Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 7, Pages 145-151

The suggestion that the dead would eventually come alive again in restored bodies was not some peripheral, secondary belief. According to [Harvard professor of Jewish studies Jon] Levenson, it was “a weight-bearing beam in the edifice of rabbinic Judaism.”

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The radical claim that Jesus rose from the dead inspired hope in his followers. Death would not have the final word.

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For Levenson and [coauthor Kevin] Madigan, as for so many ancient Jews and Christians, the redemption of the catastrophic–that is, the hope in death–depends entirely on death’s reversal.

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“Death’s reversal” is the Christian and Jewish religious answer that contradicts materialism and transcends spiritualism. (Though modern Jews propose this answer less frequently and stridently than, according to Levenson, their ancient rabbinic predecessors did.) It is the proclamation of resurrection. This answer need not be simplistic or trite. Many learned theologians, both ancient and modern, have spilt much ink upon this subject and the best of them would admit to having only scratched the surface. For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus and the promised “resurrection of the body” (The Apostles’ Creed) are mysteries about which human beings can fruitfully enquire but never comprehend. The proclamation of the resurrection is neither trite nor simple. But it does flatly and starkly contradict our culture’s (explicit or implicit) materialism.

Dr. Dugdale frequently uses the word “finitude” in her reflections upon human death. I don’t think she means that death is in every way final. Throughout this book, she gives her readers reasons to think it may not be. Moreover, there is a way–a natural/biological way–in which death is final. Still, Christian faith in the resurrection contradicts the prevailing materialist affirmation of death’s finality. To the question of how to reckon with death’s finality, the most basic Christian answer is that death is not final. For us, as the Catholic funeral rite proclaims, “life is changed, not ended” by death.

Edith [Blatchley]’s experience is not unique to those who are actively dying. On some level, her story characterizes our culture’s efforts to avoid death altogether. . . . It is difficult for the Edith’s of the world to die well when they go to the grave haunted by questions they consistently chose to ignore. . . By avoiding questions of the meaning of death, we avoid the questions of the meaning of life. By avoiding finitude, we avoid infinitude.

When we think of Mrs. Blatchley, we may feel sorry for her, alone in the hospital ward, clutching her sheet over her emaciated body, failing to rest in peace.

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We have been considering different answers to questions about death and life after death: religious vs. SBNR, Christian vs. materialist, etc. Here Dr. Dugdale reminds us that the answer most characteristic of our culture is no answer. Many people (perhaps most) in our contemporary Western societies avoid confrontations with death and ignore questions about death. However, as Dr. Dugdale illustrates through the case of Edith Blatchley, we cannot avoid death indefinitely. Should we try to, we will end up in confusion and fear, having refused to consider the truth about who we are and for what we are meant.

The phrase “rest in peace” is usually applied to people who have died. It is written on tombstones and spoken in prayers. I regularly conclude prayers for the dead in hospital rooms or funeral parlors with the traditional petition, “eternal rest grant unto him/her O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her; may he/she rest in peace; may his/her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” Dr. Dugdale’s use of this phase in reference to a dying person in his/her hospital bed I find wonderfully evocative. I would love to get some of your thoughts about the relationship between resting in peace before death and resting in peace after death.

[Christian Wiman] writes:

One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses . . . a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant.[ . . .] “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord,” writes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “And you gave them to me.”

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Yes, I just gave you a quote of a quote of a quote. I quoted Dr. Dugdale quoting Christian Wiman quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel. (And I’m not at all sure that my use of brackets was the correct way to distinguish my ellipses from Dr. Dugdale’s.) I think Heschel’s words contribute wonderfully to our discussion of life after death. The joy that Jesus gives (see John 15:11) is both like and unlike natural joy. The joy we have in Christ, which will be perfected in the world to come, is a fulfillment of the lesser joys that come through natural experience, but also transcends worldly joy. That same-yet-different quality of Christian joy can be hard to put into words. “Joy,” “Happiness,” and “Beatitude” are all words that can be used to express the total fulfillment that God gives. But they all inadequately communicate the transcendent otherness of that reality. All words are inadequate, of course. But I love “wonders.” To once again quote the quote of the quote, “””I asked for wonders instead of happiness, and you gave them to me.”””

