Sunday, October 20, 2013

Guest Post: The Mercies of Death

A brother monk shared this with me, and I simply had to share it with you. Enjoy!


Even the smallest nudge can bring back the dead. Life tips easily either way, like the light around dusk. Neither death nor rapture, birth nor resurrection are as irreversible or permanent as we sometimes romanticize—this business of living and dying is infinitely more fluid. While it’s true that the smallest flick of a knife can lay open a whole throat, it’s also true a single centigrade of warmth deep in some winter dirt can trigger the vivification of a seed. I have sustained such a multiplicity of deaths already. I see a white cup on a table or the hood of a car covered in wet petals, and then I am startled to realize I have been dead for days. Dead to miracles, small impossibilities. Awakenings and resurrections may happen in an instant—in prayer, in traffic, while washing a plate. They may happen on the road to Damascus or even feeding Cheerios to a toddler in church. We have such rigid definitions of what it means to be converted. Such intractable parameters for what it means to rise from a grave. Every day of my life is filled with sundry births, rebirths, and deaths. It’s just a matter of pushing through the boredom of these daily miracles. A matter of paying attention, of noticing the hand of God, outstretched at the mouth of our tombs.


He whom thou lovest is sick. Jesus appreciated the utility of death, as well as the strange boundaries of life. To Martha he said: “this sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God”—a reaction which reminds me, at least initially, of the fool-philosopher Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, who believed our world to be the best possible of all worlds because there was no other reality to rival it. In the novel, when an earthquake at Lisbon kills 15,000 people, Pangloss believes it to be a perfect event. Surely Christ did not subscribe to this kind of Panglossian fatalism, in which his dying friend Lazarus was reduced to some kind of cosmic tool, to a self-serving testament of Christ’s own divinity. Destined to die for the best possible reasons….

Nietzsche said that “to live is to suffer.” Is this an equation? To suffer, like Lazarus, is to take one’s place in the world and in reality—the same reality in which 15,000 people perish at Lisbon in an earthquake. To suffer is to have also tasted watermelon or fallen in love. Necessarily, to die is to have lived. For there to be a “here” there must be a “there.” In other words, when Christ gently celebrated Lazarus’s sickness, he was affirming life and God and health—a reciprocating system in which death has made all things beautiful and unsurvivable.


When Jesus arrives too late at the tomb of Lazarus, Martha greets him in sorrow and in faith. To Christ she says, “if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” Here, we see Martha petitioning Jesus to pray, to intercede with God on behalf of her dead brother. Of course, in any prayer, we find this kind of symbiosis—a set of relations and parties, a mutualism of necessity, with divine and human in interface. However, I might argue that the true prayer of faith cannot be uttered by the lips of the actual petitioner. The realest, most authentic prayer is offered by some other third party, as by Christ in this chapter or by a priesthood holder empowered with authority and oil. These individuals are catalyst sites of sorts. The unknowability of another person and the unknowable shape and size of their faith allows them to function as an imaginary zone of perfect and exquisite communication. To put it another way: I know the texture of all of my weaknesses—my inability to trust, to speak, to mean what I say. The weight of my own reality is infinitely tangible, as my own imperfect existence is the only existence I can possibly know or experience or testify of. I am painfully aware of the limits of my own faith; however, the spirit of another person is massively and usefully mysterious.

The prayer of another is real prayer because it cannot be totally grasped. In much the same way, love for another is real love. Because a lover is inherently unknowable and specially not you, they contain all possibilities, all potentials.

Before my release from the MTC due to anxiety and depression, I was caught up in a steady and self-destructive downward spiral. My lowest point, after having met with psychotherapists and district presidents, was a place void of faith and fogged with darkness. It was at that moment, at lights-out in a dorm room with five other sleeping missionaries-in-training, that I got on my knees and offered a prayer of intercession for my many intercessors. I recognized to the divine that I knew nothing. That I was utterly lost. I could not intuit, I could not feel, I could not interpret or obtain any meaningful answers to my own prayer. Instead, I said to God—please help those praying for me to know what to do. I knew only one thing—that everyone could have infinitely more faith than I did. True or not, because of inherent unknowability, the people around me were imbued with vast spiritual potential.

