We are All going to Die

When I joined the monastery as a novice back in the 1970s it was the custom to get up at 5am when the local clergy came on retreat. We had to be up and have finished our prayers and our own breakfast in time to be able to serve at table for the clergy’s breakfast. Part of our early morning routine was a period of meditation in the main chapel and it was the custom that one of the novices would read a passage from a spiritual book as a source of material for the meditation.

There is a story told, and as far as I know it is a true story, about a young novice who, struggling to get up, had to rush down to the church and forgot to pick up the book which it was his turn to read to the entire community – priests, brothers and novices. When he realised the book was outside in the passageway and there was no way he could now get up and fetch it he was terrified of being told off. When the superior asked for the meditation passage to be read out somehow the young novice had a moment of inspiration and he blurted out: “We are all going to die!”

When you think about it, that’s not a bad thought to contemplate on.

It’s been said that the trouble with most people is not that we think we are mortal, which of course we are, but rather that we at least live as if we’re immortal (which again, from a faith perspective we are!). The point of that observation on human nature is simply that most people rarely think about their own death, if indeed they think about death at all.

And yet, death is coming to us all. The prospect of death, our own death, lurks somewhere in the back of our mind, and frankly most people, even religious people, try not to think about it.

For folk who don’t believe in an afterlife, death is quite simply the end. Maybe the way of dying is fearful but death itself is the big full stop.

For folk who do believe in an afterlife, the way of dying may still hold terrors, but it would also be simplistic to say that all these spiritual people are at peace with the prospect of their own death. What I mean by that is that for many of us we have been indoctrinated to believe in alternative states after death: eternal bliss for the good and eternal desolation for the bad. And many good and decent folk still worry as to which destination they – and their loved ones – will end up.

So, perhaps the most honest thing to say is that death, the thought of our own death in particular, is fraught with worry and uncertainty. Some believe it is the end, others believe that it isn’t the end but nonetheless that its quality is at the behest of God, and for many people they have been brought up with a scary notion of God who may well condemn them to everlasting torment. I was to some degree brought up in that frame of mind but thankfully I have grown to understand a very different and more loving and merciful God.

When all is said and done, I think it is still a sobering exercise to spend some time – certainly not being obsessed all the time – but some time just being aware that one day, sooner or later, we will cease to breathe.

Imagine, if you’re still reading this, that you have a single day left to live in this world, or even perhaps a single hour. Cripes! What would you do? Would you go and hide in a dark corner and sweat tears of fear? Would you perhaps rage about and smash things up? Would you desperately try and sort your affairs, write that will, send those long intended emails, etc?

Perhaps you might try and pray, even to an unknown God?

I believe it to be true that in the midst of battle when certain soldiers who profess to be atheist are wounded and dying, they call out to God. It’s as if our deepest soul knows who it belongs to, and at that awful liminal moment, our professed beliefs amount to very little and our god-given nature takes over. Death of course is called the great leveller – no time for sham or pretence. As Kierkegaard said, all people adopt a stance. And at the moment of death that stance can be ripped away.

I’m going to try and practice what I preach and spend some time in quiet reflection, meditating on my own death. I invite you to do likewise, and see what you observe and feel, without stressing too much on rational thought or negativity.

But nonetheless, please don’t obsess about this!

Some people may look forward to their own death, for various reasons, some of faith, some even of relief from painful and terminal illnesses, but for most us, death still remains a fearful and unsettling thought. But perhaps, just now and then, we should be unsettled from our comfortable and taken-for-granted lives?

In Him who we come from and to whom we will one day return,