Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In the Midst of Life We Are in Death

I love John Rutter’s musical version of the Requiem, a memorial  to departed loved ones. In the Agnus Dei movement, there is a line that comes from the Book of Common Prayer, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

I was reminded of how true this is from recently experienced events. My first grandchild was born between the deaths of two beloved relatives. On July 22, my uncle James Sauder, long-time missionary to Spanish speakers in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Reading, Pa., died too young after a battle with Parkinson’s. Three of the most formative years of my life were spent in Honduras with uncle James and his family close by to serve as a cultural bridge. Because the Clymer clan (James’ wife was a Clymer) is quite numerous and scattered across the USA and Honduras, there were few of my Clymer relatives that I got to know as well as a young adult.

Frida Claire Shank, born 8/2/16
Eleven days later, on August 2, my granddaughter Frida was born to my daughter Marisa and her husband Adam Shank. After months of anticipation, and especially the last week when she went beyond her due date, seeing the joy in her parents’ eyes after the birth was priceless. When I looked at her face for the first time, I was overcome with emotion: her innocence, her newness of life, the hope and expectation that lay ahead for both her and her parents. I sensed what Celtic theologian Pelagius said: “When we look into the face of a newborn child, we are looking into the face of God freshly born among us.”

Eight days later on August 10, my aunt Eva Clymer died. Since her husband and my father were next to each other in age in the Clymer tribe, our two families spent a lot of time with each other while I was growing up. Those times were some of the highlights of my boyhood—long weekends at the cabin in the woods with hiking and swimming, hunting on the family farm, picking tomatoes, playing Rook, and just hanging out. Aunt Eva nicknamed me the “woodchopper” because I spent many after-school hours chopping wood for the stove/heater in our home. I felt special because she always singled me out in order to tease me.

If this was not enough, on July 29, the very last day of my wife Esther’s employment before leaving for Switzerland, a long-term client, who didn’t want her to leave, literally died in her arms. It was very traumatic for my wife. However, during the same time frame, two close acquaintances had new babies to celebrate.

Three deaths and three births in the span of fewer than three weeks. Indeed, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The Rutter Requiem reminds us musically that we are mortal beings. While the women are singing in Latin: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest,” the men add in a lower register: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The voices are accompanied with a persistent beating of the timpani; is it a heartbeat of life, or the death knell? It is both.

Rutter does the same musical juxtaposition with the verse from Job 14: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow.” My granddaughter came forth like a flower, while my uncle and aunt were cut down, their shadow fled.

Rutter doesn’t leave us hanging on to the sadness of death or fleeting nature of life. He reassures us at the end of the movement with words from Jesus in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

In the midst of life we are in death. The longer I live, the more aware of death I am. Our death gives us perspective on our life, something we too often ignore, especially at younger ages. At the same time, with the birth of my granddaughter, I am reminded of the gift and miracle of life. I will delight in the wonder and amazement of her development, curiosity and joir de vivre. I want to live as if I will die tomorrow—not in fear because we have the promise of John 11:12, but rather with gratitude for each breath I take.


2 comments:

  1. So true..."In the midst of life we are in death". And while we see death around us, we are yet in the midst of life! I don't think anything can be more humbling and fill me with gratitude.
    I was just reading last night about the reality of impermanence...along the very same theme. (source: Pema Chodron).
    The constant of life is impermanence.

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    1. Thanks again for your thoughtful response. I considered turning around the title to say what you are saying: "In the midst of death, we are in life." It's the proper tension between the two--neither denying death nor dwelling on it.

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