Perhaps this is why we attend church and associate in groups and believing bodies—because our connective moments with the divine ultimately occur through and in our neighbors. We experience communion as the Other experiences it. Christ, after all, set this ultimate example of mediation.

Perhaps too this is what Keats meant when he spoke of negative capability. In the eighth edition to A Handbook to Literature, negative capability is defined as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats knew the capability that came from half knowing. He knew the power of uncertainty. And so did Martha. She approaches Christ not as the miraculous son of God, but as a fellow human being, who can give a true and unknowable prayer on her behalf and on behalf of her brother.


Some might characterize the raising of Lazarus from the dead as Christ’s most superhuman miracle. Most likely, this is due to the perceived irreversibility of death and the high stakes emotional weight that accompanies loss of life. However, I see this miracle as perhaps Christ’s most typically, exquisitely human. For one, death preoccupies us on a daily level. Death is perhaps the most normal, tedious presence in our lives—it constantly responds to and answers our living. How strange that we have alienated and defamiliarized ourselves from this most basic human invariability! What part of ourselves have we abandoned by beating paths away from this, our one guaranteed mystery? Our most negative capability?

Then it seems only logical that Christ would deal with death miraculously. It is his most sensible miracle. To quote the Bible Dictionary: “Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power.” Thus, it is almost as if this miracle has been built into death since the beginning—ordinary and natural. According to this dictionary definition, miracles run beside and compliment the natural, revealing within the normal the divine and the wonderful. The dictionary continues: “the miracles of healing also show how the law of love is to deal with the actual facts of life.” By dealing with the actual fact of life in his treatment of death, Christ was able to demonstrate the fluidity of death—its normalcy and humanity, in alignment with laws of love.

By reclaiming death for us through Lazarus, Christ allows us to access our authentic and complete humanity.

This scene also demonstrates Christ’s emotional humanism. Here, in John 11, we find the short scripture verse: “Jesus wept.” Despite its brevity, this verse is replete with affective import. Evident throughout this chapter is Christ’s deep love for the cast of characters all involved. The Jews exclaim upon seeing Jesus’s tears, “behold how he loved him!” and verse five reminds us that Christ loved Martha dearly as well. Obviously, the Lord knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead—his death was impermanent—and yet, here we find him weeping for his friend, and for the palpable sorrow of Martha and Mary. Is this theater, or does it speak to a most poignant facet of the Prince of Peace. It is in this utterly illogical reaction that we see Christ’s true and perfect function—his ultimate empathy. Here Christ suffers along with Martha and Mary. He suffers needlessly. In other words, he suffers, knowing full well the gratuitous nature of the his sorrow and the sorrow of his friends.

However, this single verse—“Jesus wept”—is Christ in action. A diagram for the function of the atonement. Christ weeps with us always—racked by our transient, absurd, and finite pain.


Nor does Christ accomplish this miracle alone. In verse 39, he asks Martha to take away the stone that covers up Lazarus’s tomb. While menial, to be sure, this is a task Christ could have easily accomplished himself. Why does he ask Martha, physically inferior, to do it for him? No doubt for the same reasons that there exists a church welfare system, a bishopric, a relief society, a weekly meeting of communion. We are meant to minister to each other. We are meant to participate in Christ—in his eternal narrative, in his ongoing miracles. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians  12:12, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” In other words, we operate socially and congregationally as the body of Christ. We participate in daily raisings from the dead. We roll aside the tombstones of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, showing light into dark corners, unwrapping bandages from whole hands, whole faces.

We open the way for Jesus to step to the entrance of our caverns and cry with a loud voice to each of us: “Lazarus, come forth.” 

No comments: