I have an Indonesian friend who tells me that among her tribe in Sumatra, the Batak, there is a ceremony called manulangi at the deathbed of one’s parents. Each one of the family offers some morsel of food, and then the dying father or mother speaks. The words are listened to with utter attention. These words, said my friend, have been in preparation for years. They are more than words; they are like things, they will last forever, they are the father and mother. Whenever there is a crisis in the family – a dispute, some uncertainty, a tragedy – these sacred words will be repeated again and again. They bind the family together, reaching through the generations, beyond death.
I hear another voice here, loud with objection. Once, it says, you were persuading us to leap on the wave of transience, but now you are talking perilously about ‘beyond death’.
No, I am not tempted to claim a ground that is common to life and death, a neutral place beyond them from which to survey them both. I have no wish to betray our severe blessing. I leave you, thinking of the last crossed hill where you and I will lie lightly at last, as the poet said. ‘Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.’ I have imagined no comfort or protection against death; like you, I know none.
All the beautiful people we have ever loved will die, and we will die on the same or the next wave. There is no specific against mortality; we are found in human form and we are obedient unto death. We must be swept clean, we must be made new, we must vanish into God, not into a superior version of ourselves. We must let God be God, and the resurrection be the resurrection, not a mere conclusion. The weakening body, the faltering of belief in oneself, the humility of being in the end simply a human being: that falls within our range. Beyond is the open sea, the unknown.... The whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength, the whole mind, the stream and swell of our existence says, ‘I will go beyond my boundaries, I will be the sea!’ But what is it like to hope for something that is not egocentric? My God, I am ready to be reduced, to be chastened, perhaps in the end to be nothing, if only I can know you! No, no: more than myself, I want my friends to know you, my God, my God, why have you forsaken...for you I long, for you my... faltering breath, my soul is thirsting; my body pines for you like a dry weary land without water; I gaze on you in the sanctuary, in the living eyes of my dearest friends. The deep community of death makes brothers and sisters of us all. We have words of meaning for one another, manulangi, and morsels of food. I accept my own mortality, but my God, my friends’ I cannot fathom, I cannot understand how such beautiful people can expire, I cannot see ‘through their unseeing eyes to the roots of the sea.’
But whether or not I understand it, my life is in your hands, O Lord. And theirs...
Our life, our death, are in your hands....
From I Remember Your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death, Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications 1997, 2016
THE BODY OF CHRIST
“The Father I and are one.” Jesus is not saying this in a weak sense: he is not just saying that he and the Father are of like mind, etc. Had his hearers understood him in the sense they would not have taken up stones immediately to kill him. The union of Jesus with the Father is the inexhaustible mystery of our Faith.
It is not only about Jesus; it has to do with us too. He is “the first-born of many brothers and sisters,” “He is the head, we are the body.” He came into the world not for himself but for us. In our age the individual is supreme: the individual is seen as the sole bearer of meaning. So when it comes to thinking about Jesus we are inclined to see him too as simply an individual - a totally exceptional one, to be sure, but still an individual. That could not be a full account of Jesus. When he says 'I' we are somehow in the picture too.
In 1943 Pius XII wrote an encyclical letter called Mystici Corporis, The Mystical Body of Christ. In it he said, "Some people through vain fear, look upon so profound a doctrine as something dangerous, and so they shrink from it as from the beautiful but forbidden fruit of paradise…." But, he added, "Mysteries revealed by God cannot be harmful to us, nor should they remain as treasures hidden in a field, useless."
This, of course, was not a new teaching. St Paul comes back to it again and again. Here are a few instances:
- "Christ is the head of the body, the Church" (Colossians 1:18)
- "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another" (Romans 12:4-5)
- For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13)
St Paul's was not a lone voice. Pius XII adds, "The unbroken tradition of the Fathers from the earliest times teaches that the Divine Redeemer and the Church which is His Body form but one mystical person, that is to say, the whole Christ."
The saints and mystics down the ages have tried to draw us back to this depth of our Faith. Meister Eckhart had an overpowering sense of the union of every Christian with God in Christ. This was the passion of Eckhart's life. He and others like him have the power to rescue Christians from excessive individualism in our thinking and in our practice, and to restore us to an awareness of the Mystical Body of Christ. “The soul is one with God and not united. Here is a simile: if we fill a tub with water, the water in the tub is united but not one with it, for where there is water there is no wood, and where there is wood there is no water. Now take the wood and immerse it in the water. The wood is still only united and not one (with the water). It is different with the soul: she becomes one with God and not united, for where God is, there the soul is and where the soul is, there God is.”
This is strange language - "one with God and not united" - but when people speak about this mystery their language is bound to seem strange. Clearly he did not mean that there was no difference in being between the soul and God, but that they were one in love. Julian of Norwich in the same century (the 14th) wrote, "I saw no difference between God and our substance: but as it were all God; and yet my understanding took it that our substance is in God: that is to say, that God is God, and our substance is a creature in God."
These texts that I quoted are not the language of scientists or philosophers; they are the language of love.