IN THE PRESENCE OF DEATH; THE GIFT OF LIFE
By Christopher Bamford
For Tadea Dufault Bamford
It is a delicate task to broach a theme so close to the essential unknowingness we are that it seems to forbid all conceptual certainty and discount all speculation as idle and arising from questionable motives. All I can offer is whatever experience I have been able to distil. Therefore I shall try to speak personally, with as much intimacy and openness as I can muster. Rather than lay out a philosophy, I want to bear witness to a personal encounter with death, one that led me on a path toward reimagining life. The picture I shall paint is drawn from living memory, painful to recall and individual in character, but indicative I hope of a mood or atmosphere in which the change of being called for by the wholeness, the unity, life and death becomes apparent. The work is still in progress. What I have to say should be heard only as a progress report, a provisional account of my own still faltering, rudimentary attempt to reimagine death in the light of daily life lived in its presence.
Two years ago, I was granted the gift of accompanying my wife Tadea over the threshold. It was not the first death at which I was privileged to be present, but it was the first that I attended with the fullness of my being. It was an experience I shall never regret, a grace for which I am grateful. Psychologically, physically even, the personal loss, the pain, the grief, the disorientation remain—to be lived through, transformed, never to be forgotten. Not to be gotten over, certainly, but to be understood, illuminated, and gathered up in the greater light of the gift that came with them. The gift and the disorientation came together. It is not possible for me to imagine them apart. Both remain. I cannot say I have brought them together, but I have come to understand that life is praise and lamentation, and that these two are very close, perhaps one—and that they are transformative. Despite the almost constant sadness, confusion, daily setbacks, self-pity, and other burdens of ordinary egotism, I feel the wound, the opening, and sometimes the joy, the certainty of knowing that meaning exists, even if I am not yet able to cognize it fully.
Sergius Bulgakov, the Russian Orthodox priest and sophiologist, tells of a near-death experience in which he beheld two figures of light and recognized that they accompany each one of us through life. On one side, the Crucified One; on the other, radiant, serene, golden with light, the Risen One. These two figures frame the reimagination of death I am trying to live.
But it is with the gift that I wish to begin.
Tadea died very quickly—about six months from diagnosis to passing, about a month from when medicine gave up to when she died.
During that last month, I was with her about twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four. Tadea, or perhaps I should say death, “Brother Death” as St. Francis calls it, was my teacher. She sat very quietly, very consciously, with a certain peace and patience. She resisted nothing. The day consisted mostly in attending to the details of her care. Mostly she couldn’t eat, but she was always willing to try, knowing that was important to us. She had to be moved fairly regularly, an enormous bank of fifteen or so pillows constantly rearranged so that her posture and seat were slightly different. There were periodic bouts of vomiting, mostly bile, and some indescribably clear fluid. People visited and the ones who stayed mostly sat with her in silence. While she could, she knitted, and read a little. But soon that made very little sense, so she just sat, communing with whomever was with her, reassuring us in some way that all would be well. In the beginning she had been afraid of dying, while at the same time strangely realizing that it was something she could do. But everyone around her thought only of healing and life. There was really no one she could talk to about dying. All of us with her would hear nothing of it: we wanted only positive thinking. So she went on that inner journey by herself. And, by this time, she knew she was dying, while the rest of us still prayed for healing. So she just sat quietly, waiting for us to understand that all was as it should be.
Looking back, what seems most significant is the transformation that occurred in the experience of time. Everything slowed down, expanded, became qualitative, rather than quantitative. Those weeks seem like an eternity which I still inhabit. Each day stretched out until it became like a whole life; and within that life the full presence of every moment was itself like a day—a summer day with its flora and fauna, night stars and day stars, its sunrise and early morning, mid-morning and noontime, its long afternoons, evenings, and nights.
In a word, with its routines and rituals, its different kinds of silences, the time surrounding her passing became rhythm. Not in any mechanical way, but in the most alive way imaginable. Time became like a set of Chinese boxes, in which each moment, each movement, contained others within others, like a fugue within a fugue, so that I thought if I could but unpack one it would contain all.
