Burton: Death and Spiritual Direction
“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” Norman Cousins
Guest writer: Larry Burton
It is seldom that a spiritual friend has brought up the subject of mortality, at least overtly. The fact that we will die is something many—if not most—of us dutifully seek to ignore. But human mortality is a rich source for spiritual reflection and discovery. I am not talking, of course, about those awful billboards that threaten eternal hell if one isn’t right with God. I’m talking about something more mundane and therefore more challenging.
My friend Teresa (not her real name, of course) suffered a life threatening illness a few years ago. As a result, she said, she had given-up on God. (I’m grateful to report she has not given-up on our friendship, however.) It was the oft heard reasoning that “I almost died. God didn’t help me when I needed Him,” and that was that. I confess that I actually argued with her. “But you didn’t die,” I said. She laughed, “No thanks to Him.”
Up until then death had not really been a possibility, but when it suddenly loomed large, somebody or something had to be responsible. Teresa was not in spiritual direction with me. We are just good friends. But her words haunt me. During my years teaching in a medical school, my class in “Death and Dying” always included exercises that required students to reflect on their own mortality. “What,” I wondered, “if I raised questions about death in spiritual direction?” So I have begun to do so.
One of the questions I raise is, “How does the fact that you will die affect your spiritual experience?” I have found that this question is foundational for two reasons. First, if God only appears as the gatekeeper of heaven, it appears God has nothing to do with daily life, the very place we live moment to moment. Second, if God is for me, as St. Paul testifies, day-in-and-day-out, then all the little deaths we suffer can be experienced in a very different light.
I wish I had talked with Teresa this way, but I didn’t. It was my loss and possibly hers, too. But what I could do, I did. In my prayers, I lifted her up and took her to a place of light where God could comfort and heal her. I am content with being Teresa’s friend, trusting that she is in God’s strong hands .
Meanwhile, I rejoice at how intimate and safe the experience of spiritual direction is, so that the question about death can be raised. Conversations about death are a doorway to realization that eternity lies, not just in the future, but in this very moment, and that life with and in God is not just for then, but for now.