About a month ago, Sr. Theresa Aletheia, FSP put a skull on her desk as a way to keep #mementomori at the forefront of her daily life. On day 22, she wrote: “By keeping my death always before me I’m not looking at death, I’m looking *through* my death to God.”
Death has been before me lately. Heather Heyer was murdered on a corner where I’ve laughed with friends as we traipse between bars on late summer evenings, and we were doing that again last night, until we saw the flowers and candles and fell silent in the fluorescent lavender glow of her impromptu shrine. I wasn’t here when she was killed, none of us were. I saw her blood spilled through screens, distant, fast, like it was some other city, some other time, because death is always before someone else, never us, never me.
When I felt anything about it, I felt fury, and fury at all the wrong things. I was furious at the tiki terrorists for tainting the image of a building I was so proud to teach in, that I was so excited to take graduation pictures with (instead of being furious that they were expressing nostalgia for the era when my classroom was a slaves’ quarters). I was furious at the way “Charlottesville” was starting to become a metonym for hate in less than 24 hours of media coverage (instead of being furious that it was deserved). I got angry at the splinter in my bishop’s eye, assuming bad faith as I always do (instead of the plank in my own). I was so impassioned that I didn’t realize that my bishop probably didn’t even write the letter I was so furious about. He was in the hospital, in critical condition, when it was published. He died a few days later. Death was once again before me.
And I wouldn’t look at death, for fear of seeing through death to God. Because if I looked that far, I’d have to forgive Heather Heyer’s murderers, and I’d have to let go of my grudge against the bishop, and I’d have to start actually working for justice instead of just tweeting about it all day, hoping if the statues fell and the right politicians said the right words, that would be enough.
Death was persistent, death made me look. Death came before me again in a café as a friend talked to me about love. Death pulled up a chair as she told me that falling in love is as close as we get to the beatific vision on earth. To us it feels like a deviation from the norm, she said, a spike in feeling, an unimaginable new standard for what it means to care for another person. In truth, she went on, that’s a glimpse of right relationship between souls, our pale imitation of the Transfiguration. If we truly recognized one another for what we are, if we could see the God housed in all of us, we would be this passionate for everyone we met. In other words, this exclusive love is practice for the expansive love we’ll know on the other side of death.
So I turned to death and looked, and sure enough, there was expansive love, there was God. I looked at Heather, and there was my city that needs love. I looked at my bishop, and there was my Church that needs love. I looked at the enslaved people who toiled in the building I was so proud to teach in, and there was my school that needs love. Death is before us, but our eyes look to the hills.