To some extent, too, life took on the atmosphere of a dream or a memory. Daily reality ceased to be linear and became more like a field within which relations, connections, emerged and then disappeared, often several simultaneously. In that sense, time became space-like. Or rather, the experiences of time and space became so closely united that one could not separate them. Time became spatial, extended, volumetric, dense, while space, that is, the sickroom and the phenomena within it (the icons and flowers, the minerals and crystals, the vomit pail and the piles of papers and books and medicines, as well as the ever-changing light and air, the sounds and almost symphonic silences, filled with insects, breezes, and scents) became temporal, a rhythmic dance.
As in a dream, a great deal was happening continuously but instantaneously—as it were in the twinkling of an eye—within a context of changelessness. Huge meanings were palpable, but not graspable by the conscious mind. And as in a dream, I acted without reflection, without questioning. I found myself “living without a why”—repeating the same small tasks and gestures that a bedridden patient requires, always the same, always different. It was a life without discursive thought. As in a dream, too, it was difficult to concentrate, to focus in the usual way.And yet I found I gave my whole being, not just a part, to whatever activity was at hand.
To use another metaphor, time, each moment, became a gift, a grace. It was as if all rested in God’s hands. Everything was given over and became gift. I no longer experienced the movement of time, the current of life, as horizontal—as having a before and after, a past and a future, the one in some sense behind, pushing, and the other ahead, approaching—but as vertical. Each moment came as a miraculous opportunity. A gift that was realized, received, in the giving back. Because of this, the room was filled with a sense of sacrifice and also with gratitude and wonder: gratitude for every perception, every moment; wonder at the enormity of life, its unbelievable, perpetual abundance, and at death’s being a part of it.
Probably sensing this, Tadea would not tolerate any negative feelings in the room. Nor any overly discursive or philosophical conversation. No sermons, please, she said. No sad faces. No resistance. No pretence, no disguise. It seemed she wanted only the truth that we are, the reality of the moment. Around her, only praise or affirmation seemed appropriate.
Indeed, permeating everything and implicit everywhere was an atmosphere of devotion and prayer, praise and service. Every day unfolded almost as a liturgy. So time also became liturgical, the enactment of a divine service in which not just I and the others around me participated but the whole universe, with enormous love and reverence. None of this was heavy. It was nothing formal or organized. It was magically light, in fact, as if somewhere musicians with an extraordinary touch were playing through us and the world and thereby raising the hard materiality of the world into a song of praise. Holy! Holy! Holy!
When life is lived in the continuous presence of death, which is the presence of God, it is as if every moment becomes an offering, a communication, received from and given to the spiritual world—by which I mean the greater life of heaven whose entrance, though everywhere, is most obvious in death, which raises the life that is death into the reality of higher life.
Here, again, at the deathbed, time seems to become space, a journey to a destination that in one sense we never reach, and in another sense have already arrived at. So the repetitions, and the daily re-beginnings—of actual prayers and visualizations and of the simplest tasks relating to bodily function and psychic well-being—at once overcome the distance and reaffirm it, endlessly postponing the end.
Until the end comes or seems to, or ought to, but doesn’t. I mean that death when it comes to a loved one is much more not an end, than it is an end. Like the prayers and tasks, the repetitions and stammerings that preceded it, death, when it comes, seems only to open to greater fullness of life, however painful.
Three days before it came, we knew.
The day before we knew had been extraordinary. Previously, Tadea had been vomiting for hours—pitch black bile like tar. But, that morning, she woke up bright and cheerful. We had been attending the little Catholic Church at the bottom of the hill—the Eucharist especially had meant a great deal to her. But recently Tadea had realized that she had never even been baptized. She thought it time to take the step. So, this last morning before we knew should die the priest came and baptized and confirmed her in Christ. Friends and family stood around the bed. Tadea sat straight up, wide awake, smiling, winking at members of the audience when appropriate.
Next day, I stopped the little rituals that had to do with physical healing. Otherwise, outwardly all continued as before. Though her body was ravaged and wasted—she weighed less than eighty pounds—she still sat there patient and awake. And yet already everything was different. There was an awesome and still beauty about everything. Her physical body was there, now weakened almost to the extinction of her life in it. It was about to return to nature, bearing the marks of suffering, to carry into the earth the inscription of so much experience, of so many trials, mistakes, joys, disappointments, of moments of crystal clear penetrating consciousness as well as so much lived beneath the surface in the dark valleys and hidden places of a soul’s journey. But though she still sat with the tablet of her body, her presence now filled the room. Or rather, presence filled the room. Presences. The room became quieter, the silences more intense and filled with reality. There was a heightened sense of being, an exceptional clarity of perception, an interiority to space and silence I had not suspected before.
