With these words the priest ashed my forehead and reminded me that I’m going to die. It’s part of our Ash Wednesday ritual, with which we start the season of Lent. In a death denying culture, the remembrance of mortality is strangely liberating.
In recent generations death is hidden away often removed from the home with final days and hours spent in a high tech hospital environment. At the same time we have a cult of youth and offers of the rich escaping death with cryogenic technology. However, Christianity embraces the reality of death, not with popular images of a soul slipping into the next room, but with St. Paul’s recognition that God alone is immortal. Death will come to us all.
The contemporary philosopher Mark Vernon argues that our awareness of death enriches our life, “It heightens love by bringing loss. It deepens beauty by fomenting decay. It focuses life by providing an end.” For me, the beauty of mortal life is demonstrated by the fragile allure of a wind swept and frozen crocus on a February lawn. An artificial flower would offer a longer, even open-ended, life but the crocus’ beauty is heightened by vulnerability and decay. In the same way many are drawn to the sea as a focus for contemplation and meditation leading the Christian mystic Simone Weil to reflect, “The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked upon it.” The awe inspiring power of the sea brings both life and death; and each of these attracts us.
So what of our Christian tradition? We look forward to a hope of resurrection to eternal life but this is not an endless Groundhog Day where our existence in time carries on, and on, and on; with inevitable repeats. Eternity is beyond time, not part of our linear experience of the here and now.
In reality eternal life starts now. We are called beyond our everyday concerns to a life that fully engages our senses, imagination and longing. A life that transcends our self absorbed concerns. We are called to live our lives, sub specie aeternitatis - “from the perspective of the eternal”. William Blake put this beautifully in words I often repeat at a funeral.
To see the world in a grain of sand,
and heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.