ISSUES OF FAITH: The knowledge of death and the awakening to love

MEMORIAL DAY HAD its origin May 30, 1868, when Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, honored the Civil War dead of both the Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors buried at the Arlington National Cemetery by decorating their graves with flowers.

Thus, Memorial Day was first known as “Decoration Day,” a designation that still echoes in my memory from my youth.

Since that time Memorial Day has become a day to pay tribute to all those who have given their lives in military service for our country; and, in more recent years, it has become a general remembrance of loved ones who have died, a time to visit and decorate their graves.

The graves of our dead.

Archeologists know they have come across the species homo sapiens when they find burial sites, places that mark the realm of the dead.

We humans are ones with the “knowledge” of death.

I say the knowledge of death, not just death, for in the natural world death is simply one event among others.

But not so for our species.

For us, creatures of self-consciousness, death is an event of monumental significance; it’s the major philosophical and existential issue with which we must deal.

The great origin myth from Genesis chapter 3 in the Hebrew scripture — the “fall” in the Garden of Paradise and the expulsion from that Garden — is a story of our loss of animal innocence, our loss of psychological immortality.

Or, playing it the other way, it is a story of the awakening of our species to the awareness of death. And forever that knowledge haunts our days and nights.

This Genesis myth is repeated in each of us as we lose our innocence and gain the knowledge of death; we experience what theologian Paul Tillich calls the “existential shock,” the shock that nothing has to be, ourselves included.

And with this knowledge, these two quintessential questions arise:

1. Does the knowledge of impending death render this life meaningless? Should I renounce this life and seek meaning and purpose apart from the present life?

2. And, a second related question, namely: Is the value of attachment in this life worth the price of attachment? Does the cost of love outweigh the value of love?

My response to the first question is that the knowledge of death is, or at least can be, the great awakener to life and to “what is.”

In the face of death we become aware that nothing lasts forever, that nothing has to be in the first place; and, thus, our appreciation for the miracle of “what is” is heightened.

Says poet Mary Oliver: “Look, I want to love this world/ as though it’s the only chance I’m ever going to get to be alive/ and know it” (from “October”).

And I imagine we’ve all had those experiences in which a brush with death, either our own or of those we love, instantly brings to our awareness the preciousness of life, increasing our gratitude for what we presently have.

As to the second question of whether the cost of love outweighs the value of love: The overwhelming consensus of those who have given themselves to love is that the value outweighs the cost.

Truly, there is a cost; there’s a price tag that comes with attaching ourselves to this life and to love.

That price is the pain and sorrow that comes when the ties of love are broken.

“Love is grief’s advance party,” wrote the Rev. Forrest Church.

And, again, “Suffering is a birthright more inalienable than happiness.”

If we would be human, if we would accept the evolution of self-consciousness that life and being has thrust upon us, we must also accept its cost.

Is that cost too steep?

Sometimes we feel it is and are tempted to withdraw from this life, or to anaesthetize ourselves from it in any of a variety of ways.

But to again quote Forrest Church in a tender testament to love, as he neared his own death:

“We pay for love with pain, but love is worth the cost. If we try to protect ourselves from suffering, we shall manage only to subdue the very thing that makes our lives worth living. Though we can, by a refusal to love, protect ourselves from the risk of losing what or whom we love, the irony is, by refusing to love we will have nothing left that is really worth protecting” (“Love and Death,” p. 15).

On this Memorial Day weekend, may we have the courage to revisit, whether physically or mentally, concretely or virtually, the graves of our departed loved ones.

For if we are willing to open the door of sorrow and grief to our departed loved ones, I trust we will find in that room a treasure of the spirit of love that even death cannot take away.

_________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]

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