347 Trampling Down Death by Death

When my late wife Marilyn died, my old college friend Keith Walker sent me a book by Julian Barnes:  Levels of Life (New York:  Vintage Books, c. 2013), an elegant depiction of the grief he endured when his wife died.  As is evident in various versions of psychotherapy—and especially in Victor Frankl’s “logotherapy”—there is much solace and inner healing in rightly naming things, in precisely identifying what’s true about one’s soul and the world, in moving beyond illusory platitudes and accepting how things really are.   So anyone looking for a serious—and at times searing—depiction and diagnosis of grief will find Levels of Life therapeutic.  Consider, for example, Barnes’ perceptive analysis of the temptation to “relish the pain”—to nurture one’s sense of virtue in suffering so heroically the loss of a spouse.  There are, in fact, “many traps and dangers in grief, and time does not diminish them.  Self-pity, isolationism, world-scorn, an egotistical exceptionalism:  all aspects of vanity.  Look how much I suffer, how much others fail to  understand:  does this not prove how much I loved?  Maybe, maybe not.”  Amazingly:  “Mourning can also become competitive:  look how much I loved her/him and with these my tears I prove it (and win the trophy).  There is the temptation to feel, if not to say:  I fell from a greater height than you—examine my ruptured organs” (p. 123).   Such passages cannot but challenge the reader to carefully examine and honestly evaluate one’s grief.  Is it really about one’s lost love?  Or is it merely another form of pride seeking to burnish one’s self-esteem?  

The first two sections of the book are devoted to describing the intersecting lives of two 19th century celebrities—Fred Burnaby, a famous balloonist, and Sarah Bernhardt, a noted actress.  Their story provides an artistic prelude for Barnes’ main task:  describing “the loss of depth,” the “grief story” he experienced when his wife of 30 years died quite quickly (37 days) as an aggressive form of cancer sucked away her life.  What he felt was not depression but sadness, a paralyzing sense of lostness, an inability to live with the zest and hopes earlier known.  Once valued things such as money and fame and world-saving political causes lost their luster.  

He did not hope to see her again.  “I believe dead is dead,” he said.  And yet he talked to her continuously!  “This feels as normal as it is necessary” (p. 111).  He dreamed of her regularly and found himself much consoled thereby.  He sensed, for years after she died, her presence.  On the one hand he believed she was dead-dead, but on the other hand he felt she somehow lived on.  Barnes is admittedly trapped in the Nietzsche’s godless world.  Consequently:  “When we killed—or exiled—God, we also killed ourselves.  . . . .  No God, no afterlife, no us” (p. 94).  The atheist creed must be accepted, of course, he acknowledges:  “But we sawed off the branch we were sitting on.  And the view from there, from that height—even if it was only the illusion of a view—wasn’t so bad” (p. 94).  In short:  he acknowledges what he needs is a religious perspective promising life everlasting, but he cannot embrace it.  For ultimately, as he declares in his final paragraph:  “It is all just the universe doing its stuff, and we are the stuff it is being done to.  And so, perhaps, with grief” (pp. 127-128).  

Ironically, Barnes cites Dr. Samuel Johnson’s diagnosis of his sorrow.  He “well understood the ‘tormenting and harassing want’ of grief; and he warned against isolationism and withdrawal.  ‘An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference is unreasonable and vain.  If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention.’  But it doesn’t.  Nor do extreme measures, like the attempt to ‘drag [the heart] by force into scenes of merriment;’ or its opposite, the attempt ‘to sooth it into tranquility by making it acquainted with miseries and more dreadful and afflictive.’  For Johnson, only work and time mitigate grief.  ‘Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away’” (pp. 117-18).  But what Barnes fails to say is that Samuel Johnson was a deeply devout Christian who could perceptively describe the reality of grief while trusting in the goodness of God to finally wash away all our tears and bring us to eternal life with lost loved ones.  

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote powerfully about what he felt when his wife died.  He wrote the book in a few weeks, and one might think he would be permanently paralyzed by grief.  But we know, from other sources, that he did by no means lose his faith in God and faithfully served Him in the years remaining to him.   Reading Barnes moving description, one remembers St Paul’s wonderful testimony—“we are not as those who have no hope.”

