Friday, September 10, 2010

Memento Mori

Remember your death.

A few years ago I remember a priest's sermon about death and the afterlife. Or, rather, his meditation on what we think the life-after-death will be like. Any afterlife we might have would not be all clouds, angels and harps, of course, but we're very quick to go back to that image.

Wondered the priest: might we focus too much on living, walking and thinking in a life after death? Do we really imagine that life after death will be peaches and cream where life on earth goes on, just better and more permanent? Is it all because we are too afraid to peer into death and see the end of "me"?

One of the most frightening experiences of my childhood was when I realized that there was a time before I existed. My family was watching TV and I was staring at our leather-bound encyclopedias. The thought just hit me: where was I before I was born? In 1985, the year before I was born, I wasn't even a thought. No consciousness. No mind. No soul. Nothing. Complete nothing. Not a soul in heaven waiting to be born, to be exiled to earth. Nothing.

That same fear makes me cling to life. Now that I have thought and memory, how can wonderful me cease to think and remember? Once a thinking mind has been made, can it be unmade at death? What would it be like to die? How would it feel?

Being dead and no longer a thinking soul would leave me, well, empty. I wouldn't be there to protest against death since "I" wouldn't exist any longer. The prospect of losing "I" still terrifies me.

Christian talk of the "life after death" seemed too convenient to me. Too easy a way of pretending that death wasn't anything after all, nothing really to be afraid of. I could imagine my grandfather (God rest his soul!) having arguments with the angels about Scripture, my pets waiting eagerly for me to arrive (how morbid!) and the great figures of the past all having tea and muffins around a table (a great set up to a joke!). But all those images felt so crafted and finely tuned to my need for stability and continuity. Everything has to continue on, right?

These images try to preserve the way things are. It assumes that death does not change those we love. It assumes that heaven might just be us walking around in a nice village where everyone knows each other and God is hanging around as everybody's favorite neighbor. It can coat over the real pain and alienation and sin that we are stuck in. It preserves the "I", the ego, something of such monumental importance that God would seemingly ensure that it survived mostly intact after death, possibly in even better shape.

But what if it isn't like that? What then?

What if we die and are no more? What if we sleep in death and do not get to walk around in a charming celestial village?

Would you or I be content to be in God's memory?

Sitting in that aged pew I remember the relief I had when the priest mentioned that idea. Relief! I didn't feel like I had to fight for a naive image of heaven. It didn't matter. God would always be, even if I ceased to be. God would remember, even if I failed to remember. Nothing that lived, nothing that was done, nothing since the beginning of creation would be forgotten.

This isn't to say that I do not believe in the Resurrection. I do. God has taken a liking for us incredibly flawed and fallible human beings, giving us so much love and light. God, in Jesus Christ, chose to walk among us. He lived with us, argued with us, judged us, loved us, taught us, died for us. God chose that! Against all odds, God delights in us, so it isn't a far jump that God might choose to spend eternity with us (whether that 'us' is a select few, the multitudes, or all).

Knowing that God can remember us even without the Resurrection can free us from the greeting card image of heaven. Death is painful and powerful. It attacks at the human soul through fear and anguish.

Death does not have the final say, however; God has chosen us, remembers us, and loves us.

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