My Personal Interfaith and Independent Catholic Response to Death and Dying
The famous spiritual troublemaker, Fr. Telhard De Chardin, who as a paleontologist and as a priest, was often at odds with any statements of a blind faith, recommended that we adopt a bright faith instead, making sure to honor faith, but not to neglect the value of science, the arts, and most of all, the value we find in being together. He made this summary comment on the relational essentials of life and death in these words:
“[You are I, after all, are together. Together, as humans, we suffer. Together we exist, and we will forever recreate each other. Together we can inspire, and we can console. We need each other in life, and in death…]”
My dissenting Catholic tradition is, at its heart, centered on the ideal of Early or primitive Church- an inclusive spiritual community that existed before the creeds, rules, or definitive strictures of theology were imposed. So, I will be clear, I do not speak for the Roman church, but as a respectful dissenter who sees clear value in keeping many of the sacramental and spiritual teachings, but who personally does not belong to the institutional hierarchy or abide by its church rules.
As a child, in the old Roman faith tradition, I was given a strong behavioral emphasis on Heaven and Hell, and the need to follow the church’s teachings was constantly reinforced. Such obedience was required of me, otherwise it was declared to me that my soul was certainly going to an eternally warm place! (Similar to Charleston in August! But w/out A-C)
Raised as a pre-Vatican II Catholic, I was given a set of elaborate rules to distinguish which kind of sin, mortal and venial there were, and told that I could not help but commit most of them! I was repeatedly informed about the central role and the necessity of the church for any sense of hope of salvation. I was given a fearful journey, that included stopping and testing places like Limbo and Purgatory, and that only a life of faith and strict obedience would give me a chance at eternal life. As a consequence, I became preoccupied by my sins and my salvation!
Once I left home, and began to study various aspects of psychology, philosophy, theology, and then delve into Eastern practices and meditative thoughts, eventually earning three graduate degrees, I found myself estranged from those old Roman church’s teachings and I found myself strangely comfortable living outside of those restrictive walls. (a more complete spiritual autobiography would be impossible in this posting… TM; Arica; Christian Science; Anthroposophy and other stops over a twenty year odyssey of spiritual development… well, let me say… the journey is unending, and lifelong…)
Briefly, after almost a decade as a psychotherapist, and college instructor, I chose to enter a liberal ministry that was skeptical of all of those doctrines and religious teachings; their approach was to prefer to trust the results of science and the ability of human reason to be the ultimate arbiter of my human reality. Along the way, however, while I enjoyed the “give and take” somewhat irreverent style of ministry among very bright and discerning people, personally I found it hard to bridge their skepticism, and their cynicism when I spoke of my deeper concerns.
I found that science and reason never gave me sufficient answers for my questioning heart… That is when I studied at the Shalem Institute for spiritual formation… To become a spiritual director or soul friend….which I guess today roughly equates with being a spiritual life coach, although I have serious questions about that! (mystical experience working with Icons…)
I found that could not give up the formative gift of Catholic mysticism, the inner search, and the desire to know God or ultimate reality more directly, more personally. While the religious tradition I was in did profess this outlook in the works of Emerson and Transcendentalists, it was largely ignored by the larger agnostic approach or quickly and rationally dismissed as being a historical tangent that no longer was relevant or practiced.
So in mid-career, still searching, I reached back to my Catholic roots… And after some concerted study and exploratory efforts, I found a dissenting position often held by its saints, mystics, feminists, and others who were often pushed to the margins of the faith or who were put on a pious pedestal, and thereby were removed from being able to provide insightful, wise guidance.
Rather than being seen as irrelevant, I found this mystical and metaphysical approach to be part of my core source of truth, and I feel that it is necessary for our human souls to use their teachings and wise council as we pursue our own evolutionary story or as we discover and affirm our soul’s true path…
As a result of my soulful struggles, and my new insights, I became ordained a second time, as a priest in the Old Catholic or the Independent Catholic church… Not well accepted decision among religious liberals who ironically encourage everyone to pursue their own answers… And looking back, the difficulty of this sacramental vocational call for me, professionally, and personally attests to its sincerity and to its authenticity.
This alternative understanding is best framed and most easily comprehended by the term, Creation Spirituality. It is an interfaith movement with Catholic roots, currently taught by former priest Matthew Fox in his many books based on his text Original Blessings, and by the poet and mystic Andrew Harvey. They have recently collaborated to provide study opportunities in the mystical truths found in studying and embodying the Christ Path. It is an inclusive approach that invites everyone to celebrate the blessings of the earth, the grace of being together, and focusses on the need to combine the individual spiritual quest with the thirst for justice, and join our personal mystical aspirations with the need for ethics or social reform.
One of the most cogent and essential things I learned from all my studies East and West, is the primary need to emphasize life, not death, and that the best way to relieve the anxieties and struggles we have about the acceptance of death is by inquiring about how we live in preparation for our deaths…
Here I stand on very solid ground. A few years ago, I attended a religious education seminar at Roper St. Francis Hospital on medical ethics and the end of life. The speaker, a medical professor and Episcopal priest from Virginia, and she made this opening claim:
“One of the principal tasks of a religious community or their clergy is to better prepare each person for their death…”
To be both religious and human then, is to learn how to fully come to grips with how you respond when loss happens, and how you deal with and how to best understand death: Not to be overcome by it, not to be obsessed by it. But not to let it slip too far away from your mind or heart that you lose the immediacy of this ultimate reality.
Preparing for death benefits us in many ways- it includes learning about losing; losing someone or something that we so closely identify with that we can begin to lose or to find our true find self. Whatever spiritual path you have chosen, whatever religious tradition speaks to you, be sure that you are given lessons on living, or that you are taught ways that prepare you for loss or for dying…
With that in mind, and given that my time is short, let me ask you some life and death questions:
In the ancient Coptic or Egyptian Christian church it was said that when you reach the day of Judgment or the time when you would enter either Heaven or Hell, that you would be asked two questions:
Did you find joy in being alive? Did you bring joy to others by the way you lived?
In a similar outlook, former Theravadan Buddhist monk and clinical psychologist Jack Kornfield, offers us his two essential questions about living life in such a way that there would be no great or lasting fear of death…
He asks: Do you live your life openly? Do you love fully?
And as a last thought, about relating to others, I offer a closing prayer from the beloved mystic, St. Francis of Assisi and his community:
“[May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, injustice, or the loss of all that they cherish… So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them, and help them to transform their pain into gratitude, and their gratitude into joy.]”