A friend of mine studied Buddhism with masters throughout Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand. He met a monk who had been ill for a quite a while and had not been able to participate in the life of his temple or to teach. But this great and respected master decided to give one final dharma talk or sermon as a way of saying farewell to the community. It was a greatly anticipated event and the temple was packed with people for this special service. When the moment finally came for the dharma talk, everyone settled down onto their cushions, getting ready for their beloved teacher’s final words of wisdom. “You are all going to die,” he said, “SOON!” Then he bowed to them. The talk was over. That was his last teaching.
The universal truth of these last words is one good reason to talk about the Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying, while observing All-Souls and All Saints Sunday. Because the human lifespan is short and whether it’s later this afternoon or a hundred years from now, death will arrive for all of us – SOON! Ars Moriendi was a 15th century text that came out of the devastation of Europe’s Black Death. The priestly classes who had attended so many deathbeds had been particularly devastated by the plague and there arose a need for a DIY guidebook to having a good death.
But, I think, to be most effective, training in the Art of Dying needs to begin well before our deathbed. In order to live well, to really understand what this life is, what it’s made for, and what we are capable of, we all have to come to terms with death.
John’s telling of the Raising of Lazarus, which we just heard, is a teaching about resurrection, right? Clearly, there is a resurrection in there, but I wonder if these events are more about death and the absolute necessity of our facing it – before we are dying – in order to truly live. Have you been down in Lazarus’ tomb, the way that Jesus went to it – to truly deal with death?
There’s a story about the Buddha that got me thinking about this aspect of the Lazarus story. There was a woman, named Kisa Gautami, from a well-to-do family who was married to a successful merchant. She had a young son who became suddenly sick and died. Grief stricken, Kisa Gautami carried her son throughout her village begging for help, seeking out medicine, trying to find someone who could bring the child back to life. A villager told her she should go to visit the powerful teacher who was in town and Kisa brought her son’s body to the Buddha and asked for his help. Buddha told her that only one thing would solve her problem and asked her to bring him a grain of mustard seed from a home in the village BUT that it had to be from a home which had never known death. Kisa Gautami leapt up and went from house to house, knocking on doors, asking her neighbors if this was a house that had never known death. The reply kept coming back, “no, my daughter died here, we lost our father here, my grandparents passed here.” Before long, the realization dawned on Kisa Gautami that there is no home, no person, who has not known death. Death is inevitable and universal. She stopped looking for the mustard seed, buried her son, and returned to the Buddha to become his follower. The first teachings Buddha gave her before Kisa could embrace her new life as a nun were teachings about death and its absolute connection to life.
In fact, Buddhist traditions record that the Buddha taught 40 different subjects of meditation to calm the mind and seek out truth. And 10 of them were corpse meditations. This list of meditations, seemingly more fitted to Halloween than All Saints Day, are meditations on the bloated corpse, the bluish discolored corpse, the festering corpse, the cut-up corpse, the gnawed corpse, the scattered corpse, the hacked and scattered corpse, the blood-stained corpse, the worm-infested corpse, and the skeleton. Buddhist monks have been known throughout history to sit in meditation in graveyards – which were not always so neat and orderly as our modern graveyards – and gaze upon the decaying bodies there in order to know death.
I know, it’s all pretty macabre, but isn’t Lazarus’ story also a little gory and gross? One of my favorite depictions of The Raising of Lazarus was painted by artist Nicolas Froment around the same time that the Ars Moriendi was written. It’s a Gothic-looking icon meant to be an altarpiece. But it graphically paints a picture of the resurrection of a corpse that has been in the ground for four days. Martha is on the left of the scene swooning from the smell that she warned Jesus about. Lazarus rises stiffly out of a sunken tomb. His ghoulish face is still held by his death rigor. And no one in the crowd gathered around looks particularly overjoyed that he’s back. It’s a ghastly scene – as much a meditation on death as it is a meditation on resurrection.
Kisa Gautami, like Mary and Martha, was looking for a resurrection. Instead, she was confronted full on with the truth that death is a part of life and it shaped her future and her spiritual journey moving forward. Death led her toward Enlightenment. Kisa’s story got me thinking about Jesus in the Lazarus story. The way John tells it suggests that maybe even Jesus at first, like Kisa, was in denial about having to encounter death. When Jesus gets the message from Lazarus’ family saying that he is ill, Jesus says that the illness will not lead to death, but to Glory instead. But was it only resurrection and glory that Jesus, Lazarus, and all those mourners experienced or was it first and foremost, just like it was for Kisa Gautami, an intimate encounter with death? Is Jesus, as we often do when it comes to death, having a moment of denial?
