The problem with death is that it feels so final. The material presence of a person who has died is simply gone. Depending upon our relationship with the person who has died, the sense of loss can be utterly devastating.
Faced with death, it feels as if we are standing on the edge of a dark abyss peering into a bottomless pit. We experience a gaping empty sense of loss. There is something irretrievable about physical death. Something has been wrenched from our grasp that we feel we cannot afford to lose.
This deep sense of loss is a primal human experience that most of the time we do everything in our power to avoid. We strive to fill the empty space with activity, accomplishment, human relationships, and entertainment. We struggle to avoid facing the dark emptiness that is death lurking at the periphery of our consciousness.
In the ancient desert mystical tradition they had a different approach to death. The ancient desert Christian mystics instructed their students that they should “hold the hour of your death ever before your eyes.” They encouraged spiritual seekers to “ponder the hour of your death.”
Living close to the fragile nature of human existence, the men and women of the ancient Christian desert tradition had taken to heart the words of the Psalmist who reminded his readers that,
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15,16)
Jesus faced the inevitability of physical death, but he did not believe in loss.
In John 6:37-40 Jesus is reported to have said,
37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.
39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
God’s will is that nothing should be lost. Everything is held in the fullness of God’s love and grace. There are no loose ends. Death is not a mistake that has no place in the scheme of life. As Richard Rohr proclaims in his aptly titled book, Everything Belongs, including physical death.
For Jesus death does not end in loss. It ends in resurrection. “I will raise them up on the last day.” Resurrection means transformation. Death is not a process in which something is taken from us. Death is a process in which all of life is ultimately transformed into the light and beauty we call “God.” Death is the path to freedom in which the essence of our being is no longer confined to the limitations of the physical.
To ponder the hour of your death, is not to sink into despair; but to come to the end of clinging and identification and open to that transcendent realm in which all life is held. Nothing is wasted; there are no defeats.
When we face honestly the inevitability of physical death, we see that, as Rob Bell affirms in another beautifully titled book, Love Wins.
The separation we perceive in death, is much less real than it seems. The line that appears to separate life in this realm from the dimension beyond the physical, is much thinner than we assume.
When we look death in the face, we begin to discover within ourselves that dimension Jesus called “eternal life.” We become conscious now of that which is deathless (“eternal life”). Human existence is not confined to this physical material time-bound realm. We were created for “realms of glory.” We begin to develop the tools to taste this eternal realm, through the beauty and goodness of this time-bound material dimension. We discover there is actually nothing final at all about the loss of physical presence.