Feb 15

The Angel of Death? or Grace?

January and February are the dreary months of the year. There’s little doubt that many of us will pass on during these months. Death seems so common during the dead of winter.

Just the other night I had the gift of traveling with a Priest to anoint a mutual friend dying of cancer. As we sat with this incredibly faithful servant of life and love, I was experiencing a push and pull. There was sadness and joy, anger and gratitude, emptiness and fulfillment. Emotions were running rampant, and I felt as though that time together was a roller coaster ride through a very dark tunnel.

Upon returning home, I sobbed as I played the piano a good while. And then, without even looking at a clock, I said to myself that it was time to shower and put the day and my friend to rest in my mind. And I did just that.

No one can understand death. No one can ever explain death. And regardless of what well intentioned Ministers will offer up as attempts at comfort, death is anything but comfortable. And a roller coaster ride through the shadows of darkness is anything but exciting.

For death is the end. And whether we image the after death as a Reincarnation or Heaven, dining with a rich Lazarus or the 8th day, it’s still the imagination.

Saint Michael Angel of Death

Saint Michael – Unknown Artist

We use images because we need something to help us through the dark, knowing that there is no certainty of what is to come after death. Which is why religious language has us live by faith and not by sight, with an abiding trust and not with sensory knowledge.Such abiding trust has an opposing voice. The spiritual hunger for wholeness cannot be satisfied in this world and we are forever yearning for something more. Thus, we long for the fullness of life even as we hold on to the limitations of human existence.

These bells of human longing ring most hallow for those who are death’s door, who while yearning for something more, are never really ready to leave what they have.

Few of us welcome the Angel of Death. We’d much rather tell him to return at a later date, when we are more available.

Still alive and in fairly good health, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be anointed and having family members gathered at one’s side, waiting for the end of my life on this earth to come.

But I can know say that I’ve experienced death because even though not physically, I have died many times in life. I have gone through many chapters, many relationships, many deaths, many losses. And so have you, if you have been fully alive.

Divorce is a visit by the angel of death. As is being fired at Christmas or losing a loved one in January. And experiences such as these are filled with a suffering that cannot and should not be fixed with medication. They must be lived through, not flown over.

But there are other doors upon which the angel of Death knocks, doors that once opened, can lead to a much more contented and fulfilled way of living – doors that give us hope that once opened, find on the other side a glimpse not of the angel of death, but of Heaven itself.

These are the angels that knock on the doors of a meaningless existence, angels that help us see the ruts in which we have fallen into. They are awakenings that our drive to success has left us with money but no one with which to share, points of no return when total apathy and surrender overwhelm us, experiences whereby we simply do not care for anyone or anything. The angel of death is near when we realize we have valued everyone else above our own lives and that life as we have known it is filled with false guilt and needless shame.

The angel of death comes in the fear that we have been abandoned by the Living God, rejected by life itself; he comes in the wake up call we get that alerts us to all of the spending we’ve done for approval from people we don’t even care about; he comes through the opportunity to catch ourselves once again leaving our bodies and longing to be somewhere else, anywhere but here.

These too are visits of the angel of death. And they come for a good reason.

They come because without such sobering visits, without such breakdowns, without surrender of one’s way of living, we cannot move into the mystery of the beyond. The trees are barren as a sign that we too must let leaves fall from our yesterdays, for we can only experience new life when we have left the old behind.

Addicts know this all too well. We must give up our best friend in order to find a new one. And that is much easier said than done when the friend has been faithful for so many years.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965), a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian who is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century says it best.

Therefore, I leave you with his words in the hopes that we all see more clearly that the Angel of Death may in fact, be Grace.