Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Death Be Not Proud

It must be really rough being born.

I mean, when we talk about the pain of birth, we usually look at it from the mother’s perspective. And that’s definitely painful, probably one of the most painful things on earth. I’m grateful that I’m never going to have to through it.

But think of how rough it is on the baby. Besides the sheer pain of being born, he’s suddenly catapulted from a comfortable, dark, warm place to a cold, unfamiliar place, with bright lights, peering faces, and a doctor slapping him on the behind.

Plato thought the trauma was enough to cause the poor child to forget the vast troves of knowledge imprinted on his soul. I’m not sure about that, but I’m pretty sure that if I had any in utero philosophical thoughts, they would have been gone as soon as I came out on this side of reality.

But after that initial traumatizing experience, that passing of life from one world to the next, we grow to look back upon our birth with fondness, celebrating it with cake, fire, and a bunch of presents. Generally, our births are considered a good thing. At least, I’ve never heard anyone say that he wants to move back into the womb.

Birth and Death

A friend once told me that this world is a womb, and I think I believe him. We sit here on this side of heaven learning what it means to be human, what it means to interact with spirits, and what it means to see the face of God. We are, in a sense, unformed. We’re not ready for heaven quite yet, but we’re getting there.

I think that’s why it’s impossible to look at the face of God without dying. It’s not because we’re never supposed to see God, but that seeing God in our current state would be our undoing. In a curious, paradoxical way, the very thing we need the most is the same thing that would destroy us.

But it’s not just God that’s difficult to interact with. It’s other people as well. We interact with immortal, immaterial spirits through bodies of perishable flesh, and we face all the constraints to knowledge that come about by us being us and not being them. That’s how it should be. Knowing has weight to it, and I think the sheer power of knowing another human being, in raw, undiluted form, would crush us.

Then there’s us. “Know thyself” is the first Socratic dictum, and Socrates said it because most people don’t do it. People don’t simply come into the world understanding who they are, what they’re called to, and how they ought to relate to God, man, and the universe. And it makes sense that we don’t know ourselves, after all, we’re not truly our real selves in this old world. We’re in the process of being made into ourselves, as we’re being made into the image of Christ.

Then we die. We pass from one world to the next. We are, as John Donne would say, chapters in a book, not torn out, but translated into a better language. We are recalled to our true home, the one we were made to inhabit. “Then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

I was reading a poet named Gerard Manley Hopkins the other day. He wrote a poem called “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” upon the sinking of a ship off the coast of England and the death of all therein. I was struck by two lines he penned: “Is the shipwreck then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?”

Death is not the end of life, but a transferal of life from one fleeting reality to a greater, eternal one. It is a consummation of Christian hope and the full realization of our communion with God.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

By Nick Barden
Image: Adieu by Alfred Guillou (1892).

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