Tuesday, March 17, 2009

O, Death

I don’t know if you have ever heard the version of “O, Death,” the Appalachian Mountain song, that Ralph Stanley sings in O Brother, Where Art Thou? But if you have heard it, you will remember it. And I think, like me, you may treasure it.

It’s a conversation between one who is dying or may be dying and Death himself. The man asks to be spared for a time. Death proclaims his power in a sadistic litany:

“I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk
I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very air, come and go with me
I’m Death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To draw up the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim”

Ralph sings it a cappella, which emphasizes the spiritual nakedness of the man dying. If you are a mystical believer priest, this will be a comfort: It will remind you that there are other spiritually naked people out there, just like you.

I admit that the comfort is ambivalent, since the guy is dying, and dying isn’t all that pleasant a state for most people. And one’s own death isn’t all that pleasant to contemplate. But pleasant or not, this is what mystical believer priests do from time to time.

In fact, it is de rigueur, I find. Or maybe it’s de rigor. I’ll have to look it up. What I mean is that it is salutary to look Death in the face. Or it can be.

But take a moment before you go off and do something like this and answer a question: In what genre do you live? Is it a comedy or a tragedy? If it is a tragedy, the effect won’t be salutary. No. It will be sad. Grievous. Despairingly bleak. Terrible.

If the story you live inside is tragic, I don’t recommend that you confront Death. That you contemplate your own death. Because this will be depressing, and that is all it will be. You may even begin to feel. Oh, I don’t know. Suicidal maybe.

If you live inside a tragedy, I recommend you consider changing genres. Changing your life story. Because sad, grieved, depressed, and lethargic is no way to live. A bit of it goes a long way. As a steady thing, it’s really. Oh. It threatens to make a failure of the entire enterprise.

But for those of you who have chosen comedy or whom comedy has chosen (it happens both ways), I recommend a good, strong dose of Death periodically. I suggest taking care of the dying and of those they are leaving behind. I suggest wading into the experience of death the way you would wade into a mountain river on a very hot day. Douse yourself in it. Thoroughly wet yourself with it.

Oh, it might be frighteningly cold. It might make your bones ache and tears come to your eyes, it is that cold. It might make you numb for a time, if you stay in long. It might threaten to annihilate you, it is so cold and the currents are so strong. You might have to desperately hang on to someone’s hand to keep from being pulled away.

But do it anyway. Because here God is in remarkable power, and here also is the doorway to eternity.

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