When Jesus decides to leave for Bethany to see Lazarus, at first, he can’t even say to the disciples that Lazarus has died. He says he’s fallen asleep. Was it some discomfort that made Jesus use a euphemism that confused all of the disciples? Jesus even says that he is glad that he wasn’t there at Lazarus’ death – so that you may believe, he tells disciples. But I wonder if Jesus, like any of us might be, was wary of facing death.
Perhaps Jesus, like any of us, knew that in facing the death of his friend he would also be facing his own death. The disciples seem to understand that this is what Jesus is going through. They tell him not go – because attempts have been made on Jesus’ life already in that area. Stay safe, they tell him, don’t face death. But Jesus tells them that he is determined – he is seeking the light and will not stumble. And like good friends, the disciples go too – that we may die with him also, says Thomas. They know that Jesus, in some way, is going to face his death.
Maybe that’s why Jesus delayed for two days before heading to Bethany. Jesus seems to tell himself that he was giving Lazarus time to die so that he could perform the resurrection when he finally showed up. But after a two-day delay, Jesus arrives in Bethany to learn that Lazarus has been in the grave for four days. No delay was necessary. Could it have been that Jesus needed that time for himself to overcome his fear of the truth he would find in that tomb?
Could Jesus have arrived in time? Could he have saved Lazarus? The mourners’ ask the same doubting question, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Why face death when you can perform miracles to prevent it? Certainly Jesus has performed many great healings and saved many from death demonstrating that he had the power to heal Lazarus, yet in this situation, it seems that even Jesus, the miracle worker and healer, must truly meet death – just like any of us.
When Martha runs out to meet Jesus she says to him, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Jesus doesn’t confirm this but replies to her confidently that Lazarus will rise again and that he, Jesus, is the resurrection and the life. Next, Mary runs out to meet Jesus and she says to him, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” This time Jesus’ response is very different. The text says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He begins to weep. It is only now that he is ready to go down to the tomb, to roll away the stone, to face the stench, and to call Lazarus out and meet death – and the glory beyond it.
What’s the benefit of all of this facing death? And what is the Art of the Dying that we should take away with us. Each of us has our own Art of Dying to fulfil one day. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love realized she was in love with her best friend of 15 years, Rayya Elias, when Elias was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2016. In 2017 Gilbert and Elias held a commitment ceremony. And in January of this year, after some wonderful months and after some terrible months, Rayya Elias died.
Gilbert gave her cell phone to a friend so her friend could help to send out a planned text message to some of Gilbert’s close friends and family immediately after Elias passed, just letting them know. “I trust she passed peacefully,” someone responded to the text. To Gilbert’s delight, her friend, who had also been there to tend to Elias’ death, texted back, “I trust you never knew Rayya Elias.”
Gilbert says that Elias was a fighter, and even though the diagnosis was terminal, she fought with every scrap of life she had to hold on. She went down like a wild warrior. It was not what Gilbert had wanted for her love, she wanted her to go peacefully, doing yoga, but eventually Gilbert realized it wasn’t her death to die. Rayya Elias was a fighter in life and so she was a fighter in death. Gilbert remembers Elias, who led a sometimes rough and tumble life and was a heroine addict for many years, saying that she had already died many times in life and she was ready for this last one.
We should prepare ourselves for death not just because death could come at any time and not just because we want to have the best death possible when the time comes, but because there are lessons to learn about the Art of Living when we have looked through all of our living to the inevitable end.
When I was 14-years old, I broke my back. One of my vertebrae was so severely collapsed that the doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital told me they had never seen a spine so damaged that had not severed the spinal column. My spinal cord was squeezed down to ¼ of its normal width, my spine itself was twisted so badly inside of me that you could see the hump through my back. The doctors told me they would do their best but that it was a serious operation to put me back together again and there were no guarantees. I needed to be prepared to wake up from the surgery paralyzed from the chest down and, of course, I knew I needed to be prepared to not wake up from surgery at all. When you face death, anything can happen.
I remember lying on the operating table waiting for the anesthesia, a kid terrified I was going to die, trying to make a deal with God – if you get me out of this one, I promise you, I’ll be the best kind of person I can be. And then, lying there, facing death, it hit me. The most important question I have ever asked or will ever ask myself is this question, “What is the very best kind of person that I can be?”
Obviously, things turned out pretty well for me. I woke up from surgery, my spinal cord was saved, my spine was screwed and grafted back into a mostly normal configuration, and I was walking around within days. I’ve had some problems, some pain. But more than the pain and stiffness, my broken back stays with me because I was given the opportunity, in meeting death, to discover the most important question of life: What is my best purpose? It wasn’t just the surgery that brought me back to life again more ready to live fully – it was that question.
Sometimes, when I get discouraged about my accomplishments or confused about my future, I think back to lying on that operating table. I remember Lazarus. And I remember that when we face death, anything can happen.