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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Death

An excerpt from the Frasier episode Death And The Dog ....

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Frasier: How loosely woven is the fabric of our unhappiness... a tug or two and it unravels to reveal how empty our everyday lives really are.

Niles: And then there are the empty nights... accompanied by thoughts of loneliness and death.

Martin: You think about that too? I thought it was just me.

Frasier: Everybody thinks about it.

Martin: Do you lie real still and hold your breath and pretend you're in the ground?

Frasier: No, that's just you.

Roz: When I die, I want it to be on my 100th birthday, in my beach house on Maui and I want my husband to be so upset that he has to drop out of college.

Daphne: You know, I once had a psychic tell me the strangest thing. That one day I'd go off my rocker, take up a kitchen knife, kill the entire household and then kill myself. Silly old bag! She was right about my moving to Seattle, though.

Martin: Well, I don't know how I wanna go, but all those years around the police morgue taught me a few things. First off, you don't want to swallow Drano or rat poison. And if you're going to kill yourself with an axe, get it right the first time!

Frasier: Well, you know, we can talk about it, we can think about it, but nobody really knows how or when.

Roz: One second we're alive as anyone else, and then what?

Frasier: Darkness, nothingness, afterlife?

Niles: I've always liked the notion of meeting the great figures of history. But then I think, what if it's like high school and all the really cool dead people don't want to hang out with me. Mozart'll tell me he's busy but then later I'll see him out with Shakespeare and Lincoln!

Martin: Well, I don't know about you but this is depressing the hell out of me. Remember, my bell's coming up sooner than you guys!

They all agree and Martin is a little unnerved.

Niles: No, no, none of us really knows when our time is up.

Roz: And it's never long enough. My great grandmother was 92 years old when she died and the last words to me from her deathbed were, "it's so short." Of course, it was the seventies, she could have been talking about my skirt.

Frasier: "I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker."

Niles: T.S Eliot.

Frasier: Dead.

Niles: "Must not all things at the last be swallowed up in death."

Frasier: Plato.

Niles: Even deader ......

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Actually, Martin isn't the only one who holds his breath and lies really still and imagines he's in the ground - I do too :) Since I've become a Christian, I also imagine what it may be like to step into that express elevator to hell, going dooooooown! So it was with interest that I saw The Heythrop Journal's issue for last January devoted to the subject of death. The first article in the issue is The Art of Dying: In Luther's Sermon on Preparing to Die by Dennis Ngien. The article is very long, so here is just a bit of it ..........

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The impetus behind [Martin] Luther's sermon, written two years after the ninety-five theses at Wittenberg, was Spalatin's repeated requests on behalf of Mark Schart, a wealthy landowner and counselor to Frederick the Wise, who struggled with troubling thoughts about death ......

In the face of despairing images – death, sin, and hell, Jesus Christ is the saving image which the believer must contemplate and hold before them. Luther's advice is this: contemplate Christ, the ‘glowing picture’, as the solution to the trilogy of evil. First he counseled those suffering with the fear of impending death to contemplate death not in themselves, or in their nature, nor in those who died by divine wrath and were overcome by death, in which cases they would be lost. Instead they are to turn their gaze upon Christ, who ‘overcame death with life’. They are to contemplate death ‘only’ in those who died in God's grace and who have overcome death, particularly in Christ and in all his beloved saints. The more you fix your gaze on these pictures, the more the image of death would pale and diminish in its power without battle. Death would appear ‘contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise’. Christ's death is the chief object of meditation, for he is the ‘dead bronze serpent’ in whose sight the agents and might of death die. Thus we must concern ourselves solely with Christ's death and find life there. Luther rephrased Christ's words: ‘In the world – that is, in yourselves – you have unrest, but in me you will find peace’ (John 16:33). So to look at death in any other way will annihilate us with great terror and anguish.

Second Luther exhorted us to look at sin, not in sinners, or in our own conscience, or in those who live in sin till the end and are damned, but only in the context of grace. ‘The picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross’, where he removes our sin, bears it and destroys it, if only we believe this firmly. Christ is the image of life and grace who conquers for us (pro nobis) the image of death and sin (I. Cor. 15:57).

Here (in the picture of Christ) sins are never sins, for here they are overcome and swallowed up in Christ. He takes your death upon himself and strangles it so that it may not harm you, if you believe that he does it for you and see your death in him and not in yourself. Likewise, he also takes your sins upon himself and overcomes them with his righteousness out of sheer mercy, and if you believe that, your sins will never work you harm. In that way Christ, the picture of life and of grace over against the picture of death and sin, is our consolation.