Looking back, I would say that I felt for the first time the perspective of heaven. And this changed the meaning of everything. Prayers, for instance, became much less personal. As I said the Lord’s Prayer, holding Tadea’s hand, I could feel that I was not saying it for myself, by myself, or for us alone, but that a vast chorus of beings, stretching to infinity and back again, was joining with us in a much greater cause than whatever personal desire I might subjectively have. It was now clear that the healing visualization we had been doing—imagining the golden stream of the spirit showering down and washing away all impurity— had to do with purification in a much larger sense than physical healing. One could feel beings gather.
Tadea died at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, surrounded by her brother, her three daughters, and myself. That morning, we washed her face with Kiehl’s lotion and freshened her cheeks with rose water. We brushed her teeth. She rinsed her mouth out herself, holding the glass in both hands.We combed her hair. The sun flooded in through the windows, rich and golden like wine.
She sat up very serene and straight. Her eyes were closed, and a smile played on her lips. For three days, she had been unable to lie down for fear of vomiting. She was uncomfortable, mostly from lying in bed for a month, and she was physically weak from lack of food and because she was already leaving her body, but she was in no pain and was taking no medication, except for a blood thinner.
At about 9:30, she suddenly raised her voice, as if to someone leaving the room, and said, almost sang, “‘Bye!” “Who’s leaving?” I asked. “I mean a generic good-bye,” she said.
We sat around her on the bed. “I could guzzle the ocean,” she said, enjoying the thought. Again, she seemed to smile. Then she said, “Its too bright, I can’t see.” Thinking that she was referring to the morning sun pouring through the windows, we pinned blankets over the windows, slowing the liquid golden flow to a trickle. “Its not cooperating...,” she muttered. Soon, it must have been: she smiled again.
Just before eleven, she asked to be put on the commode. She felt herself leaving. I lifted her onto it. Her face was very pale, bloodless, like marble. She could no longer hold up her head. I supported her as she did her business and then clumsily lifted her back onto the bed. She tottered slightly, then steadied herself, smiling, perhaps at us, but it seemed more likely at some inner experience of her own. Finally, she opened her eyes unnaturally wide and leaned forward ever so slightly as if entering into whatever it was that she was seeing.Then she was gone: no longer a sensible being in the sensible world. Her breath continued for a few moments. Then ceased. Time, which had been slowing down all through the last weeks, stopped. I thought of St. Therese realizing there was no time in heaven. The heavens opened and time ceased.Tadea’s journey in an earthly body was over. Physically, she was gone. Grief became the rupture between heaven and earth.
But the liturgy continued, life continued, on both planes. Her body, though it was only her body, had served nobly in the service of her life and was a sacred, numinous thing, to be handled and regarded with awe and reverence. The children bathed, oiled, and washed her with tenderness and love. The house was filled with people. There was an enormous sense of stasis, of in-betweenness, liminality. It was as if, like her, the space we occupied lay between worlds, not yet there, no longer completely here. Unaccustomed to the concrete reality of the spirit, of the living experience of what had before been just the philosophical problem of two worlds, we moved around in an air of trance.
Time was thick with memory—memories bursting with life that poured endlessly from the abyss of loss each person felt. Everyone was moving around absorbed in individual thoughts of her, all of these forming a dense knot that as it were recapitulated her life. Tadea’s presence was extraordinarily strong. She seemed gone, but not away. For the moment, lost from this world, but safe in another. What was the way back? How to join the two worlds?
The undertaker came and took her away to pump out the fluids. Forty minutes later, she was back. We dressed her, carried her downstairs, and laid her in her in a plain pine box in the living room. For three nights, she lay there, someone always with her. The fourth, she lay in the ground.
