The Dying Man
To say I’ve been dying for some years now is probably a gross misrepresentation, even to those who knew depression had become both my regular and ever abiding companion. Nevertheless, this very real experience in my life will serve as a useful entry point into what I want to talk to you about today.
I’ve actually thought about writing about this particular life experience I only began to learn something about 11 years ago now. But for whatever reason, I simply made it part of my own daily remembrance since then. In fact, I have written it over and over in my weekly prayers, visibly posted it in familiar places where I can see it’s other-worldly common sense more regularly; and its compelling wisdom has been occasionally known to echo from my lips to others seemingly lost amid this thing called “life”. Particularly those “examined” lifers that are always willing to call the baby fat when it should be equally obvious to the rest of us.
A Visit to Mepkin Abbey
It started out during my enamored flirtation with the spiritual disciplines as a way to perhaps get more of God into me somehow. Now don’t get me wrong. I had always given that a college try throughout most of my life at least, but somehow the promise of more attentiveness to these matters as a way to keep me on the narrow path drew me closer to take a look see. That particular focus in my life would lead me to a place called Mepkin Abbey where I unexpectedly got some manna from heaven that I sorely needed.
Mepkin Abbey is a Cistercian monastery nestled along the Cooper River in a place appropriately called “Monk’s Corner, S.C.”. And in my search to find a cure for my impending death, I decided to not only go there and pray, but to also take a tour into what the life of men who did nothing more than work, pray and sing praises to God might be like. I wanted to see if where my particular trajectory in life seemed to be taking me was worth paying a little more attention to, instead of simply drowning it away in the evenings from the bottom of a bourbon glass.
After we walked through the various areas of where the men lived and worshiped and learned about the daily rhythms of their life, we were finally ushered into a room at the conclusion where we could ask any lingering questions that we might have for our tour guide. I remember distinctively others asking what I perceived to be rather trivial and superficial questions, that in my dying mind were not becoming to a man who had sold out his life to what I have come to believe is truly the “heart of the matter”. And so, as I continued to listen I grew ever more impatient, yet waiting my turn, I finally got the go ahead to take center stage. It was then that I looked at the monk now in his mid to late seventies, and I asked him what had been on my mind for some time now, and that as of yet had not found an answer to. I then said, “Sir, what is it that you have learned here, that you could not have learned on the outside in the real world”? And it was in that very pointed moment, with all eyes now waiting to hear his words, that without hesitation he played for me something of a movie short of his life.
He told me he had lived as a Catholic priest his whole life, and he then felt, nearing his retirement, that the most logical step for him was then to enter the monastery. We all listened on. He then said that the one thing that he learned in his life of ministry, specifically as he spent a lot of time with the sick and dying in the hospital and in parishioners homes, was that those who were dying all of sudden became the most selfless people he had ever met. He then added that these dying people came to realize in their looming death, that the only thing that really mattered, was to now “lose oneself” in the service of God and to others. Sniff, Sniff. He then said, “That is what I learned here, without having to die”! And to this day, I have never forgotten it.
The King’s Wisdom
Now for those of you who know about what I speak; the dying that is; you also know that pouring fuel onto a walking dead man on fire is not typically the best course of action. However, for me, hanging out in the book of Job, or particularly with a wise and somewhat nihilistic King were actually just what the doctor ordered. For King Solomon pulls no punches. He’s not whispering tiddlywinks or blowing smoke up our ass! He’s been there, done that and bought the t-shirt; as well as the t-shirt factory. And by way of introduction, he lets us dead people know that we’re actually right. All this stuff he says is a vanity of epic proportions, and so he has to spend a great deal of time shoving his epiphanic nihilism in our faces, just in case we have a tendency to forget. Because of course; we do.
And so our sagely friend starts with the bad news by expounding on a litany of things all of us dying men already know all too painfully. For instance, things like being obsessed with having “stuff”; receiving accolades from men; becoming freakin “know it alls”; and those who embrace an epicurean lifestyle. And he says in no uncertain terms, that these things are in fact on the road to a dead-end street (no pun intended). And quite honestly, if we are wise, we stand up and pay attention, because we are hearing this from the lips of a man who spared no amount of time, money or devotion to those very things for the entirety of his life. And the result: A man who could find no rest for the one thing he needed most when it counted—his very own soul. And his reminder to us is that in the end, you and I will die! And regardless of whether or not we cherish the thought, they will forget us more than likely before the freakin weekend!
Now just let that sink in for a moment.
But before we criticize the man for stealing our mojo, he rightfully steers us towards a practice that most of the world simply won’t sign up for. For he says in chapter 7:3 that “death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart”. In other words, Solomon tells us that the way to really live rightly is to do so out of the certain and futuristic crystal ball depicting our own demise.
Death-talk Is Not In Vogue
Now to say that people in general don’t like to talk about this subject, and Americans more specifically, should be self-evident. We are constantly told, “you’re as young as you feel”, and “you’re not old, you’re just getting better” and other mounds of bullshit just like that! Oh, now don’t get me wrong, keeping a young mind so to speak, while obviously growing old, is a perspective we should all embrace. But the fact remains, that in order to live a good life, a life that really matters, the reality of death and taxes as absolute certainties in this life should occupy our thoughts much more than it does I’m afraid. Because the facts are in man, and none of us are getting out of this damn thing alive!
Now I’m fortunate in the sense that I began to think somewhat like this as I mentioned earlier during a particular economic death I experienced some 11 years ago now. Which consequently always makes me a great companion for Tony Robbins types (no offense Tony), which are everywhere man! And though I’m all for goal-setting and reaching for the stars (whatever the Hell that means), quite honestly, I’m much more comfortable with a little morbid thinking that gives me a healthy dose of undeniable reality which reminds me that I’m really not that big of a deal in this whole drama. In fact, this reality, if we will allow it, can infuse us with something that will really teach us how to live rightfully, more so than simply “successfully”. And though they can be companion bedfellows (if they are rightfully defined), oftentimes they are most emphatically not!
Dead Men Tell No Tales
It was Friday the 13th of this year when I got an up close and personal brush with what death might actually feel like. And to show you how disordered my thinking still was, even though I had been in this class for some time now, the one thing that I kept rehashing over and over in my mind was the fact that I would leave my family with nothing as far as this world’s goods was concerned. Now not that being able to do so is a bad thing. It is most definitely not. And we should endeavor, without killing ourselves (pun intended), to do that. But the fact still remains, that if we die, and the saying that “he who dies with the most toys wins” is bullshit (and it is), then the legacy we leave in terms of what kind of person we were before God and to others is the only thing people will remember. Which is one of the reasons we are still talking about Mr. Rogers now some 16 years after his death. And the summation from both Fred and our somewhat nihilistic King is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”. It’s the only thing, and I mean the only thing that matters! I promise you.
And yet I know, at the stroke of my keyboard, many of us still consider this talk to be nothing more than poppycock and endless sermonizing from some “negative Nancy” types, only trying to rain on our parade. And I get it. I really do. However, the last time I checked; I never ever saw a hearse carrying around a trailer hitch. And to be sure, I never heard a dead man tell any tales to speak of. But then wait; perhaps they do after all.
Are you listening to this one?