23 Feb Viewing the Corpse
The Benedictine monk Augustine Hooey was a teacher, confessor and spiritual director in the Church of England. He led retreats and taught in schools and churches, working well into his nineties (he died in 2017, a few months short of his 102nd birthday).
He was not above lending a theatrical flourish to his teaching. Once, when addressing a congregation in church, he stood by an open coffin in the transept and invited the congregation to come forward. “Come and view the corpse,” he intoned in his mellifluous voice. Tentatively, the people stood up and made their way to the open coffin. As they looked in, they saw not the body of someone recently departed, but a mirror. The person they saw was themselves.
That’s one way of being reminded of your mortality. Augustine Hooey found a way to confront people with one of their deepest fears: the fear of death. Because death is a serious subject, he did this with a touch of black humor. He isn’t the only person to approach death in this way. The comedian Woody Allen once said, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Death, along with taxes, is one of life’s certainties. Human beings were made for death, in the same way that we were made for life, love and laughter. At birth we receive a mortal body, and nothing we can do can stop the fact that we will grow old and eventually pass away.
Fear of death stems from fear of the unknown; what happens when we die? Those who have had near death experiences talk about going into a bright light. A parishioner I once knew had one of these experiences which included an encounter with Jesus, who spoke to him. Not everyone, however, is privileged to have this kind of experience. Our understanding of life after death comes from the resurrection of Jesus, as the one who has overcome death and who invites us to follow him into eternal life.
His example and promise are all that we have, and God in his wisdom has deemed that sufficient for us. Therefore, our confidence in the life hereafter will be a matter of faith. By the way, a fear of death may not be a bad thing, if it quickens our faith. If nothing else, it should cause us to ponder our future. But when Augustine Hooey invited the congregation to “come and view the corpse,” he didn’t wanted to remind people of death, but of life. It was life that he meant to shock people into thinking about. If death is near, what does my life mean to me now?
That is a question for us to consider during Lent, which leads us to Good Friday and beyond. Lent may, on the surface, appear as a time of denial and mortification, but underneath it is really about the rebirth of the divine life within us. In Lent we repent of the sin which leads to death and we turn to Christ who brings us to life. This is why Lent is a preparation for baptism, when sins are cleansed and Christ claims us for his own.
Yet death is always near, and its proximity is not so much a shadow as a continual reminder of our need to choose life. We do that whenever we turn to Christ. The most effective power in helping us to turn away from death and towards life is love. In the Song of Songs, there are these lines: “Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.” (8:6) The love we possess is a gift from God – indeed, it is his finest gift, because when Jesus reaches out to us in love we recognize the value of what he has to offer.
Yet a love as strong and as passionate as the love of Christ seeks an answer in love: Christ’s desire is for us to love him back. The love of Christ is real and can change your life. If you haven’t already decided on your Lenten discipline, why not make it this? That, instead of giving up something, you offer yourself unconditionally and lovingly to God. The spiritual writer Fr Gilbert Shaw once wrote, “The world has many lovers but God, alas, has few.” Jesus was once asked which commandment in law was the greatest. He replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) Love grows by loving, and love alone fully and completely answers love. Think about giving more love to God this year than you are used to giving.
Love can drive out our worst fears, including the fear of death. Those who peered inside the coffin and saw their face reflected, immediately smiled. One way of disarming death is to joke about it. The other way is to see how death is overcome by love, which is where we are headed on our Lenten journey.