For my friend
songs by Seaborn:
I Hold Today
Dream of Sailing
Sermon: Going Home
An Ancient Mesopotamian tale came to Western attention with its retelling by British writer W Somerset Maugham in his short fable,
An Appointment in Samarra.
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions. Soon the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned, I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture! Lend me your horse, and I will ride far away from this city and avoid my fate; I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
The merchant lent him his horse, and the panicked servant galloped away as fast as the horse could run. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing in the crowd. He said to her, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” Death replied, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight – in Samarra.”
Death. Something every single one of us will experience, yet a topic our culture tries desperately to avoid.
There’s a joke:
Three buddies die in a car crash and go to heaven for an orientation. They are all asked, “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you?”
The first guy says, “I would like to hear them say that I was a loving family man.”
The second guy says, “I would like to hear that I made a positive difference in people’s lives.”
The last guy replies, “I would like to hear them say, ‘LOOK, HE’S MOVING!!!!!'”
“Dead” is a dirty word in our culture. Someone did a study recently and noted that only 3% of sympathy cards mention the “D” word. Sympathy cards! You know, the ones you send when someone is ….dead!
Our culture avoids discussing death with the same frantic energy that it pursues youth and health.
I saw a book the other day titled, ‘younger every year!’ How do you manage that? We’re constantly being sold the dream of youth. Face-lifts! Viagra! Yoga pants! (Butt-lifts!)
This cultural whistling past the graveyard reminds me of Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ wherein our hero, being crucified with a couple of other folks, starts singing ‘always look on the bright side of life’….
And we try,
we try to push away anything difficult, or painful.
When we’re young, we believe we are immortal, or nearly so. But when we see a loved one die, or at any rate by our own late middle age, we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it looks like an oncoming train.
But ironically, when folks are asked “what is your greatest fear?”, death is number two. Number one?
The vocations that tested to have the highest fear of death were physicians, and clergy.
Yet Unitarian minister Audette Fulbright says:
“I believe we need to bring into our religious lives a practice of living with dying, a practice of looking directly at death, and asking what it demands of our lives.”
It seems that dying, like living, is a practice of being present. Of being present to the truth of each moment, and of learning to let go of attachments and expectations.
A Hindu story tells of the devotee Arjuna, who is attached to his understanding of how his life should unfold. His god, Krishna, advises him to discern as best he can what he should do, then to do it to the best of his ability, while surrendering the results of his actions.
Non-attachment. Letting go of the results of his effort.
Giving his actions – his life – as a holy sacrifice; a sacred offering.
One glorious autumn day, Pulitzer prize winning poet Mary Oliver looked around her and wrote:
Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails are bursting
and floating away
over the blue shoulders of the ponds,
Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime
leads back to this ….
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
One of the gifts of illness it is said, is that it makes one more willing to die.
To see death as less an exile, and more a return. A homecoming.
In the words of lyricist, W A Fisher:
Goin home, goin home, I’m-a going home.
Restless dream left behind, I’m just going home.
In the early 1800s, Tecumseh, a Shawnee Chief, said:
“When your time comes to die,
be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death . . . .
Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”
In the Pyramid Texts of 5000 years ago, we read:
“Death is before me today,
like going forth into a garden after sickness.
Death is before me today
like sitting under a sail in a good wind.
Death is before me today
like the course of a stream,
Death is before me today
like the home that I long for.”
Death is before me today. How do I prepare?
Journalist P J O’Rourke, advises us:
“Always read something
that will make you look good
if you die in the middle of it.”
* * *
One way to deal with the expected loss of individual consciousness, is by trying to get some perspective.
Let’s look at some numbers.
107 billion people have lived on earth including 7 billion today. (107,000,000,000)
100 billion individuals have lived, and died, on this planet.
7 billion are living, and dying, today.
Astronomers estimate that there are at least 11 billion ‘goldilocks’ planets in our milky way galaxy. Planets that are neither too hot nor too cold, too big nor too small, too close nor too far from their sun. Planets that could likely support carbon-based life-forms like ourselves.
There are at least 2 trillion galaxies in the observable region of the cosmos.
7 billion people on only one of 11 billion planets in only one of two trillion galaxies….
I am just one consciousness of the incomprehensibly numerous consciousnesses throughout the cosmos that, at this moment, are contemplating the universe with awe. A conscious universe.
In 2001, Khoury, Ovrut, Steinhardt and Turok, theoretical physicists at Princeton and at Cambridge, introduced a model of an ageless universe.
They talk about branes. No, not the kind zombies crave.
Branes: dynamic objects which can propagate thru spacetime according to the rules of quantum mechanics.
What the 10th Dr. Who might call ‘wibbley-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff’.
According to their idea, called the ekpyrotic universe theory, the universe was born not just once, but multiple times in endless cycles of fiery death and rebirth. Enormous sheet-like “branes,” representing different parts of our universe, collide about once every trillion years, triggering Big Bang-like explosions that re-inject matter and energy into the universe. (Every trillion years. So don’t worry, the universe is a mere 13.8 billion years old. There’s still time.)
The ekpyrotic theory raises the possibility that the universe is ageless and self-renewing. It is a prospect perhaps even more awe-inspiring than a universe with a definite beginning and end, for it would mean that the billions-years-old stars in the sky, are like short-lived fireflies in the grand scheme of things.
I’m reminded of the story of creation in the Upanishads:
“That from which all these beings are born, and having been born by which they live, That into which, having departed, they enter, seek to know That, That is Brahman.” [Tait. Up. – 3.1]
the Bhagavad Gita:
“At the end of a cycle, all beings, O Son of Kunti, enter into My prakriti (my energy), and at the beginning of a cycle I generate them again.” [Gita IX. 7]
and I’m reminded of Shiva Nataraj, Lord of the Dance. Dancing the end of the universe, which ‘clears the decks’ for the new creation. Dancing destruction in a circle of flame. But while one hand holds the fire of annihilation, the other hand is held in blessing, “Do not fear.”
In the Sufi poet Rumi’s vision, Shiva could be singing,
“I am not fire; I am fountainhead.
Come into me,
and don’t mind the sparks.”
When the fire consumes the forms of time, what is left? What is timeless?
That is a question we each have to answer for ourselves.
The scholar Joseph Campbell asks:
Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle?
Am I little Dana Lynn Seaborn, or am I a mirror of the universe?
Am I the individual, temporal wave, or the embodiment of eternal ocean? Am I both?
Many years ago, I took part in a Unitarian adult RE course that asked us to write our own epitaph. This is mine:
I only play at being a wave,
when all along,
I am the Sea.
Decades before he was diagnosed with cancer, the Unitarian minister Forrest Church described religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
And here we are. In young adulthood we can imagine we’ll live forever, but as we age, we can no longer deny our mortality.
At the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side of New York, the members honoured Reverend Forrest Church, their pastor of 30 years, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. His wife was there and their children, and his 85 year old mother. But there was a great poignancy to the festivities because everyone present knew that Reverend Church was terminally ill, and likely had less than a year to live.
Forrest Church said,
“I don’t pray for miracles. I don’t pray to cure my incurable cancer. I receive and consecrate each day that I’m given as a gift.
“Death is not life’s goal, only life’s terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”
As the Sanskrit prayer says,
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth, the glory of action,
the splendour of achievement, are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today well-lived, makes
every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day.
To conclude with the words of Rev. Forrest Church:
“One of the beautiful things about a terminal illness is that each day becomes more beautiful. You unwrap the present and receive it as the gift it is.
You walk through the valley of the shadow,
and it’s riddled with light.”
© 2017 Dana Lynn Seaborn