in which he was believed to be near to dying, and during that time he produced Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a series of extended meditations on illness and death that includes the famous “No man is an island” passage. This morbid fascination might seem a strange turn for someone who exhibits such a hearty and lusty appetite for life in his early poems. He is still considered by many to be the finest poet of love and eroticism in the English language and it can be quite disconcerting to learn that the author of lines like “License my roving hands, and let them go/ Before, behind, between, above, below” also produced the deeply religious Holy Sonnets. Yet even those have something of an erotic appeal, as in “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” where he declares to his Creator “Take me to you, imprison me, for I,/ Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” Whether writing about youthful sexual exploration, his deep love for his wife, or his God, there is an embodied sensuality paired with a fierce, probing intellect; qualities that are no less present when he turns his mind toward death.
“And am I born to die,
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?”
- Charles Wesley, Idumea
I have felt the ancestors with me since I was very young. As a child, I was perplexed to learn my great-grandmother had died when I was 5. Though I had a vague memory of a funeral, I could swear she still lived in the storage shed behind my grandmother’s house. I had a vivid mental picture of her sitting in a rocking chair just inside the door, hidden and out of the way yet ever-present.
One evening several years ago I had a vision as I lay in bed. I saw a host of people dressed in faded calico and homespun, faces drawn and sharp-angled, eyes burning from deep sockets like angels of the Lord. They seemed hungry and desperate. Descended from the flotsam and jetsam of the British Isles, impoverished laborers and border reivers and religious dissidents who sprung for the colonies, my mother’s spectral forebears, for that is who I knew them to be, were a bedraggled crew. Their appearance spoke to hard-scrabble lives wrung out of inhospitable conditions, first in long and dangerous sea voyages, then in a new and foreign land, and eventually out to the frontiers of Tennessee and Kentucky and the isolated hollers of Appalachia. “We suffered,” they told me, “so that you don’t have to.”
The traditional music of the South illuminates this deep entanglement with death and suffering. It’s there in the haunting ballads of Appalachia, but even more so in the old hymns, the kind found in Sacred Harp gatherings and old-time gospel churches. The words express fear and ambivalence toward death, they speak of constant toil and sorrow; they also praise the beauty of the natural world despite the suffering engendered by it and express hope in the life to come, a life that will give their suffering meaning and make it worthwhile. The Sacred Harp song Idumea, made famous in the movie Cold Mountain, expresses an unusual amount of trepidation and uncertainty regarding death. It resists easy platitudes and yet when it is sung, a cacophony of acapella voices singing in an untuned minor key, sitting arranged in an inward-facing “hollow square,” a consolation emerges: The song becomes transcendent, glorious. If nobody is quite sure what will happen on the judgement day, there is a deep trust in the company of the saints and the God who holds them all together. They will endure suffering together in hopes of something better to come, in Heaven, yes, but also for future generations.
It’s easy in this day and age to dismiss this kind of meaning-making as the opiate of the poor and uneducated masses, but many of these songs originated in the middle classes of Britain and New England. Plague, pestilence, disease, and hardship have always disproportionately affected the poor, but in an earlier age they were common enough that nobody could fail to be confronted with them on a semi-regular basis. Discerning meaning and finding purpose in death and suffering was essential to psychological health and the strength to carry on. It is only in the modern era, where we have perpetuated the illusion that difficulty might be eliminated altogether, that we have had the luxury of nihilism.
We live far longer, curing diseases that were once deadly with a 2 week course of pills or a simple outpatient surgery. The sheer quantity and variety of food available year-round to most of us would astonish even the wealthiest of our forebears. Despite the horror of modern warfare, we live in a time of vastly decreased violence— John Donne, in a poem about the progress of the human soul, casually drops the image of a beheaded man, blood pouring from the head and the trunk, as if it were a common, every-day sight, which for him it was. Until 1660, severed heads were displayed on pikes at London Bridge.
And yet, despite a level of health and material well-being that would be the envy of almost anyone living prior to the 20th century, we are no happier. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are epidemic, intensified by the isolation and uncertainty of the COVID pandemic era. The descendants of the people who once reached for the opiate of religion now find themselves dying of despair, consumed by actual opiates. One wonders, to quote T. S. Eliot, Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
In Death’s Duel, Donne spends 8,000 plus words convincing himself and his audience of the surety of their salvation. He compares the concept to a church building and various supporting points as the foundation, buttresses, and framework holding it all together. In doing this, he does what humans have done for all of history: Create a story, an idea about life’s meaning and purpose that provides shelter as we cope with life’s struggles. Not all cultures have complex theologies of sin, atonement, and redemption, but they do tell stories about belonging, right living, restoring integrity when one has gotten off course, and faith in a greater whole that will sustain a person as they confront inevitable death and suffering.
Donne is clear that salvation from death does not mean avoidance of dying. He reframes it, comparing a mother’s womb to a tomb, as the baby carried within is dead to the world, til passing through the birth canal he experiences another death, comparing the amniotic sac that covers the newborn child to the shroud that will cover him once he is buried again.