The experience of her death intensified. The gift—or, I should say, the giving, for it was an ongoing process, always changing, always transforming—never stopped. It was a continuous initiation, one not yet over. I understand now that it is the initiation of life itself. It is as if only death reveals the meaning of life. As if in death the whole of life—its task, its meaning, its fruit, above all, its mystery—is laid bare. But that is to run ahead of myself. Whatever little understanding I may have has come slowly, accompanied by inner tumult and confusion, tears, pain, and much foolishness. I am still in the midst of it all.
Right at the beginning, within days of her passing, I was given some little talismanic gifts, which I think helped me immeasurably to engage the process of what was to come. First—and this is so obvious, but it came with a startling newness—I realized that her life, that each person’s life, is a spiritual journey. I do not know whether it was she or death who taught me, but the lesson I learned was that life was not about getting or doing, but about creating virtues in one’s soul. I understood, seeing her life unfold before me, as it must have unfolded before her, that what she had sought all her life—through all the messiness, confusion, and struggle of a human life—were certain spiritual aptitudes or faculties. In her case, freedom, trust, spontaneity, the courage to lead from the heart, openness to the joyful intimacy of the present moment—and, above all, perhaps, the virtue of “peace.” And that, in a sense, dying was a step on that path, a momentous step perhaps, but the right step for her, at that moment the ripe fruit of her life. Realizing this, I suddenly felt enormous gratitude for having been permitted to be part of her journey. This gratitude filled me entirely. I felt enormous gratefulness for having known her and having been part of her life. And this feeling, opening me right up, spread to everything. Love of God and all God’s creation. I encountered every soul, every being, every living thing with the mantra “What do you seek in me? What can I give you?” And I realized how close gratitude is to praise, to sheer affirmation, as a fundamental gesture. And how close praise is to love, for, as the Troubadours knew, through praise the lover lays down self and becomes one with the beloved.
At the same time, I was also confronted with the abyss of all my shortcoming in our life together, all the ways great and small in which I had let Tadea down. I knew that to dwell on these would have been catastrophic. But I was given the gift of recognizing that the way across the abyss of guilt lay in reconciliation or confession and forgiveness. For days, then, I moved through the house, reliving her life and our life together, as she must have been doing where she was. Filled with gratitude, I distilled all that I had learned from her into lessons that I would now take into my life. At the same time, I was overwhelmed again and again with compunction at my weaknesses, falls, and blindnesses. And I realized, painfully, that there was nothing to be done, but to seek forgiveness, to forgive and, through the process of forgiveness, find forgiveness. And forgiveness was granted, coming over me slowly like a fine rain over many weeks. Finally, release came, and a new task, when I stood at her grave, and heard her say, clearly, “Now, make a new life.” Easier said than done.
Looking back—and perhaps this is true of all initiations—I found myself plunged in the midst of paradoxes. It was as if death itself, and the fact of death, anyone’s death, one’s own certainly, and especially the death of a loved one, illuminated the fundamental paradox of life. Immediately, on first encounter, this paradox took three basic forms: three related, but separate struggles I had to pass through.
First, Tadea was away, but she was not gone. Nor was her journey finished. It continued, wherever she was, and that made “wherever she was” a human place, as human as earth, for I knew that she had not left herself behind when she left, but had taken all that she was with her, that she was not one whit less who she was where she was now than she had been when among us. Indeed, I suspected she was more herself, truer to herself, there. All this meant that not only was heaven a human place but that life, her story, was endless; that all our stories are endless. And that to understand the meaning of an endless story—mine, hers or yours—would require a new way of being in the world. And a new way of listening, an endless listening. For we are not used to stories that have no end. We know neither how to live them nor how to tell them nor how to listen to them.
Her presence was so powerful that I could not believe that she was gone. She was here, but not here. She was dead, but she was alive, she was living. That both were true, I knew with absolute certainty. I opened every closet, I ferreted through drawers, I wandered from room to room looking for her. I expected her to appear at every moment. I couldn’t believe she would not come back. That I wouldn’t find her standing where she ought to be standing, doing what she ought to be doing. On the other hand, I talked to her constantly, knowing that she was where she was, not here, and that she would not return to visibility, to the sense world. And I knew that she heard what I was saying and thinking and feeling, for sometimes she would respond in clear and distinct ways. I also understood that my relationship to her was changing, becoming different from what I had experienced while she was on earth. So many people mourned her passing, and each one had his or her own experiences. I recognized then that the dead belong to everyone—that they have a relationship to all the living and that they are “big” enough where they are so that each of these relationships could be unique and intimate. At other times, too, I understood how the dead participate in our lives, in the life of earth, that they never leave the earth, as it were, or lose their love for it, as Christ likewise is with us to the end of time.