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Another good friend from college days, Barth Smith, suggested I read Trampling Down Death by Death by Spyridon Bailey, an Orthodox theologian living in Britain  (Great Britain:  FeedARead Publishing, c. 2014).  The book’s title is taken from an Orthodox hymn: “ Christ is risen from the dead, / Trampling down death by death / And on those in the tombs / Bestowing life.”  Bailey not only sets forth his understandings but routinely cites trustworthy authorities from earlier centuries.  (He also makes clear, sometimes with polemical sharpness, why he thinks Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies cannot be fully embraced).  In essence, he says:  “Engaging with the truth of our death,” he says, in accord with the Christian Tradition, “must become a priority if we are to live as we should.”  

We will all die not because we are mere mortals but because Adam failed to embrace God’s plan for us.  By nature, we were designed to live forever, so death is not truly “natural” for us.  But sin entered the human story, and we endure its consequences.  “We must recognize that death violates God’s purpose for us, it sits in opposition to the intended fruitfulness and communion for which we were created.”  Despite our sins, however, a loving God designed a plan whereby we may attain His original will for us.  Unlike the worldly view of most moderns, who find everything ultimately meaningless, Christians know that “the love of God gives meaning to everything we do since God wills that we experience His love for all eternity.”

Given God’s original design:  “The body is not an old set of clothes to be discarded at death.”  Though many people think the soul will be liberated from the body and live forever in a purely spiritual realm, well-instructed Christians look to the reunion of body and soul in the final resurrection, and “we can at least say with certainty that our bodies will be the same ones but made incorruptible.”  We must embrace and delight in the body God has given us, for in eternity “it will be perfected and made the true servant of our soul.”  Consequently Christians have always buried their dead, believing their bodies are “precious” and will play “an important part in our eternal future.”  Cremating the body, as Hindus do, signifies a belief that the body is an “old shell” worth discarding and annihilated in the cremation-furnace.  

But the story of Jesus, for Christians, is largely about death and resurrection.  He became incarnate—embodied—for us and died the death we all must die.  “Our physical existence is dignified and the process of renewal began when Christ entered His mother’s womb.”  But on the Cross and in the tomb He “entered into that darkness and overcame the final enemy by trampling down death by death:  He illuminated even the despair of the tomb with the power of His love.”  We were, after all, created in God’s image, which is manifestly evident in our souls, not our bodies.  But the soul forms the body and “does not undermine the body’s importance.”  So death merely interrupts God’s plan for us, and it does not “completely separate the soul from the body, for we “are one being, body and soul,” and death “is an outrage” made tolerable only by the Reality of Christ’s Resurrection, “the central and essential belief of Christianity.”

Bailey also explains the Orthodox position on a phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, sometimes called “the harrowing of hell,” a doctrine that was prominent in the Early Church.  While Jesus’ body lay dead in the grave, His soul sought “to release those who could not yet enter Paradise.”  So His “soul descended into Hades while His body lay broken and dead in the tomb.  Saint Peter tells us that He went and preached unto the spirits in prison (1Peter 3: 19).  He descended so that he could raise them up from captivity with Him when he ascended.  Saint John Chrysostom . . . says:  ‘Hell was taken captive by the Lord Who descended into it. It was laid waste, it was mocked, it was put to death, it was overthrown, it was bound.’”

When Jesus died on the Cross his followers grieved.  So too “we hold and weep over our dead or dying.  But we are called to see that the cross is not simply an instrument of torture and death but a means to our redemption.  We cannot remain fixed at the point of the cross, we must move beyond it to what follows.  And so we must place the cross at the centre of our ordinary lives in order that it may become the prism through which we see life and the world.”  So grief is “the sting of love when the one we love dies, and “bereavement is a cross most of us must bare at some point in our lives.  It isn’t a Christian duty to believe so much in eternal life that we are untouched by someone’s death; that would be a grotesque distortion of what it means to be a human being.”  

Importantly, the grief felt by Jesus’ followers was soon assuaged by the Joy of His Resurrection.  So too our grief will be healed inasmuch as we look not at the tomb but to the Risen Lord, and we “benefit enormously from staying focussed on the reality of eternal life, and on all that Christ achieved in His resurrection.”  Being healed from grief is not “a betrayal of the one who has died.”  Good grief ultimately helps “us to trust in God.  Only when we accept that our loved one is in the hands of God can we gain peace.”  Finding comfort and peace, having one’s heart healed, “does not diminish the person’s importance to us.” Rather, one finds joy rather than sorrow in many wonderful memories of the departed.

Because Jesus triumphed over death, his followers enjoy a living hope of life everlasting with Him, and the Scriptures make “clear that the souls of the righteous enjoy the blessings of God after death.”  At the moment of death we will face a “particular judgment” that determines whether or not we enter Paradise (an antechamber of the final Heaven).  Following Christ’s return, we will face the “general judgment,” whereby all accounts are finally and rightfully settled.  During our earthly sojourn, the most important thing we do, as is evident in many New Testament passages, is to repent of our sins.  Those who are finally saved are they who were truly penitent.  

