I that in heill (health) and gladness
Am trublit now with gret seiknes,
And felit with infermite;
Timor mortis conturbat me (Fear of death troubles me).
A few nights ago I attended a play-reading. The play was “Freud’s Last Session”, a debate between Christian C.S.Lewis and Sigmund Freud in his last days. Freud rails, on fire with bitterness and brilliance, tortured by a badly-fitting protsthetic upper jaw, his mouth stinking and ravaged by cancer, the palate gone. He is bleeding throughout the play, and speaks with mad ferocity. His illness, both physical and mental, and his brilliance, are played out against a radio broadcast as Germany invades Poland. While Freud rages and Lewis expresses (in the play, not very well) his gentle Angilcan theology, planes come over. Maybe an air attack. They both leap for their gas masks and for cover with equal enthusiasm.
What do we do when the Reaper comes knocking? Is there any point in even theorizing about this? We can propose one stance or another, but our response to the knock when it comes probably defines us. “Rage, rage, rage, against the dying of the light” leads to rage at everything, finally. Not so much point maybe in raging against what comes for us all.
Some people see illness and death as the handiwork of the demonic. They posit a world in which there was no sickness or death. This seems to defy all the evidence. The earth is a huge ossuary. Living things have to eat other living things in order to keep living. That means that living things have to be dying – you can’t have one without the other. In one episode of “Six Feet Under” there was a poker game between Life and Death. Death was a sixty-ish guy, strong, flinty, cagey, and determined. Life was a lovely full-bodied black woman. The better he played, the more sexually aroused she became.
I’m not doing so well. Body’s kind of quitting on me. Maybe it comes back, but one of these days it won’t. I’m pushing my three score and ten. I think I don’t mind. I don’t feel (I think I don’t feel) afraid of the end point. I don’t like the idea that if it’s true then there’s a dying process that other people will have to deal with. I feel very sad to see my body quitting. I think of all the things I’m not likely to do any more. But progressive blindness has taught me how to let go of all kinds of things. Books. Driving. Personal mobility. Seeing the faces of the people I love. Bird-watching. Big things and little things. And maybe it’s helped in the wreckage of my body. I have to live in an increasingly small world. It’s a garden of amazing beauty, but I live in a tiny corner and there’s no room to spread my wings.
This is all about sadness, though, and in a way it feels like dying would be a stunning release. Either I would, at last, open my wings, or it wouldn’t matter.
If we believe that illness and death are the work of the devil, then I think we miss a point. It’s the same old same old, creating and supporting dualism. Life good, death evil.
And I wonder if strong praying to conquer illness isn’t just a cover for fear, grasping for some illusion of control. Jesus didn’t reject death. He died and rose. Was he saying “Don’t die” or was eh saying “Don’t be afraid of it, because it’s not real.”
I think the answer is always the same. Like the old gospel song says: “Talk about suffering here below and keep on loving Jesus.” And remember that other people are real, and love them as hard as you can. The more you love, the less the other stuff is gong to hurt.