The more I lived, then, with this paradox of “gone but not away,” the more it began to resolve itself for me into another that I called, felt, thought of, and lived, as the paradox of heaven and earth. I also thought of it as the Great Life and the lesser life. Joa Bolendas, the Swiss mystic and visionary, had relayed a message to me from Tadea. Joa had received it from her dead brother, Wilhelm. He had seen Tadea and heard her saying as she looked toward the earth, “Love me, and live with me in the great life.” But what was the relationship between life on earth and the Great Life? Was the Great Life present on earth, if only we could live in it? Or was it present always? Death opened this paradox for me, and the more I lived with death, with the reality of death as a part of life, as present in life at every moment, as its depth, the more the question for me became one of heaven and earth, invisible and visible, and how to integrate, or even unite, these. I realized that if I were to shut death out of life, pushing it into a realm of impossibility, then I would allow death as the absolute limit and negation of life to define life, and so sever heaven and Tadea forever from earth and me.
Both heaven and earth were now powerful realities for me. I had been given a visualization, which as I practiced and adapted it, brought me as it were imaginally into heaven. In this imagination, Tadea and I are floating down a river of liquid light. I am floating head first, face down. She turns me over to face the blue sky. She turns me round, so I float feet first. But I am in a numbed, comatose state. She wakes me up. I awake as if emerging from a dark tunnel. I see where I am. We float into a quiet pool, play for a while in the water, and then clamber out, and walk through a light-filled desert-like landscape, where we meet Mary and Jesus, and kneel before them in prayer. As I say, this imagination brought me imaginally into heaven, and united me with beings present there, but at the same time it strangely kept heaven and earth apart, as separate realities.
This disjuncture, the rupture—which I came to understand was the teaching of grief—focussed with exceptional clarity and penetration the third form of the existential paradox Tadea’s death posed for me. This was the paradox of old life/new life. Certainly, it was the hardest thing to realize that Tadea was never coming back. But did that mean that, if I wanted to remain close to her, I had to be where she was? And if it did, how could I be there and here. For equally certainly I had to be here: here was where my new life would be made, would come. I had to continue to grow and change. I was unwilling to accept that I had to make a choice: there or here. Live here, forget there; live there, forget here. I refused to chose. There had to be a third way, a middle way—a paradoxical place where one could be a being of light and an embodied, passionate, volatile, struggling earthy human with a life to live in the human world of earth in the twilight of the twentieth century.
Thus the journey continued, both the same and different. Many of the experiences that I had come to know during Tadea’s dying remained and even intensified. But at the same time I felt myself, split into three: as if my journey took place in three worlds, and it was my task somehow to make them one. There was the world of what I called Heaven, or the Great Life, with which I sought to stay in constant contact—through prayer and loving thoughts, and through the awareness that heaven surrounds us at all times and may speak to us in many different, subtle ways. Internally, I experienced intimations that thoughts and feelings and will impulses were prompted and sometimes finished not by me, but from somewhere else. And externally, in nature and in situations as humdrum as driving I recognized signs that I was thought of. There was almost a kind of reciprocity in this—as if my awareness of heaven was simultaneously heaven’s awareness of me. Very few of these intimations, however, were overt or startling, and when these came they came so quickly that mostly I was left with just the startle, the content gone, as when one awakens from a dream one knows occurred but cannot remember. Mostly, it was just a feeling, a sense of presence, a conviction, even, of heaven’s hiddenness within our world. I knew it was there, even if it did not reveal itself. It was as if death had revealed the hiddenness of life and was at the same time itself that hiddenness. So, while living with heaven’s presence, I also lived with its hiddenness.