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Since I first began studying philosophy I have admired and relied on the works of Joseph Pieper—short, incisive models of cogent Christian thinking.  My initial introduction to him came when I read his Leisure:  The Basis of Culture.  In the “Introduction” to this book, T.S. Eliot (who had studied philosophy at Harvard) noted that academic philosophers had little impact upon the 20th century public while Pieper managed to do so.  He did this by “restoring philosophy to a place of importance for every educated person who thinks, instead of confining it to esoteric activities which can affect the public only indirectly, insidiously and often in a distorted form.  He restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there:  insight and wisdom” (p. 14).  Equally laudatory remarks regarding Pieper were given by one of the greatest 20th century theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar, who said he was a “philosopher, who in Goethe’s words contemplates the ‘holy and manifest mystery’ of Being and its meaning” and effectively employs the “language which always grows out of the wisdom of man as he philosophizes unconsciously” (“Foreword” to Josef Pieper:  An Anthology, p. ix).  

I recently reread (for probably the third or fourth times) Pieper’s Death and Immortality (New York:  Herder & Herder, c. 1969).  He begins his discussion by noting that the subject is “an especially philosophical subject,” contrasting the radically dissimilar declarations of two eminent 20th century thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Pope John XXIII.  The former, an atheistic existentialist, said:  “It is absurd that we are born; it is absurd that we die.”  On the contrary, said the pope:  “Every day is a good day to be born; every day is a good day to die” (p. 8).  It’s neither the times nor the places that shape our attitudes—it’s what we take to be true regarding Reality.  Importantly, as Kierkegaard declared:  “‘Honour to learning, and honour to one who can treat the learned question of immortality in a learned way.  But the question of immortality is no learned question.  It is a question of the inner existence, a question which the individual must confront by looking into his own soul’” (p. 130).  

For us mortals, pondering our own death cannot but prompt the most serious of all thoughts.  Thus St Augustine, following the death of a close friend when he was 19 years old, noted:  “I had become a great question to myself.”  His study of Cicero no doubt deepened this concern, for to Cicero, Pieper says, “philosophizing is nothing else but consideration of death, commentatio mortis” (p. 10).   But while we witness others dying and wonder at the prospects of our own death, we cannot experience it as we do eating and drinking, laughing and crying.  It eludes the kind of analysis we give other human activities.  It is the most certain thing in the world—but precisely what it is remains bewilderingly uncertain.  Nevertheless, “in the shock that is inflicted upon us by the death of a beloved person” we come closest to personally experiencing it.  The great Christian dramatist (and existential philosopher) Gabriel Marcel said, “To love a being is to say, ‘Thou, thou shalt not die!’” (p. 20).  When we profess our love, something in us prompts us to declare its everlasting dimensions.  And if our love is eternal, surely the one we love is equally eternal.  So as a loved one dies we know (inasmuch as one may know) what death means.

We have also developed remarkable euphemisms, designed to evade the harsh reality of death, to “not name the reality of the thing, rather to obscure it, make it unrecognizable and divert our attention to something else” (p. 23).  So we say the person “passed away” or “expired” or “fell asleep.”  An even deeper evasion is “the sophism of not encountering death, which Epicurus seems to have been the first to formulate; ‘Death is nothing to us; for as long as we are, death is not here; and when death is here, we no longer are.  Therefore it is nothing to the loving or the dead’” (p. 29).  Skeptics and atheists ever since have repeated this refrain, but something about it always rings hollow.  So to live honestly, Pieper insists, we must consider all the aspects “of the human experience embodied in living speech,” of reality itself, embracing the many paradoxes posed by end-of-life experiences (p. 30).  

We do, instinctively it seems, follow Socrates in his final hours and inevitably speak of the “separation of body and soul.”  Thus Thomas Aquinas said “that the ratio mortis, the ‘concept’ of death, implies that the soul separates from the body” (p. 33).  Precisely what that means, however, defies easy explanation.  It’s obvious, to most of us, that there’s an inner “self” which gives “orders” to the body.  I “tell” my hand to move, my legs to run, my jaw to chew.  Still more, it is obvious that losing a limb—or even most of my limbs—doesn’t really change the nature of my inner self, my soul.  So, as Plato insisted in Alcibiades, “the soul is the man” and “we are dealing with one of the firmest findings in the history of philosophy—all Christian thinkers before Thomas Aquinas were “Platonists”; all defined man as the soul which uses the body as the musician his lute” (p. 34).  

