Sunday, October 16, 2005

Dying and the Discipline of Watchfulness

Death and dying have become a regular part of my routine at the hospital. It's astonishing to think that death and dying might become routine; but they are, if you think about it, no less routine than life. We see as many deaths as we see new lives. What distorts the notion that death is as prevalent as life, is that we think of our time in terms of living. We are more likely to say that we are living our life, rather than that we are dying our death. We just don't want to think of dying as something we do each day, despite that it is just as true to think that we are living each day.

This sounds macabre. Having accompanied so many patients and their families in dying over the last few weeks, I have sometimes felt this connection between life and death to be macabre. During this time, I have also feared the calls to the bedside of a dying person, I have at times felt the call to be a tremendous burden.

Other times I have felt the invitation to be a great honor. What greater honor could there be than to be asked to bear God into one of the most significant events that a family goes through – the dying and death of a loved one?

This invitation may be an honor. But an honor can remain a fearful burden.

A saying of one of the desert fathers came to mind this week. In a list of four types of watchfulness, or the guarding of the heart that leads to virtue, St. Hesychios the Priest ends his list with a spiritual discipline that has intrigued me since I first read it. St. Hesychios writes "a fourth type [of watchfulness] is always to have the thought of death in one's mind."

I have found this intriguing because I didn't understand it. The best explanation I came up with was that the thought of death chastened a person by the fear of judgment. But this never seemed quite right.

As a CPE group we recently watched a documentary about death and dying, and a person in that documentary who had terminal cancer said something striking. He said that when you know you are dying, and it is fall and you're not sure that you will see the spring, when you do see the spring you experience it like it is a miracle.

I had never thought of death in this way, that the experience of dying might reveal the holiness of God and God's world. And it led me to wonder if this might be what St. Hesychios had in mind. Always remembering death is not just a chastening, it is also a reminder that the Holy Trinity suspends each day in being. Perhaps, by the remembrance of death, we might recognize that the transcendent One holds each part of creation in existence. Maybe the remembrance of death that I am experiencing does not necessarily lead to fearfulness and dreariness, but instead to a life marked by miracle.

This is the great gift I am beginning to receive each time I am invited to the bedside of a dying person: the reminder that each moment is lovingly held by God, that each object and person is hanging by the threads of the holy. Remembering death is not necessarily a discipline that cultivates fright or fatigue. It may be a discipline that cultivates the remembrance of the holiness of all things, and that every part of creation, each moment and each person, each life and each death, is made in holiness by it's holy Maker.


Blogger Claire said...

I have always felt it is an honor to be at at the side of a dying person. As a nurse, though, if the feelings swirling around get too intense, I can make myself "busy" by fiddling with the lines and assessing the breathing and measuring the morphine and changing the position. As a chaplain, you have to hold calmly all that pain and grief. You have to absorb that helplessness, which may make you feel helpless but actually it's nothing you've done, you are just absorbing the feelings around you like a sponge. I can deflect that, because as a nurse there is always something to do.

Monday, October 17, 2005 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Maryellen said...

"each moment is lovingly held by God" what a beautiful statement...
blessings on you as you bless others

Monday, October 17, 2005 2:19:00 PM  
Blogger KingDavidd said...

My only firsthand experience with death happened while I was a patient in the hospital. I was in a two person room, and my roommate was an elderly gentleman connected to what appeared to be a ventilator. I was walking around the room stretching my legs and I felt that the Spirit of the Lord told me to pray for this man. So I prayed over him and returned to my bed. Within an hour, the gentleman passed away.

For us as believers, I feel that death is our threshold. And although the physicality of death might be fearful or horrifying, death in fact is a release for us. Is it hard for us to hold someone's hand while we watch them die? Yes, it is. But I have to remember that through death comes life and life everlasting.

Monday, October 17, 2005 8:25:00 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

I love this post, Fr. Preston. You are touching on a million things it seems we think but cannot say. This is a beautiful observation, and I'm so glad you have shared it with us.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005 11:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Rachel said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

I have yet to take my first call to the bedside of someone who is dying, but I feel certain it will come -- if not on my next overnight (Monday), then soon. I will carry this post in my heart.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005 1:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Like Claire said, it is an honour to be at the side of a dying person. Being a non anxious presence to the family and a friend to the patient is an incredible feeling.

I'm doing a year long CPE in Toronto so I can really connect to exactly what you are saying.

Friday, October 21, 2005 7:26:00 PM  

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