Last week I was privileged to be at the bedside of a man who was dying. I say privileged because the experience was akin to what I feel when I approach the altar before celebrating the Eucharist, a sense of being on holy ground, in the immanent presence of God and, like a number of Old Testament prophets who found themselves in a comparable situation, having nothing to say.
It’s not that I had nothing to say to the man who was dying. I had nothing to say to the fact of death itself. There is a built-in instinct to talk in the presence of death, knowing that a person’s sense of hearing is the last to go, and in the mistaken belief that our talking will somehow assuage their loneliness, or their fear of oblivion, as well as our own. Being at the bedside of someone who is dying obliges us to think about our own mortality.
As a child, I had a recurring nightmare of being the only person left alive on earth except for one ancient spectral figure who would one day meet me over the brow of a sunny hill. I later recognised different versions of the same nightmare in my everyday unnameable fears. Most of us experience unnameable fear from time to time. It is like waking from sleep, disorientated, having dreamed of being in some unfamiliar and perhaps threatening dimension from which one has not fully returned. These are the disorientating fears which inform all our other fears and return us to the fear of oblivion which is the fear of death itself.
Viewed as part of our fear landscape, the idea of death has something to teach us about the everyday fears which beset our lives. Am I intelligent? Will I be accepted? Will I fail? Am I loved? Will I be remembered? Each of these fears is, in its way, the spectral figure waiting to confront us over the brow of the next hill. They embody the fear of ultimate nothingness, the fear of oblivion. They also return us to ourselves and to our own life span, to who we are in relation to other human beings and in the continuity of time as we know it. They are the fear that we have not done enough, been enough, lived enough.
Who we think we are, or want to be, will often accord with the perceived expectations of someone who we may have feared in earlier life, a parent, a teacher, an admired or envied sibling or friend. All of these fears can be summed up in the fear of failure which is closely linked to that of loss. Loss begins from the moment we are conscious of our own mortality. Failure and loss are both significant because they pertain to the concept of judgment and to what lies beyond judgment, the unknowableness of death.
The fear of judgment is greater than the fear of death itself because judgment determines what will ultimately happen to us. The fear of judgment pertains as much to the present moment as it does to the dimension of eternity or, if we are young enough, to what we will make of our lives in the relatively near future. In terms of existence itself, there is, in the human psyche, a sense of the determining moment, one which has to do with oblivion, or death, versus eternal life. This sense of the ultimate, of something following death (even if that something is oblivion or nothingness) is common to everyone, irrespective of whether or not they have a faith. A deeply embedded fear of judgment therefore governs who we are, and what we do with the present moment.
But for us at the moment, whether or not we are accompanying someone who is dying, or perhaps facing death ourselves, facing the emptiness, the ‘nothing’, can become the beginning of a fullness, a presence which consumes all fears. In it, we are reminded not only of our mortality but of the mystery and joy of our existence. We sense that some greater creative power deliberately, of his own will, desired, and continues to desire, that we not simply exist but that we be fully alive from the moment of our conception into eternity itself. He desires and purposes this eternal life within the re-creative energy of his own love and we are invited to play an active part, to make conscious choices which will accord with this purpose. To this end we are given two great gifts, the ability to think and the capacity for love. We deploy these gifts in the present moment. Both work together, but it is the capacity for love which determines the outcome of judgment and our ultimate destiny.
Love is not something that we can resource from within ourselves, or plan and deploy in a bounded and rational way. It is sourced from within God and therefore unlimited, unbounded. The choice we are given, beginning in the present moment, lies in allowing this God, who is love itself, to claim our lives as they have been, as they are, and as they will ultimately be in death and in the decisive moment of judgment. So judgment is a two-way decision, but one in which God has already chosen us. All that remains is for us to say ‘yes’ to his invitation to be in union with him.