(Angel of Grief, statuary for the memorial for Henry Lathrop, brother of Jane Lathrop Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
"...keep death daily before one's eyes."
--#47 in the Rule of St. Benedict
If you've ever been to the Stanford University campus, you might have seen this statue. There's an interesting story behind it. This memorial was erected in 1901 in honor of the brother of one of the co-founders of the university, and is based on an original in Rome, created by William Wetmore Story. It was severely damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and replaced in 1908. Over the years, it suffered a great deal of neglect and was restored in 2001.
Many of you know that one of the components of my spirituality is to learn about the ancient practices and try to apply them to my modern life. Several aspects of Benedictine spirituality are key features of my own spiritual life, because I desire balance, and St. Benedict seemed to understand balance very well in his concept of "stability." But if you read the rule of St. Benedict, some of what he talks about seems very oppressive, or at the very least, a little creepy and icky, in terms of modern thought. The business of "keeping death before our eyes daily" is one of them. At first glance, at the very least, our reaction is very likely, "Ooooo. Ick. Morbid."
But on one level, that is very, very pervasive in my world, given the fact I put names on diseases for a living--some of which will eventually lead to a premature death. On one level, it's always in my day, and I barely think about it, interestingly enough. It's just there. I didn't cause it, I can't control it, and I can't fix it--my job is to name it.
Death is an unusual elephant in the room for me. I've known about death almost all my life--even as a child--because probably as soon as I was old enough to be conscious of things, I knew people die and it makes people sad. Many of you have read tales elsewhere on my blog about my uncle, Richard, who was killed in a hunting accident when he was eleven years old and I was eight months old. I've known all my life something was "off" in my family because "Richard died."
My grandpa's best friend owned one of the funeral homes in town. They used to swap finds from coin sales back and forth with each other. I would entertain myself by looking at the dead people who were out for viewing now and then and try to figure out just what "dead" was, exactly. I always thought the fact they were room temperature when I touched them was interesting. They weren't supposed to be room temperature in one way, but of course they were supposed to be room temperature.
We lived near a cemetery. I saw funerals come and go all the time.
In my training years, I never shied away from the dying in hospitals. For young doctors-in-training, the dying are a mixed bag. Many of my young peers at the time intensely disliked dealing with those who dying as imminent--they represented "failure" to them personally in so many ways. I've always been intrigued with the word choices we use in medicine when we no longer have any hope of medical healing to offer. We put the onus on the dying person. We say things like "He abandoned medical therapy," or "He refused further treatment." I always thought those were phrases designed to make US feel better. It makes it sound like the patient "did something to get away from us," rather than the patient simply made a choice about his or her control of exiting the world.
So why am I thinking about the Angel of Grief in the Season of Resurrection?
Well, it's because I recently sat vigil during the death of an old friend. I am struggling with the words to tell a story of Resurrection, that I know I will blog about soon--it is a story of sitting at the foot of the cross--my friend's hospital bed--during his dying process, and turning around the very next day and finding myself the very next day at the mouth of the empty tomb--in the middle of the most joyous Easter Sunday I've ever experienced at Trinity.
I don't really have all the words to describe it yet, but the short version is it feels like I have personally experienced the passionate feelings of Holy Week and Easter in the most intimate way I have ever felt. These total up to a LOT of feelings--and I really don't yet have the words.
Oh, I have tried. I've sent out several e-mails. I have some phrases I like. But they do not connote the intimacy I have felt with this.
What's spooky is that on the morning before this roller coaster ride even started, I had two very intense conversations with two of my best friends about this process of discerning my call--a possible call to ordination in the church--and then I had all this happen. I think the entire sequence of events is meant to be what it is, as it is.
The first friend keeps asking me the very deep and pointed questions, that keep revealing to me that this call was deeper and goes further back than I ever imagined. I met with her for breakfast Sat. morning. I am incredibly early in this process, and there have been many frustrations associated with it. She keeps my heart in the game. She reaches into some of the most painful stories of my life and at times, it feels like she's reached into my chest, extracted my heart, held it in front of my face, and said, "Now tell me about this." She is teaching me fearlessness about telling stories I've never had the courage to tell. You see, I grew up in an environment that everything dear to me was always at risk of being destroyed in a drunken rage. I learned never to throw off signals that a certain toy was a "favorite"--it would be first on the hit list. I was trained never to look like I really wanted something. Almost everything dear to me was at risk of being used against me. Giving these stories up is hard. But she teaches me to do it.
The second friend and I had a long visit on the phone. She has a different role in my life. She is the friend who tells me the good person she sees looking back at her, and doesn't let me ever wallow in my own self-condemnation. She keeps telling me, "Well, that's just not a reasonable impression on your part." She's the friend who fearlessly says things like, "For a smart person, sometimes you're just really dumb," and proceeds to tell me the good I seldom commend in myself. She's also just as good at pointing out things that are my "growing edges." She encourages me to challenge myself.
The trade-off in these friendships is I am "the wise friend who studies their problems from all the angles and points out all the possibilities and options." I get teased that I would say my favorite color is "plaid," but they also both value my ability to perceive things.
So I went straight from the intensity of that to the intensity of a friend's deathbed.
I was feeling pretty raw and vulnerable from those two conversations, but I think "raw and vulnerable" was where I needed to be to fully be present in this deathbed vigil.
I've never feared the Angel of Death, but I've been mighty "tweaky" about the Angel of Grief.
The Angel of Grief demands vulnerability to enter into her presence. The Angel of Death, he comes and gets you, ready or not, and you have the rest of eternity to work that one out. The Angel of Grief never enters in but merely hovers, if one is "not ready."
A few months ago, I entered into a session with the Angel of Grief where she literally sat with me for weeks, as I cried myself dry over and over again over "deaths"--literal and emotional and historical--some of them four decades old.
What I discovered is she cries with us--just as the statue in the picture depicts.
So this time, this death has been different for me. Maybe it was because I was primed to be vulnerable already as my friend's death commenced, but I just know this time I am welcoming her rather than standing with my back to her as she perches from a distance, eyeing me...and it's all okay.