At the heart of the Christian tradition is the paradoxical truth that life is to be found in the midst of death. So this course Becoming Fully Alive by Befriending Death is really about living: living in the presence of death; preparing for death in such a way that we might live fully, generously, courageously, joyfully, peacefully now; practicing dying into life in the hundred small and large losses and letting-go events that life gives to us; and trusting that our physical death will take us further into life.
In this course I invite you on a four week journey in which we engage with the topic of death in such a way that we become more fully alive now and grow in confidence that we can trustingly engage with the process of dying when it comes to us. We do this is small and not so small steps ranging from the very practical to the spiritual.
I encourage you to prepare for this journey. Firstly choose a time of day and a place where you think you will have an uninterrupted half an hour or so. Get yourself a journal or at least blank sheets of paper in a folder, some pens, pencils and any other art materials that you enjoy. The course is designed around five days a week of reflecting, writing and drawing and then a time of Sabbath and rest. I encourage you to finish each session with the meditation. Personal development is not simply about intellectual insight and ongoing development requires integration and change and that takes time and practice. So I suggest that you do one session a day and take the four weeks the course is designed to last. However if you are on holiday or in a quiet time and want to do two sessions a day, or if you need to occasionally skip a day or do it again at a deeper level that is fine. It is for you to determine.
If you have a spiritual director, supervisor, mentor, counsellor or particular friend it would be good to let them know what you are doing. Making sure you have a wise companion is a good thing for any and all of us to do but most especially if you have a life threatening diagnosis, or are recently bereaved, or a have a history of trauma. While it is not my intention to pick apart your coping mechanisms any deep work can stir and disturb. So, just as I encourage you to choose a safe and sacred physical environment in which to work and replenish I also encourage you to choose some safe and sacred travelling companions.
On a personal note it is humbling to presume to share what dying might be like and of how this inevitable process can enhance our capacity to live fully and well now. I do not claim any great or secret knowledge of death. Yet I am familiar with the topic of dying from a variety of perspectives: from the personal, the professional (as both hospital social worker and pastor), and therefore from the theological and psychological. In this course I very much share as a fellow traveller, a companion on the way that we must all travel one day.
My mother’s mother died shortly after I was born and so I literally took in grief with my mother’s milk. I was raised in the house in which my father’s mother had died slowly and painfully when he was a child. And when I was a toddler my father’s father died in the home we shared. We lived on a farm and so the death of animals was always a feature of life. Life and death and continuing life have never seemed that separate to me.
So maybe not surprisingly I was attracted to work with and around grief and loss. As a social worker I quickly began to specialise in working with the seriously ill and dying and in the first years of my social work career my father died from cancer. I somehow found that I moved from working with those who had life shortening illnesses but still some time to say goodbye and tidy up their lives before dying, to working in those areas – such as Intensive Care and surgery where people had catastrophic illness or injury without warning.
During these years I continued to study and read, attend conferences and generally try and understand the psychology of dying and grief and loss. And in my personal spiritual life I continued to struggle and glimpse some of the gifts of working with the dying and the bereaved. I began to meet patients who reported near death experiences and the literature about this phenomenon started to become more available.
When I became a priest with older congregations I came to know in slower deeper spirals that walk through the faithful life to death. I remember one Sunday morning with the sun pouring through the high church windows and falling upon the elderly parishioners as they stood or knelt at the altar rail looking into the rheumy eyes of one of my favourites and thinking “If I stay here any length of time I shall bury you.” My voice quavered as I said “The body of Christ keep you in eternal life.” And yes I did get to anoint him as he died and to bury him.
And now as I am growing older and have had a few brushes with various ailments I have a renewed interest in the process of dying as a part of spiritual growth. The topic is serious but not particularly fearful to me. All my practice runs so far have been good. I hope and pray that when it is really my time that I shall die with as much grace as some of those I have sat with and that I too shall enter into the joy of our divine Source. And I trust that those I love will also know light, love, joy and peace in what continues on from life as we know it.
Blessings, Reverend Sue