5 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 7, Pages 145-151”

  1. I think Dugdale’s use of the word “finitude” is a reference to the fact that her patients are terminally ill. She as an experienced doctor can see the decline in their physical bodies. As a doctor she sees it repeatedly. It is as important how a doctor handles death as how a patient handles death. We live in a world where expect the doctor to be there for us, to ease our pain, and to help push off death for as long as the Lord will let us. It is important for a patient and a doctor to believe that the Lord has a plan for us. We are called to nourish our bodies and our souls. “Rest in Peace” always seems to me that we are saying “I love you. You have lived but now it is time to be with God, to move onto what comes next.”.

    I believe that we are called to the best we can for as long as we can. Some of that time may be in pain but we are called to serve the Lord with the fullness of our heart, mind, body, and soul. Perhaps being at peace in your hospital bed is to say that you have done your best to live a good life and to serve the lord. Some see that if you resuscitate someone and they live one more day as futile. I think that for the souls of the medical staff it is not futile. I have always felt that when the medical staff has done what they can to help a patient, they have peace also. We all have a sense of satisfaction when we know that we have sincerely done all that we could to help.

  2. We yearn for peace in all stages of life. We strive for a right relationship with God that grants peace and strength to carry us through conflict especially as we walk through a broken world. As believers we know the things of this world can never bring us peace. We are nourished by prayer and scripture,in particular,the Psalms,because we meet others like ourselves who experience the same fears and turmoil we are experiencing, These beautiful songs lift us out of our concerns and anxieties into an oasis of peace.We sympathize with the Mrs Blatchley’s of this world and wonder if it could be helpful to read her a Psalm?

  3. Vera O – “resting in peace”…..”living in peace”…..the thought that came to me was “inner peace” while one is alive and able to
    comprehend such a feeling…far from the maddening crowd…..ability to put one’s head on the pillow at night and sleep………a newsletter I receive via e mail from Guidepostsrecently talked about “what is heaven like”…..it was very well done….it attempted to show things “in 3 D”…something we don’t see/do while we are busy walking life’s journey. It provided an imagery beyond my prior pictures…To me, 3D was a very interesting “perspective” Maybe this is the peace of mind, the inner peace and blessings which we begin to know while here on earth (happiness) but which can only be brought to true full fruition when we have “crossed over” (i.e. wonders)…..

  4. The way to distinguish a good death as “resting in peace” is also a very constructive thought to me. It’s the kind of simple, pithy phrase that I may easily remember as we move on from this book, and hopefully be able to ask of myself as I interact with patients (who may or may not be approaching death.)
    Is this person resting in peace? Or is there some part of their situation they are not at peace with? If so, am I contributing to their peace (in the long run) or being a hinderance to it?”
    This kind of thought process, unfortunately, I think could also lead towards ideas about medically assisted dying, which may appear to benefit a patient’s immediate peace (as would any sedative.) I think this is where deeper ideas of peace are helpful. To have a soul at peace, to be at peace with God, to have peace with a difficult situation, rather than scrambling out of it. I write these words cautiously, knowing I haven’t been in that situation – but I hope this kind of deeper peace is how I would respond.

    I think Heschel’s idea of joy powerfully benefits this conversation. Happiness is a sort of peace that is fleeting, or one-dimensional. Wonder and joy speak to an underlying peace that prepares the soul to weather much more difficult conditions.

  5. It is no “wonder” that Abraham Joshua Heschel is so frequently quoted. His prolific teachings included the concept of living life in a state of radical amazement and the notion that to be spiritual is to be amazed. Thus, spirituality is a fundamentally human impulse, with doubt only settling in as a mental afterthought. “What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder,” Heschel said.

    That wonder, however, is not a simple bliss. It generates a consciousness that informs us of our humility and indebtedness. Within our awe, Heschel explained, we realize what we own we owe to the Lord. Contemplation of this orders our actions; acceptance of it promotes our sanity. And religion, he noted, depends on what man does about it.

    Heschel warned, “…when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”

    Regardless of religion, to “rest in peace” in life is a common and welcomed concept among the elderly and infirm. The first time someone near the end of life confessed their readiness to die to me, I immediately became concerned about suicide or depression. But, I have come to appreciate the sentiment as a reward for a life lived well. Often the notion of accepting death comes when pain, frailty and incapacitation overshadow the enjoyment of living. But, also often, this acceptance follows some form of preparation, such as accomplishing personal goals, settling affairs, resolving struggles or forgiving enemies. Rest assured, when we make peace in our life, we hope to also experience peace in our death.

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