Third, we must not regard hell and eternal pain in relation to predestination, not in ourselves or in itelf, or in those who are damned, but solely in relation to Christ. We are to gaze at the ‘heavenly picture’ of Christ, who descended into hell (I Pet. 3:19) as one eternally forsaken by God when he spoke the words of dereliction on the cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!’ – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46). In that picture our hell is conquered, and our uncertain election is made sure. ‘Never, therefore, let this (picture) be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally’. The image of Christ is the mirror of the love of God ......

The entire writing illumines his experience as a pastor and confessor, totally removed from any polemical language or theological jargon. Yet his sermon is not fluffy, totally vacuous of theological content. The pulpit becomes for him the occasion to teach with theological precision, and to inculcate in his congregation a piety that is well-informed by the theological truths of Scripture ..... Christ is a true God, before whom all these images – death, sin and hell – pale in their assailing power against us (contra nobis). And that is indeed our consolation, one that makes the dark passage of death more bearable .....

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8 Comments:

Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I never worry so much about going to hell when I die, but I have and I do often try to imagine what that final moment, the 'event horizon' between life and death might be like. I had a dream once where I knew I was dying. I was lying in the dark and breathing very slow, very deep breaths and they just got slower and slower. There was no discomfort between them like when you're trying to hold your breath or anything. It was all quite relaxing. I remember thinking, "So this is all there is to it?" It seemed as though not taking that next breath would have been the easiest, most peaceful thing in the world to do.

Then I woke up.

I don't think, and most of the mystics would tend to agree, that it's at all unhealthy to imagine one's death and contemplate it from time to time. Balance in all things though, I think it's equally as important to contemplate living and loving in the same way.

LOVE Frasier too! I've been recording past episodes to watch since re-run season began. Haven't see that one yet though.

That line of Daphne's just about did me in though! :o)

7:34 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Of course you don't have to worry! :) When I think about how Jesus sems, it's doesn't seem likely hell even exists, but Ignatius believed in it. I probably think about "heaven" more, though - how I wish it would be - me in a cottage in the woods with a rose garden and my cats, and Jesus dropping by for a game of scrabble.

I've been renting Frasier at Netflix - I'm on season2 now.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Dyan said...

Wow Crystal - you described how I always imagined Heaven to be! Only mine included a dog or two and birds flying in and out of the cottage :)

8:00 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Dyan,

Ha :) Maybe it was all those fairy tales I read as a kid ..... our heaven sounds like snow white's cottage.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I have no problem with the existence of Hell in and of itself. I think the Catechism gets it right that the existence of Hell is a testimony to the faith and freedom God entrusts in us. It would be hard to rationalize God's call to love freely if there was no real choice to do otherwise. It would kind of be a stacked deck, a magician's force, no matter which card you choose you get God every time. I don't think love works that way.

At the same time we have the workers in the vineyard where the master rewards the workers who come last the same as those who have been there all day.

As one who himself feels 'as one untimely born' I take great comfort in that kind of image.

11:56 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Cura,

I really like that parable of the vineyard and the workers.

I've been thinking a lot about hell lately :) and I'm beginning to think that saying that hell does exist and that people go there, but only the people who don't want to accept God's love, is a weird way of having your hell and eating it too, sort of. I mean, it's a kind of blaming the victim and getting away with it - I do not accept the idea that seeing Jesus/God up close and personal at death and being unable to do anything but love him, is a restriction on a person's freedom.

I've been reading about hell and Hans Urs von Balthasar and also Thomas Talbot - Talbot has some free chapters from his book, The Inescapable Love of God, that are pretty interesting on this subject.

I really want to be a universalist.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I know what you're trying to say about blaming the victim. I certainly don't think I have a clue at the end of it al how any of this stuff really works. It's just that, where I'm at right now in my understanding, I kind kind of get why there might be an experience that is the antithesis of eternal life with God. If, knowing God fully, I choose to say 'er, no thanks sir' to His face and turn and walk the other way, am I still considered a victim? Do I think anyone would actually make that kind of choice? I too have my doubts.

9:34 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Cura, I think I know what you mean. Did you ever see the movie The Rapture? In that, a woman becomes a christian, later loses her husband in some tragic way (can't remember how) and in despair kills herself and her daughter. The daughter goes to heaven but the woman is so angry at God for all the suffering that she and others endured that she refuses to be reconciled to God.

I just can't help thinking lately that free wil is used to get out of a lot of contradictory stuff about a good God and suffering/hell. That guy I mentioned, Talbot, says ....

The very idea of someone freely rejecting God forever is deeply incoherent and therefore logically impossible .... even at the price of interfering with human freedom, a loving God would never permit his loved ones to reject him forever, because he would never permit them to do irreparable harm either to themselves or to others .....

It's interesting - maybe I'll post something about what he says.

11:15 AM  

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