We are delighted that Bobby Gross, author of Living the Christian Year and who has contributed previous series during Lent and Advent, has agreed to write a new series of Lenten reflections on the theme of humility.
My long-time friend and spiritual mentor turned 87 yesterday (we enjoyed a delicious dinner together at Outback!). I get why his mortality weighs on his mind. I am a year shy of seventy and thinking a lot about my upcoming retirement with, not surprisingly, a growing awareness of my finitude. But if you are reading this as a healthy grad student in your late twenties or an energetic professor in your mid-thirties, why would you want to contemplate your inevitable death or to dwell on all the things that could wrong with your body or brain?
And yet the season of Lent invites us to do just that: Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.
There is an echo here of The Teacher in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes where he poetically contemplates aging and death, the time when “people go to their eternal home and mourners go about in the streets.” He gently admonishes us:
Remember [your Creator]—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel is broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the breath/spirit returns to God who gave it.[i]
Knowing well that we will certainly die can shape how we live now; how we live now can prepare us for dying well when the time comes.
However, if we are young and robust, it is hard to remember that death can come for us at any time, not just in our eighties or nineties when the prime of life is long past.[ii]
But this obliviousness to death disappeared when the Covid pandemic crashed down on us in March of 2020. Suddenly, all of us found ourselves keenly conscious of our bodily vulnerability and creaturely mortality. Disease spread, death rampaged, grief flowed, and anxiety shot up. We felt vulnerable. We felt isolated. We felt our need for divine protection and communal care. At least for a while, we all participated in a collective Lent and contemplated our mortality.
In late May of 2020, Graduate & Faculty Ministries teamed up with Veritas Forum to sponsor a virtual event for faculty titled “Teach Us to Count our Days.” The event featured Lydia Dugdale, M.D., who had recently moved to New York City to practice internal medicine. I remember Dr. Dugdale joining the Zoom gathering still in her scrubs from a long day caring for Covid patients. For weeks she had been swamped by death and dying in an unprecedented way. Aptly, if not ironically, she spoke about the themes of her newly published book, The Lost Art of Dying. We were all ears!
In her book, with echoes of Psalm 90, she writes:
Dugdale wants us to recover the wisdom that was widespread during the late Middle Ages at the time of the devastating Plague: the ars moriendi or art of dying. This genre of literature served to prepare people to die well by living well, which required an open-eyed anticipation of the end of one’s life.
Of course there comes a point where we want to responsibly think about practical end-of-life matters such as an updated will, long-term health care, medical directives, and funeral preferences.
But I am interested in the dividends that periodic attention to my finitude and mortality, especially during Lent each year, can yield for my spiritual life right now.
Here are some of the returns on this “morbid investment” that have enriched me:
Increased gratitude. When I remind myself that the years ahead with all my hopes and expectations are not a given, then I am gently nudged into a posture of greater gratitude for the life I have right now: my lifelong mate, my many friendships, my good work, my community of worship, my home full of books and art, my physical health and mental well-being. I don’t want to take any of this for granted.
Loosely held plans. As a corollary to the above, I don’t want to blithely assume that my future plans will seamlessly unfold. James says it succinctly in his epistle:
Deepened compassion. If I can acknowledge my own susceptibility to bodily suffering or mental anguish—and the actual experience of pain and precarity makes this more vivid—then my compassion for others will deepen: for those with chronic illness or physical disability or clinical depression or recurring migraines or debilitating injury or social isolation or the diminishment of old age.
Nuanced theology. Rehearsing all the terrible things that could happen to my body or mind or psyche, including my death, disabuses me of a simplistic reading of scriptures that seem to assure that nothing terrible will befall those who trust in God. I wrestle with the profound tension between a God who watches over us lovingly to provide or protect, and a fallen world in which we remain subject to disease, suffering, and ultimately death. But this was true of Jesus, who in his incarnation was God (suffering) with us. No, as the apostle Paul acknowledges, we have the treasure of God’s glory contained in the clay jars of our human bodies.[v]
Courage as a disciple. Jesus didn’t want to die (“Take this cup from me”) but he was prepared to die (“Not my will, but yours”). He asks those of us who follow him to be prepared to die (“Take up your cross daily”). I almost certainly will not be a martyr for my faith, but I hope that purposefully pondering my eventual death will give me a bit more courage to risk the small costs of following Jeus if not the ultimate cost of my very life.
At the least, contemplating my creaturely mortality in these weeks leading up to Good Friday will help me more intensely reflect on Jesus’ death for me—and more joyfully celebrate his resurrection, also for me.
When I was a little boy, I would say a prayer at bedtime that my parents taught me:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep;
if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Even then, in my childlike way, I was acknowledging my mortality and entrusting my small self to a loving God. Now as an adult I do a similar rehearsal whenever I pray Compline at the completion of my day, saying for example:
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping;
that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
The writer of Psalm 90 asks God to “Teach us to count our days.” Accepting our finitude and knowing our days are numbered and “will come to an end like a sigh,” we try to make each day count.
This is Lenten humility.
[i] Ecclesiastes 12:6-7
[ii] As I was typing this blog post, an email arrived asking prayer because a van carrying a group of Youth With A Mission missionaries and students was struck by a large truck in Tanzania, killing 11 and hospitalizing eight.
[iii] The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom (Harper One, 2020), p. 27.
[iv] James 4:13-15
[v] See 2 Corinthians 4:7-12