And, all the while, constantly, overwhelming all my efforts to make sense of all this, waves of loss came hard and heavy, when least expected. Loss, too, became a world, a journey. In that place. At first, the absence of Tadea’s was hallucinatorily strong. There was a feeling of dismemberment. Of an abyss. My conscious mind kept repeating, “I can’t believe it. It’s impossible.” I had suffered loss before—in childhood and in divorce. But this was different. It forbade any illusions and would not allow itself to be rationalized. It simply was and is—a great truth. And yet, gradually, what felt for months both like an amputation that had severed an organ of my being and like an oppressive, amorphous, tangled, congested cloak of darkness and unknowing, clarified. The part that was made up of my own anger, my sense of betrayal and abandonment, my survivor’s guilt, and my fear of the unknown, slowly dropped away. The wound, the gap, the abyss remained, however. I still had no sense of where to go, what to do, and why. “Living without a why” no longer worked. And yet, around the edges, I began to recognize that this feeling of loss and disorientation—that death itself, for the living—could also be a threshold, a bridge to new experience. Indeed, I came to think that death is “threshold” itself, and that, insofar as I am able to not separate it from life, life itself becomes the threshold experience it seeks to be, forever and abundantly opening into newness.
And at the same time, like the stranger at one’s table, the third paradox came home to roost. There was my actual new world, my new life. That I would have to make, but how? I felt like a newborn child. Nothing from my old life worked anymore. The habits, the routines, all my old ways seemed dead, like a dead man’s clothes. I did not want to wear a dead man’s clothes. And besides, they no longer fit. I wondered desperately how you make a world. I kept trying. Inventing transitional objects as an infant does when making its world. Useless, of course, both the trying and the desperation. I realized that I could not make a new life with my thick head. That I would have to learn a new kind of patience and openness. I am still trying.
And so I began to live in what I learned to call “the middle voice.” This is a grammatical category in ancient Indo-European languages used to denote the action of verbs that are neither active nor passive, but, as it were, both at the same time—as, for instance, when what is received is what is given: the gift as both what we give and what we receive. In ancient times, this grammatical voice was used to express the mediation the divine in human action in ritual and liturgy. But as I lived into the experience of death and tried to hold death and life, heaven and earth, together in a single gesture, it came to have a more universal application. For I came to understand that the dead, and so the whole invisible world, are always with us, seeking to participate in all we do and all that is done on earth and that all our actions ask to be mediated, shared, by them.
I came to realize, too, the deeper meaning of what Rudolf Steiner meant when he said that humanity is the “religion” of the gods (as the “gods” are the source of our religion). He meant that the earth herself as we experience it with all our senses, faculties, feelings and so on, is the religion of the gods. I understood then that the beings of heaven, including the dead, look to our experience to allow them to participate in heaven in their “religion of the earth” and that thereby everything that takes place on earth takes place in heaven as well. So we are all called to be priests offering the liturgy of our experience to the spiritual world, thereby allowing it to participate, on its side, in its liturgy of service to the same evolution of the cosmos and the divine.
In other words, seeking to be true to the unity of life and death, heaven and earth, seeking an integrated duality, a cooperating polarity, gave life a sacramental quality. And I realized, too, that from the point of view of heaven only selfless experiences (actions, feelings, thoughts), or experiences offered up, even ever so slightly, so that they are somehow not for oneself alone but for the world, have value—that to the angels and the dead, experiences that are really only self-feeling, wholly closed in on themselves, are infinitely saddening, because they exclude heaven.
None of this, of course, came all at once; nor easily; nor was nearly as heavy as it sounds.
It was a sort of alchemical journey—separating the fixed from the volatile, the spirit from the body, and then reuniting them. In the first weeks, I lived, in a sense, more in heaven than on earth. It was as if I had actually passed over the threshold. My earthly part had to struggle to keep up. Things were certainly happening around me, destiny continued to mold and call me—after all, I lived my life on earth—but events on earth took a considerable time to filter through, or rather I did not realize what was going on, what new sequences of events were precipitating, until I came back over the threshold—crashed, as it were, and the world fell apart.
During those weeks before the crash, as if in a dream, the supersensible reality of the deathbed vigil continued—the changed sense of time, the sense of the world as liturgy, the feeling of gratitude and gift in every moment. Insights, too, kept coming, who knows from where, to help me perhaps, disconnected, but part of a whole. The first was the realization, focussed by death, that all of creation participates in every moment. At church one Sunday, celebrating the Eucharist, I recognized that just as all humanity (and thereby also the earth herself) was present and invoked and united in the sacrificial breaking of the bread, so too all the dead (and all the angels and spirits) were also present—that in some sense all humanity, whether embodied in heaven or on earth, is united, a single being. The sense of interconnection, of kinship, of solidarity, was overwhelming. I had a real sense that all are members of one body, speakers in a single conversation, and I understood that while living with death as the end of life has perhaps helped us evolve our individuality, it has also set us one against the other and promulgated the Darwinian world of each against all. It now seemed the reality was quite different. Life was without end. Therefore, every human being was connected to and responsible for every other. There was nothing of which I knew of which I could say: “That’s not my responsibility.”
At the simplest and the deepest level, this came down to the love of God and the love of every individual soul I met. I vowed to serve God and to serve every soul. To carry these in my heart and to rejoice in them for their own sake. I understood, too, the subtlety and gentleness this requires.
In fact, it seemed everything now taught and demanded subtlety and gentleness—a kind of delicate, watchful patience and the ability to wait, without expectation, but with open heart and mind. Strangely, I experienced this above all in nature. It was as if all my senses came alive in a new way. I had never experienced the rhythms, the colors, the diversity, the infinite richness of life so powerfully. I became aware of a vast current of life pulsing fecund and abundant through the world. Birds particularly took on a heraldic role. I had never noticed so many or, perceptually, entered into so intimate a relationship with them. They seemed the very embodiment of life between and uniting worlds. I could not speak the language of the birds, but I could understand why angels are always depicted with wings. And somehow this current of life was related to the transformed sense of time, where time became space, and unfolded not in lines, but in intricate, interwoven rhythms. Standing transfixed before nature— before a tree or a rock, or watching a bird, or the proliferation of weeds and herbs in an overgrown, unheeded corner—I had a profound sense of movement in place, of this current of life or time as a vortex opening vertically, uniting all worlds. And at each point, at each rhythmic vortex, I could sense the participation of heaven in earth. Perhaps it was my imagination that the early morning fog, coiling and trailing over the landscape, dense and white, was somehow fructifying the vegetation in ways undreamed of by botanists. Perhaps it was my imagination, too, that the dead likewise care for and love the earth as if it were their garden and rejoice in and in some strange way share in my perceptions.
Nor was this sense of the rhythmic vortex of time, in which all heaven sought to participate, limited to single perceptions of individual things. It also contained them all. So that the seasons, too, and the great round of the year, came alive for me in a new way and became a palpable, living whole, participated in by the gift of death.
On my side, no matter how great my disorientation, pain, and confusion, I was and remain filled with gratitude and, what is so close to it, praise. In heaven, says Elizabeth of the Trinity, each soul is a praise of glory. Each soul there, praising, lives no longer its own life, but lives in love, and knows as it is known.
I made a vow to receive all that came to me as a gift and, in the middle voice, transform it, make it human, and offer it up as gift of praise to the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of existence.
Thereby, I found myself loving the world more than I ever had.
I understood then that life itself, each moment as it becomes experience, perception, feeling, cognition, is such a gift—given in the receiving, received in the giving. I knew too that this giving and receiving demands absolute trust and confidence, nothing held back, no protection, no barriers, radical openness and receptivity.
I struggled with the problem that the concept of the Great Life was of no use it did not give meaning to this life—the life of the soul and human heart, with all its brokenness, confusion, and pain. But then I realized that just as the Risen Christ is the Crucified Christ, nothing of our experience is lost or worthless in the eyes of life. That, indeed, as Julian of Norwich affirmed, “in heaven our sins will be not shame but glory to us.”
Thus my life continues, a stammering liturgy, forever seeking to bring earth into heaven, heaven into earth, and forever falling back and down into the various abysses that hold the worlds apart. Sometimes there is conversation, sometimes there is holy silence, often there is a dark pit, close to depression, sleepless nights and pointless days. Rarely, but with a sweet promise, there is song. I think of the lines of the poet Hoelderlin in “Celebration of Peace:
Much have we learned, from morning on,
Since we have been a conversation and listen to each other,
— but soon we shall be song.