But by nature we are both soul and body.  To be finally separated from the body is inescapably tragic.  Here “the great tradition of Christian theology” speaking through Aquinas, “is unequivocal:  ‘Of all human evils, death is the worst’; it is ‘the most extreme of all human suffering’; by it man is ‘robbed of what is most lovable:  life and being’” (p. 51).   In a perfect world, soul and body would never sever.  So we cannot but wonder if death is a “natural event or a punishment.”  Atheists and Naturalists, of course, deny the reality of the soul and thus see death as a purely natural event, like a leaf falling from a tree.  But Christians, while believing that God made a perfectly good world, take seriously the ramifications of original sin and conclude that as a consequence man became “something different” from his original design.  Thus death, the separation of body and soul, comes as a consequence of Adam choosing to turn away from God, to live life on his own terms.  

Only when death is understood as a punishment for Adam’s and our sins—a punishment well-deserved—will we rightly understand and accept it.  Though the human justice system often fails, rendering unjust punishments of various sorts, the Divine Justice is perfectly calibrated and we will ultimately know and accept how death was justly prescribed for us.  We will “become aware that in this case, and perhaps in this case alone, crime and punishment are in complete accord; that death is not, unlike all humans penalties, something imposed more or less without relation to the fault, but is the consequence and fruit already implied in the sin” (p. 68).  “The only honest and clean way not to sweep the scandal of death under the rug and on the other hand not to fall into a state of revolt against Creation consists in coming to see death as punishment, and submitting to that; once more, not death as an ‘idea’ and general phenomenon, but our own death and the death of those we love” (p. 75).  Only when we put the badness of death within the context of the far worse badness of sin will we be able to freely accept it.  But, still more:  there is one death which above all makes our deaths tolerable.  This was the “one single death which was entirely an act of freedom, though it took the form of a cruel execution; . . .  ‘only a Man who . . .  served in our sad regiment as a volunteer . . . could perform this perfect dying’” (p. 82). 

This means, of course, that we are pilgrims rather than permanent residents on planet earth.  Death’s reality constantly reminds us, as Pascal said, that “We are not, we hope to be” (p. 85).  Throughout life’s journey, we make decisions that prepare us for the final moment, the point of transition, the end (meaning both the termination and the purpose) of our endeavors.  “The tradition,” Pieper says, “has coined a formula for this personal sealing of earthly existence.  It is described as the termination of the status viatoris” (p. 84).  A viator is a pilgrim.  The great question, at the end, is what will be his status, his standing, his readiness for what’s to come.  “In death the last decision is passed, for good or ill, upon the life as a whole; henceforth nothing in that life can ever again be undone” (p. 86).  So Kierkegaard confided to his diary:  “’In the moment of death a man is helped by the situation to become as true as he can be’” (p. 93).  

Thoughts of death necessarily awaken questions regarding immortality.  While philosophical materialists have always denied the immortality of the soul, Pieper was astounded by some “modern Protestant” theologians who shared their view!  He argues, reiterating the classic stance Thomas Aquinas, that:  “Innumerable (infinitae) are the testimonies of Holy Scripture which witness the immortality of the soul” (p. 107.  He finds further support in the oft-misrepresented Plato, who posited immortality mainly in the light of divine judgment and its fearful punishments.  To Plato, only the good, who are right with God, will enjoy the “true bliss” of life everlasting.  In one of his final works, Phaedrus, “when he launches on what seems a wholly fresh approach to the question of ‘in what sense a living being is termed mortal or immortal’, he suddenly ceases to speak of the soul alone.  ‘We think,’ he says, ‘of a living being, spiritual and physical at once, but both, soul and body, united for all time.’  Moreover, he goes on, immortality is not to be regarded as a mere rational concept susceptible of demonstration; rather, we think of it with our minds on ‘the god whom we have never seen, nor fully conceived’” (p. 116).  Plato, Pieper says, “seems to be suggesting:  If ever immortality is conferred upon us, not just the soul but the entire physical human being will in some inconceivable manner participate in the life of the gods; for in them alone is it made real in its original perfection” (p. 116).  Thus for Plato, persons are better termed indestructible or imperishable rather than immortal.  As Aquinas, commenting on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, put it:  “’That is perishable which possibly cannot be; that is imperishable, incorruptible, which cannot possibly not be’” (p. 117).  

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