Witnessing to Death
This is a season where the veil between this life and the next feels especially thin. During this time of year, many religions and cultures honor ancestors, those who have died, and the spiritual presence of all beings with whom we are connected but that we cannot see. "Witnessing to Death" was the theme for our Sunday Gathering on November 5th and we were privileged to have one of our community members, James Hatley, share his reflections on this idea during the Gathering. Knowing how deeply his words impacted our Gathering, we are glad to share them here in written form.
Who is here among us? Perhaps this is not so much a trick question as a tricky one. For its answer, if we are to take seriously the traditions of faith and prayer in which Confluence is rooted, is everyone. Look around you and know it. Everyone is here. And the roll call of attendees includes, perhaps especially so, the dead.
To put this another way: There is no prayer without a tradition of prayer. And there is no tradition without the generations who came before us being even here and now already praying with us. Let us keep in mind that the solitude we cultivate here, even as it deepens our ties to one another in our intentional community, is an invitation to eternity. We are being invited into solidarity with all that has been or is or will be. All too often such an invitation is translated into terms that trivialize it - some sort of grand, unending picnic or choir-fest, where all is illuminated and the food is really, really, tasty. Inevitably fried chicken is involved.
But eternity not so much awaits us as accompanies us, wherever time takes us, even to this moment here and now.
Even here and now the voices of generation upon generation invite their being heard through the words we utter in the prayers we pray, the songs we sing. Dare we listen? Dare we let the dead in? And if so, what does this entail?
Perhaps one of the great gifts of a tradition of prayer is how it resists the morbidity of death, the clickety-clackety dance of hyperactive skeletons, the dispiriting stench of rotting flesh. Rather, in prayer the dead are living through us, among us, in spite of their having succumbed, in spite of time's passing, in spite of all the loss that time's passing entails.
It's, as I said earlier, a tricky state of affairs. More mystery than not, yet undeniable in its truth, if one is listening.
How to be with the dead? A tradition of prayer is to be understood precisely as a way of learning how to abide with the generations who have come before us. And those generations consist not only of those who have left their imprint behind in easily discernible ways - in word or image or remembered deed. Rather, we are called to all those who have whenever or wherever, offered up their prayer, whether in showy liturgy or secretly at night, whether in despair and accusation, or in praise and affirmation. In prayer we come into communion with the life itself of the tradition in its fullest sense, as it links us to the innumerable souls to whom we are called to be faithful through all of time, each of those souls a world, each a perspective on eternity, all of whom are to be invited here and now to participate in this moment of prayer.
What might be called for in such circumstances? How might there be room for so many, many voices, for such an expansive welcoming? The entirety of Creation is knocking on the door.
For starters might we not contemplate expressing our gratitude for all that the lives of the departed have sustained and passed down through the ages, so that the very invocation to prayer we are undergoing in this moment might have been delivered into our keeping? In our prayer the tradition of prayer is being born anew, and in this way from out of the lives of others who have come before us, our very lives are arising. We are, we realize, through our prayer rooted in the dead.
Perhaps another aspect of our prayer would involve cultivating reticence in regard to putting our words in the mouths of those who have come before us. We are not here to interpret the dead, but rather to pray with them. The very silence then into which our prayer ascends proves to be overbrimming with innumerable resonances, overtones of meaning, that lie beyond our grasping them as merely our own. Instead the prayers of the departed wreathe our very words in possibilities, in intimation and illumination, in darkness and loss too, that can only be hinted at. We receive gifts beyond reckoning.
But these gifts are not ones that leave us settled in our souls. Rather they call us to humility, to an etiquette transcending our own moment, to an openness in our listening that is filled with provocation and decentering. We are called not to put our words in the mouths of the dead, even as we offer our own words on their behalf. We do not presume. And yet we offer our prayer in faithfulness. And in this prayer, might we acknowledge that the dead are not so much to be mourned as to be thanked, to be welcomed, to be remembered, to be included.
Look around you and know it. Everyone is here.
James Hatley grew up on the short grass prairie of central Montana amidst minuteman missile silos, endless fields of wheat, and the ghosts of buffalo. A retired professor of philosophy and environmental studies, he has written on the role of the witness, first, in the context of the Holocaust, and later, of mass species extinction. In his post-academic life, Jim is particularly intent on engaging in a life of community prayer oriented by the practices of contemplative ecology.