One night when I was twelve, sitting in my bedroom in Lawrence, Kansas, I realized that someday I would die.
I don’t know what prompted it – perhaps it was simply part of the normal course of things, to be exiting childhood and seeing for the first time that life passes and someday there would be an end, not just to one more stage, but to the whole darn thing.
I remember being seized with terror , frantically fighting the sudden realization that there would be a day when I didn’t exist.
It drove me, already entering into the adolescent Ice Queen, too-cool-for- this stage, to frantic tears. My mother heard and came to comfort me. I don’t know what she said, but I suppose it helped. Until the next time helplessness and not a little anger at what I saw as the unfairness of it all descended on me, put my insides in a vise and filled me with fear.
Years later, I found in the words of John Updike in his excellent memoir, Self-Consciousness an echo of what I first experienced that night I was twelve and many times since:
“My mind when I was a boy of ten or eleven sent up its silent screams at the thought of future aeons—at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me…That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world – it happens to everybody…In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches of our lives…”
I’m forty-one now, and things have changed at last. I’ve gone several years in which I’ve been able to think about death without panic, in which I’ve been able to look over the obituaries in the newspaper without being flung into a momentary depression at the prospect of my name,age and profession appearing at the top of two or three brief, coldly factual paragraphs.
Part of it is maturity, I suppose. I’ve gone through some difficult experiences over the past few years that have forced me to confront the reality that there are some things you can’t control, and the only way to peace in those situations is to just accept. I will die. There’s nothing I can do about it.
But there’s no doubt that my growing peace with the prospect of my own death is, more than anything else, due to something pretty simple:
I decided to take my faith seriously.
A funny thing for a woman who’s been in the Religion Biz ages to say, but it’s true. It’s not that I never didn’t believe the words I recited from the Creed, but there was something within me that held them at a distance from the core of my being.
What happened, as I moved through my thirties and would experience these dark nights of the soul, is that I forced myself to walk through a personal Holy Week.
In prayer, I’d confront the fear that the thought of death evoked within, and then I’d force myself to answer the question: Do you believe in the Resurrection?
Do you really?
And I’d work through it, presenting the most powerful arguments against it I could muster, and every time, I’d have to say yes. I believe.
Why would the apostles give their lives over to spreading the Gospel if they hadn’t seen Jesus after the crucifixion? Would anyone do such a thing for the purpose of spreading a lie? For that is what they would have been engaged in, if they preached that God ‘raised Jesus from the dead” merely as way of expressing their acceptance of Jesus’ teachings or as an explanation for the empty tomb caused, if we are buy prominent scholar John Dominic Crossan’s mondo bizarro theory, by wild dogs feasting on Jesus’ corpse. A massive, cunningly coordinated lie. That all eleven of them died for.
So I would make this little mental and spiritual journey, leading me out of darkness and fear by way of a simple credo.
But of course, as Flannery O’Connor notes, belief in the Risen Jesus - real belief – necessarily changes your life.
In her story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the amoral Misfit observes,
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him….”
That’s it. I imagine that is why I only accepted, rather than fully embraced, the Risen Jesus for so long. If he did rise from the dead, he is indeed God and every word he said is true.
Forgive. Love unto death, God first, then others – not stuff or power or your own comfort. Keep forgiving.
No wonder we’d rather blame it on the dogs.