June 18, 2012
I didn’t really know Norma. She was ending her career at OSU as I was beginning mine, and I didn’t think about her very much. I was the one doing the important things.
And now I’ve been at OSU for many years, and the younger faculty are looking at me the way I looked at Norma, and Norma is gone, she has passed away.
She was a fine teacher and scholar. She had authority. She was someone who commanded respect. But really, in the end, does any of that finally matter? Do any of us finally matter?
But our faith says yes, and our tradition says yes, and the scriptures say yes, because the Spirit is always moving, and we are always doing the work of the Spirit, whether we know it or not, and however fleeting we are, however small, we are all precious in the eyes of the God who follows the flight of every sparrow, who counts even the hairs on our head.
“We serve to complete the work of creation,” Teilhard de Chardin says, “even by the humblest work of our hands: a thought, a material improvement, a unique nuance of human love, the enchanting complexity of a smile or glance—the spiritual success of the universe is bound up with the release of every possible energy in it.”
A humility is required here, a surrendering of our ego: we are no different than anyone else.
But at the same time: we’re no different. We belong, too. We all have our own small part to play. As St. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians: “there are different forms of service but the same Lord. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”
And a second idea comes to me this morning from Chardin, the twentieth century Jesuit scientist and theologian. It’s the idea of death as grace. Death as gift.
This humbling we have to do is really hard. This dying to the false self is impossible, really, at least in this life, whatever Church we go to and whatever prayers we pray. We’re all too competitive. We’re all too distracted. We’re all too anxious and afraid.
The grace of death, Chardin says, is that it forces us to surrender. The grace of death is that it forces us to let go. It removes all those barriers we can never really remove on our own. “God must in some way or other make room for Himself,” Chardin writes in The Divine Milieu, “hollowing us out and emptying us, if He is finally to penetrate into us,” and only death can do that once and for all. Only death can make us “undergo the required disassociation”—can finally “break the molecules of our being,” as he puts it, so that “the divine fire” can descend upon us.
It’s hard to watch someone fade away. It’s hard to watch the body fade away, by degrees. It’s hard to watch the mind fade away. It’s like watching a birth, except in reverse. The one we once knew seems to get smaller and smaller, to become more and more helpless, until finally there’s nothing left, or there doesn’t seem to be.
But there is. The real person is still there. In fact, it’s only now that the real person is revealed. That the real person is freed.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “it remains just a grain of wheat.” But if the grain dies, if we let it return to the earth, “it produces much fruit.”
Death as a breaking down of who we are--and then a gathering up, an expansion. Death as a dissolving---but a dissolving that somehow takes us in and makes us a part of something vast and beautiful and mysterious.
Or makes us fully aware that we always were.
And so I pray in thanksgiving for Norma’s life, for all that she did and all that she was. But I also pray in thanksgiving for her death, for the peace it has given her and the perspective it has given us.
And I pray in the faith that Norma still lives, that she is loved and cared for now, as she was always loved and cared for—and more than that, that she has been transformed, that in dying she has risen into Christ--has been united, finally and completely, with God and with all of creation.