For my Lenten discipline this year, I’ve decided to become more comfortable with death. To date, I have not been a big fan. Fifteen years ago at the tender age of 45 my blissful life of denial was interrupted with a breast cancer diagnosis. Okay, it felt like a tender age at the time. I hadn’t given my own mortality much thought and when it was forced into my consciousness in an unforgettable way, I was miffed. Denial had been my favorite coping mechanism, but it failed me in the face of the realities of surgery, chemo and radiation. Since then death has taken beloved people away from me – again, not happy about it. A few others have come dangerously close to the brink, but managed to escape back into life, so I’m happy about that.
Of course, it is hard to deny that I have been impacted, as all of us have in one way or another, by senseless suffering and death from terrorism and war, constant reminders that death is an unavoidable companion that walks beside us whether we welcome it or not. But it seems that with all that death and near death stuff going on, I have not found a better coping mechanism than denial, which means I cling to it despite knowing it doesn’t work. In other words, I’m in denial about denial’s ineffectiveness. What can I say, I have a gift!
Which brings me to my Lenten quest for a new approach to the reality of mortality. I think I need to – and this is going to sound weird – make friends with death. At least get well enough acquainted that I don’t flee spiritually and emotionally from the reality of it. So here’s my plan: I am going to pray what is referred to as the Compline, or Night Prayer. I already use the resource Universalis, an online office of the hours, for morning devotion. So during Lent I am going to add the Compline to my daily routine. I’ve tried this before, but it was too hard to maintain denial in the face of it. You see, the Compline includes prayers for comfort in suffering and the well-known prayer, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” It constantly refers to sleep and eternal rest, to longing for quiet nights and a perfect end. So far I have avoided these images of mortality prayed in the darkness, but not this Lent. I will pray them and try not to be afraid, not to run and hide from what I know is true: that my life and my death belong to God and so there is truly nothing to fear.As my dear, patient friend and mentor James Alison reminds us, Jesus came to remove our fear of death so that we could live as if death is not. That was the point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and the promise of atonement, of life reconciled to God for whom death is not. As James explains,
One of the things that Jesus was about was that he was creating faith. He was doing something so that we could believe. Effectively he was saying “I know that you are susceptible. I know that you find it very difficult to believe that God loves you. I know that you are inclined to be frightened of death. And because of that you are inclined to run from death, mete it out to others and engage in all sorts of forms of self-delusion and self-destruction. You find it difficult to imagine that things really will be well and that you are being held in being by someone who is utterly trustworthy. All this I know… [So] I’m going to go and actually inhabit the space of death, that which so frightens you, and which you think it is impossible to get through, so that you will no longer be run by fear of it.” (Jesus the Forgiving Victim, 207, 209)
This is an idea I think I grasp intellectually, but I have not yet found a way to live into. If I pray the Compline faithfully during Lent, my hope is that some bit of that truth will live in me come Easter morning. Will you join me in praying the Compline this Lent? I would welcome your company and your reflections as we travel from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning through the dark nights together.