Perceiving that Light …

deadmanbeforegodrohanmaster3In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our offences art justly displeased.  O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, give us not over unto bitter death.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our offences art justly displeased.  O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, give us not over unto bitter death.

V. Cast us not away in the time of age: forsake us not, O Lord, when our strength faileth us. O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, give us not over until bitter death.

V. Shut not thy gracious ears to our petitions.  O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, give us not over unto bitter death.

V. Thou that knowest all the secrets of the heart, spare us, thy sinful people.  O holy and merciful Saviour, give us not over unto bitter death.

 (only, God knoweth our Fecrets, we are Finful people, and we fervently Feek Fuccour.) 

We’ve sung this antiphon with the Nunc dimittis at Compline every night since the third Sunday in Lent.  Compline prepares us for the “little death” of sleep, and offers members of the church a nightly practice for our bodily death.  The Nunc dimittis is the precious light-filled pearl around which Compline is the mere setting.  By the faithful singing of Compline, the church teaches us to place the Nunc dimittis upon our own lips at the time of our death, for we hope that as we die we can say that in the midst of the muddle we’ve made of life, that somehow we may depart in peace.  Why?  Because our eyes have seen the Saviour – we’ve learned to recognize that Light hidden within the shadows of life, and now, at our death, we may proceed toward that unobstructed Light, undeceived by the devices and desires and distractions of our sins and weaknesses.

A life’s work, indeed.

This work is not so subtle in Lent.  The antiphon we’ve been singing is the anthem at the Committal – the part of the Burial Office when the coffin is placed within the ground, and handfuls of earth thrown upon it, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The committal anthem differs from our Lent antiphon however in these last words: Thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, through any pains of death, to fall from thee.

That means, that in the horrific struggle of our bodies in those last hours, the gasping for breath, the neuropathy, the brain’s distressing dysfunction, the insanity stemming from pain, the shutting down of our vital organs, that we may not fall from the Light we have labored to perceive the whole of our lives.

In my medieval art research I recently discovered the unnamed Rohan Master, who painted a book of hours which includes the Dead Man Before God.  A brownish red demon is snatching away the young-looking soul of the dying man, but St. Michael intercepts, comically grasping the cone-headed demon by its hair with effortless strength.

I’m comforted to imagine that if I go mad at the last minute and curse away all the Light I’ve come to learn and love through the living of my muddled life, my advocate Michael,  Teresa and John and my other friends in the communion of saints, Mary the Mother, my guardian angels and guides might attend to my soul, and protect me from myself.

This man, by the way, is saying the verse we sing at Compline, Into your hands O Lord, I commend my spirit ….

Suicidal depressives may not be the most reliable people to preach about death.  A congenitally caused misfiring of neurons makes our brains instruct, badger, goad, demanding that we kill ourselves – not a socially or spiritually acceptable state.  Depressives spend exhaustive amounts of intellectual and physical energy arguing with their brains.  On the other hand, suicidal depressives HAVE thought a lot about death … and life, and growing, hopefully, continually strengthening in the moral struggle of finding meaning in life to offer, finally, to death.

It is this moral struggle itself which gives energy and substance to a life continually pulled toward death.  Not a cheap, or fruitless death, once the decision in favor of life has been made.  The moral struggle absorbs Light from the darkness, and produces a rich, nourishing spirit.  (All of us have a growing edge – a cross, perhaps, a thorn in the side, a weakness through which God’s power is made manifest.)

I can see Sister Helena Marie on a Sunday afternoon, sorting beans, choosing the biggest ones for seed.  These seeds struggled against mites and bean beetles and ducks and wood rats and birds and too much rain and not enough rain and early cold and late heat, and not only survived, but thrived.  Sister chooses the best fatted, protein-filled grains for burial in the ground.

Jesus said, Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  John 12:24

Leaning toward the Light through the gloomy murkiness of the struggles of life produce the strongest fruit.  That soul, growing into compassion and self-giving, strengthened through suffering, readies for dying, and perhaps for transformation into something new.

Do not cling to me, Jesus will say to Mary Magdalene on Easter Morning.  Do not cling to the old.  Ready yourself for transformation into something new.

Not my will, but Thine be done.

(the antiphon is from the Wantage Compline Book 1953, and in turn from the Salisbury Antiphoner)

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