In the desert tradition of the Fourth Century CE that is the well-spring from which Christian monasticism sprang, the desert elders spoke often of death. They counseled their students that they should keep the hour of their death ever before their eyes.
Like the desert mystics, the Psalmist understood the importance of never losing sight of the reality that all life is passing away.
3 You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers. (Psalm 90:3-6)
The prophet Isaiah was commanded by God to announce the transient nature of life.
6 A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass. (Isaiah 40:6-7)
Jesus too emphasized the impermanent uncertain nature of the physical realm.
20 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19-20)
This preoccupation with death and the inevitability of loss was not a morbid fascination with the end of life. It was a salutary awareness that, reflecting on the impermanence of all existence has the power to set people free from enslavement to the material realm. The Old Testament writers and their desert descendants understood, that, as Jesus taught, death is the way to freedom. Jesus said,
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ (Luke 9:23)
To “take up” my cross is to choose to die. When I am carrying my cross I must put down my own needs, wants and desires. Cross-carriers have surrendered their determination to be in control. They have let go of their rights and expectations that life should be a certain way. They have given up, even their need for respect and honour. Dead people no longer need anything from anyone.
The desert fathers told a story that illustrated the freedom found in dying.
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said no. The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 132:23)
The New Testament writer Peter quoted the Prophet Isaiah and connected his announcement of the impermanence of life with the ability to love. Peter wrote,
22Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 24For
‘All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord endures for ever.’
That word is the good news that was announced to you.(I Peter 1:22-25)
Love is the “imperishable seed”. Peter understood that, only those who are free, are able to produce the fruit of this seed. We are only truly able to love, when we no longer need anything from the other. When I do not need you to be a certain way in relationship to me, then I am free to give myself to you in love. Our relationship no longer functions to service my needs. I am not longer compelled by the demands of your needs. Our relationship is a manifestation of that deep flow of love that is our true nature.
It is only as we are willing to accept the inevitability of loss and death, that we discover within ourselves that dimension of life that is never destroyed. When we become willing to die, we discover within our being, “the word of the Lord” that “endures for ever”. That word is “love”. Death opens us to the eternal realm of the power of love. And then, as Jesus promised, we find true freedom.
25‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” (Matthew 6:25-31)
When our eyes are open, we know that we are “clothed” in garments of eternity. We are protected by the enduring presence of the Eternal One who never wastes away and will never abandon us.
True freedom does not come from being in control, or from building the illusion of a secure life. True freedom lies in the inner knowledge that the undying divinity of God resides at the heart of our being and there is nothing in the impermanent world of change that can harm or damage that unchangeable reality.