As in his poetry, his writing is full of earthy, embodied metaphors. The decay we experience in the grave he calls “the worm,” that which breaks down the material substance of our bodies, releasing it to be remade into something new. In this way the worm, corruption, dissolves the boundaries between self and other, making the worm “my mother, my sister, and myself,” a state he declares to be a “miserable incest!” yet necessary all the same, causing the dust of the most glorious king to commingle with that of the lowliest beggar, reminding us all that our time on earth is transient, here and gone in the twinkling of an eye. He wrote before Van Leeuwenhoek and his animalcules, before the germ theory and the microbial revolution, but he understands the sense of that story nonetheless. The worm of corruption, that is, the microbes that suck at our flesh, breaking it all down into the smallest particles, is both ourselves, our sister, our mother. It is that which we were born from, that which has never been absent from us, and that to which we will return. Bacteria. Virus. Dissolving us back into the undifferentiated swirl of microbe and matter.
And yet he holds out a greater hope: the notion that someday, God will gather all the scattered dust together, reforming our bodies to be united with our souls into some kind of new, transfigured being, a being that is only possible for having experienced the disintegration and annihilation of death.
“When you look at their [viruses] role in one human lifespan, most likely if they are mobilised there are going to be negative effects. In the short term, they are our enemies. On the other hand, if you are looking across time, these elements are a powerful force of evolution and they are still active in our species today.”
-Dr. Paolo Mita, NYU medical researcher, in 2020
In 1347, a devastating new plague tore through Italy. Originating in China and spreading via the Silk Road trade route, the bacteria Yersinia Pestis terrorized Europe for the next several years. By 1351, one-third of the European population had died, causing massive disruption to Europe’s economy and culture, though there would continue to be more isolated outbreaks over the next several centuries. It was undoubtedly horrifying. Some of the effects were the sort of fearful human reactions we still see today: the rich barricaded themselves to avoid infection, an ethnic minority was scapegoated and persecuted— in this case, the Jews. Samuel Pepys, in his diary of the 1665 London outbreak, wrote, “this disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are dogs.”
Yet the devastating death and disruption caused by the plague had effects we would consider positive. It caused a severe labor shortage which allowed serfs to demand better working conditions and higher wages, leading to the end of feudalism and the rise of the middle classes. Much of the scientific insight that gave rise to germ theory and modern epidemiology is a result of Europe’s continued battles with the plague. Researchers are now studying the ways Yersinia Pestis changed our genome and immune systems as we evolved in response.
Bubonic plague arrived in a time when the best medicine of the day resembled something we would now understand as nonsense and superstition. The basics of contagion were understood, though bad air was believed to be the culprit and the only remedies were herbal potions and practices like bloodletting. From our vantage point we are much better equipped to manage our contemporary plague. We have tests to detect viral DNA before a person is symptomatic, we have powerful medications that can reduce the severity if given early enough, we have ventilators to help those who become seriously ill, and within a year of the outbreak, we had a vaccine that significantly reduces the likelihood of death and disease from COVID.
Yet still, there is so much that is beyond our control, beyond the ability of scientists and all the other experts to understand or manage. Why do some people believe COVID is a hoax or plot? How do we get people to mask and socially distance when we don’t have solid data that these measures will work? How do we get people to take the vaccine when they have good reasons to distrust the pharmaceutical industry? The pandemic has highlighted serious faultlines within our culture. In an era of unlimited data, unlimited stories, unlimited experts, all available at the click of a button, which ones do we trust? We can’t solve these questions by controlling what people hear or read. Human behavior is driven by deeper questions that exist within the heart, and that is something that has never succumbed to our attempts to control it.
When I worked in the ICU, tending to people on the brink of death, I had a lot of opportunity to observe people’s response to terrifying situations over which they had no control. The patients were generally unconscious, but the families tended to respond in one of two ways. The first was to become hypervigilant, googling arcane cures and obsessing over the trends of vital signs and lab data as if by staying constantly alert, one could change the outcome. The other was to go toward denial and avoidance. Sometimes this looked like magical thinking— refusing to accept a diagnosis or insisting that God would heal a loved one. Sometime it was a straight-up fleeing of the scene. I once sat in a family meeting in which the care team patiently explained to a family that their father and husband was dying, and that some decisions needed to be made as to how best to keep him comfortable in his remaining time. The family members promptly disappeared, and couldn’t be reached for weeks.
I see this same tendency in people’s response to COVID. Some stay glued to the news, following case counts and death rates as they rise and fall, rise and fall, like waves lapping a beach. They wear masks at all times, even outdoors, with nobody around, or maybe they haven’t left their houses in 2 years. Others choose denial, insisting it isn’t real, it was never real, or if it is, there is nothing to be done for it.
There was a third type of response I used to see, less common than the first two, but always a relief to encounter as an ICU nurse— the path of engaged surrender. These were the people that accepted that they could not control all the variables or the outcome, and yet understood that by staying present to the process, they had a choice in how to experience it. If time was limited, they made the most of it telling their life stories, singing songs and holding hands with the people who mattered most. If the outcome was uncertain, they worked to place their faith in something bigger, deeper, wider than themselves. Someone or something that would ease the fear and pain and give their suffering purpose and meaning— even in death. These were the people who channelled a love and grace that in turn blessed everyone around them. They weren’t always religious, and in fact, more fundamentalist expressions of faith had a high correlation with denial behaviors. But they had some kind of spirituality to anchor them.
I believe in God, which is to say some sort of higher conscious power present in the universe. I believe not because I have some sort of undeniable proof or because it makes sense to me, intellectually— most of the time it doesn’t. I believe because it makes my life better. When challenges arise, I have a trust that I will always be held in love, even if I die. I believe that I can find meaning and purpose, and that really terrible things can produce positive growth, if I choose it. It doesn’t mean that I accept every terrible situation, or decline to take action. It’s a process of listening to the part of myself that exists beyond the purely rational, analytic mind and beyond the fight-or flight response of my nervous system. It’s listening to the part of myself that know there is a much, much bigger picture, and that I am only seeing a part of it. These basic elements of spirituality are the foundations, buttresses, and contignations that hold my sanity and wellbeing together. And they work.
What will the story of COVID-19 be when viewed from the vast sweep of time and space? Will it be seen as a turning point in history? Will it have some kind of unexpected, positive effect? The larger story may not emerge for millennia. It may not be remembered at all. Our tiny short lives will undoubtedly seem inconsequential when viewed from this vantage point, our deaths no more significant than the death of a flea, or a blade of grass, or a colony of bacteria. Do we matter as much as we think we do?
People who walk the path of engaged surrender seem to understand two paradoxical truths: each one of us is a world unto itself, a precious being of infinite value; and we are nothing, dust in the wind swept into oblivion at a moment’s notice. We are like tiny bacteria on the outer edges of a fecal colony barreling through God’s colon, on our way to a watery oblivion. And yet we are integral to the order of things, and we are held in love, from beginning to end.
John Donne returned to his sickbed after preaching Death’s Duel. In the following month he posed for a picture of himself, a kind of memento mori. He wrapped himself up, from head to toe, in what was called a winding sheet, that is, a shroud, with only his face peeking out. He posed himself standing up against a piece of wood cut to resemble a coffin. He subsequently placed a sketch made by the artist at his bedside so he could contemplate his death. A sculpted version was made that still stands as Donne’s memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In his sermon, Donne says that we must live well here and now not because it will spare us the agony of death, but so we may live well forever, because a good life here will flow into the life to come. Donne approached his death with the same kind of deep embodied presence and intelligence with which he engaged everything else in life. He died on March 31, 1631, just days into the new year and days past Easter and the spring equinox, a fitting time to die for a man who trusted his death would be but a passage into a new life.
I don’t know that I believe in the same kind of bodily resurrection that Donne did, but I do understand that in a sense, we are always regenerating. Our cells and microbes are constantly being replaced. As old matter disintegrates into its constituent parts it is free to become incorporated into something new, and thus my body will become food for microbes, fungi, insects, plants, my essence infusing and becoming one with theirs. Perhaps this is the resurrection. Perhaps it is something more.
As for heaven, I do think I catch glimpses of it from time to time. It’s the abode of the saints, the good ancestors, those who lived well on earth so they might live well forever; they are always with us, encouraging us forward, available when we call on them. Their names are John Donne, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Black Elk, Martin of Tours, Martin Luther King. They are Babetta, Irma, and Anna. I feel them behind me, propping me up like a dying man against a coffin-board, saying “You’re almost there. Just hang on a little longer.”
To live well is to infuse your love into the world around you, know that it will live on long after you are gone. It is to know that we are always dying, little by little every day of course; but also experiencing painful endings of all kinds. It is to choose to navigate these unavoidable sufferings with engaged surrender. To die before you die so that you can live your life fully awake, not bound by fear. It is to stay fully present to your own death so you can ease the passage for others.
This coming Sunday, I will walk into a church and say the old words:
“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
And I will have faith that I am— yesterday, today, and forever— one of the resurrected.
Having just lost a dear friend, I find this piece soothing, just for today. Thank you Rebekah for the precious gift and Dougald for sharing it. Reading it, I’m reminded that in Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Message of The Qur'an’, Islam is translated as “Surrender”
This is a remarkable piece, one I'm grateful to have found (thanks to Rhyd Wildermuth) and that resonates with much of my own thinking. Your phrase "engaged surrender" is one I shall carry with me. I only have one tiny quibble, which is that I'm fairly sure God uses a compost toilet. Though Jung did have a vision of Him shitting on Basel cathedral.