“Death cannot be understood without compassion,” wrote Thomas Merton in No Man Is an Island. “Compassion teaches me that when my brother dies, I too die. Compassion teaches me that my brother and I are one.”
In the weeks since the “Life after Death” was published and sent out into the world, death came calling. My smart and beautiful black lab Shadow was diagnosed with lung and possible bone cancer and given months to live. No sooner had I shaken off my sadness and begun a new, more conscious life with Shadow, than word came that my 90-year-old mother-in-law Jean Zaleski had fallen seriously ill. Days later, she died. Everyone who loved Jean agreed that her death was a blessing. In recent years, this formerly intrepid artist and world traveler had become a prisoner of advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. The root of the word “blessing,” I learned at some point, means sprinkled with blood. This must refer to the ancient practice of sacrifice and to that which was set apart for sacrifice. It makes sense that the word lived on still sprinkled with blood because I am coming to understand now that every significant passage in life–every liberation–must be paid for through some kind of sacrifice. And finally, we pay with our lives. I don’t mean to strike a somber note. Wonderment is what I feel. The arcs section of the current issue includes some extraordinary descriptions of where people go when they depart this world. Where do you suppose they come from? We have touched on the religious imagination before in this blog. Where do suppose such often gorgeous imaginings come from and what do they serve? Descriptions that used to seem literal and sentimental to me suddenly seem to contain a deeper truth. Years ago, for example, the Catholic chaplain who presided over my brother-in-law’s burial in Arlington said: “Our brother Stephen has gone to the table of the Lord.” Now this expression suggests a profound communion to me–passing away out of the pain and darkness of this world, into the light of love and compassion. I really can picture souls joining hosts of luminous beings, what Christians call the communion of saints. Am I soft in the head, or have I become more open to the possibility that there is a truth of love and compassion that connects us and passes our understanding.