Benedictine Spirituality, Poetry

3 things nuns, monks and poets know about why you should “keep death daily before your eyes”

For the next year or so, I will be studying Michael Casey’s Seventy-four Tools for Good Living: reflections on the fourth chapter of Benedict’s Rule with my oblate group at Saint Benedict’s monastery. Among those seventy-four tools is this one:

“To have death present before one’s eyes every day.” (RB 4:47)

And this is a tool for good living???

That we should think daily about the imminent death of everyone we know and our own mortality may seem counter-intuitive. How can the constant awareness of death make our lives happier? But monastics are not the only people who live consciously with the awareness of death; this is something poets also embrace. Much poetry and tribute is motivated by the awareness of death.

After the poet Donald Hall died last summer, I wrote a small tribute about the influences his words, his being, and his loving relationship with one of my very favorite poets, his wife Jane Kenyon, have had on my life. His early 1970’s essay Goatfoot. Milktongue. Twinbird. was the first critical essay on the craft of poetry I ever read, and it solidified my longing to become a poet.

Recently I discovered Donald Hall’s essay The Poetry of Death (The New Yorker, Sept. 12, 2017), in which he writes about the poetic impulse toward elegy.  Elegy, he believes, was the first poetry. He concludes by describing the conjugal unity of voice he found with Jane only after her death, in the “necropoetics of grief and love in the singular absence of the flesh.”

(The Urban Dictionary defines necropoetics as “Writing poems or songs about dead people, death, and dying; feeling that your songs or poem was inspired by someone dead or dying.”)

In his 2017 essay, Mr. Hall refers readers to numerous poems exploring death, grief and love, including Walt Whitman’s matchless lament, which he wrote following the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”  Rereading this poem and contemplating the Rule of Benedict 4:47, I identified 3 things nuns, monks and poets know about why we should keep death always before our eyes.

1. The knowledge of death reminds us life is fragile.

Jeff Greenberg is a psychologist who studies how people respond to events that force us to confront our mortality. What do we think when we hear news of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, wildfires and earthquakes, or a car accident that kills three generations of a family?

Greenberg says studies have shown that most of us find ways to discount the possibility that the thing on the screen could happen to us — big and small reasons why we in particular are safe.” We tend to think about our own death as abstractly far away in the future, in terms of, “Not me; not now.”

Not so, say monastics and poets. Life is fragile, so relish every moment of it.

Have you not seen, Soul, how the brightest and most precious things of earth end? 
If death treats earth’s splendor so, who can resist it? 
That same death has his arrow directed at you. 

These are the words of Duke of Gandia in 1539, better known as St. Francis de Borja. The monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas explain that after being obliged to view the decaying remains of the once beautiful Empress Isabella (to verify her death), he came to the realization that the fragility of life demands we live every day, every moment, with the awareness of immanent death. This awareness changed his priorities, and his life

Donald Hall begins “The Poetry of Death” this way:

Jane Kenyon and I almost avoided marriage because her widowhood would have been so long, between us was there such a radical difference in age. And yet today it is twenty-two years since she died, of leukemia, at forty-seven—and I approach ninety.

We never know, he indicates, when death will come to us or to our loved ones. To detach ourselves from the reality of death is to live unconsciously. This dulling of the mind makes us forget what is important in life, all the invisible, non-pressing, unscheduled things that make our living matter–joy, peace, kindness, attentiveness, love. Poets and monastics understand that the knowledge of death helps us keep our priorities in right order. 

2. The knowledge of death changes the way we think and live.

Benedict knew that the knowledge of death motivates us to live differently, without complacency, wide awake with eyes open and hearts softened. Here are words from the prologue of the Rule of Benedict (translation by Joan Chittister, OSB):

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rout us when they say, “It is high time for us to arise from sleep” (Rom. 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from the heavens that every day calls out this charge: “If you hear God’s voice today, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:8). And again: “You that have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7). And what does the Spirit say? “Come and listen to me; I will teach you to reverence god” (Ps. 34:12). “Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you” (John 12:35). 

The writing of poetry, too, awakens us, says Jane Hirschfield:

Poetry is a release of something previously unknown into the visible…Poetry magnetizes both depth and the possible. It offers widening of aperture and increase of reach. We live so often in a damped-down condition, obscured from ourselves and others. The sequesters are social—convention, politeness—and personal: timidity, self-fear or self-blindness, fatigue. To step into a poem is to agree to risk. Writing takes down all protections, to see what steps forward.

Although he doesn’t state it directly, Donald Hall’s entire essay on the poetry of death (which arguable could also be called the poetry of life) indicates that he lived much of his life—purposefully, deliberately outside the rushing, consumer culture of our era, setting his own priorities and not letting institutional or societal expectations dictate how he scheduled his days–because of an acute awareness of death. Encountering death (after the numbing stages of grief subside) causes us to participate in life more perceptively–with all of our senses open. This is from Walt Whitman’s long elegy for Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.
From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.
And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night,
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.
The knowledge of death alters our perceptions so that we see the solemnity in tress, hear the mystery in birdsong more raptly, and (as Whitman shows later in his poem), become inherently more capable of experiencing wonder and responding in praise:
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!

3. The knowledge of death mysteriously heightens and intensifies our capacity for joy.

How it works, I cannot explain, but it is true that when we know death and the possibility of loss, the magnitude of our joy increases. Writing for On Being, Omid Safi describes waking up after a night in the hospital, surrounded by family and nurses all praying for him because, when he had been admitted the evening before, it had been highly likely he was going to die within two hours: 

The morning came, and I remember the first sensations that came to me: relief at not being dead, and then — joy. Overwhelming, total, heart-bursting joy. Joy for breathing, joy for being alive. Joy for seeing the sun shine through the window. Joy for feeling the texture of the sheets around me. Joy for seeing the face of my father. Joy for feeling the breath enter my heart. Joy for feeling joy.

Mr. Safi asks, “So, friends, what would you do if you had two hours to live? And just as importantly, what are you going to do in these next two hours?”

There will come a time in our lives when we will truly have only two hours to live. How lovely will it be to have lived a life in which we have told everyone how loved they are, asked for forgiveness for all that we have to atone, and forgiven all those around us who yearn for forgiveness. How lovely to greet that moment with no regrets, but with a sense of purpose, meaning, love, tenderness, and forgiveness.

What would you do if you had two hours to live? Benedictine monastics and many poets throughout the ages tell us what happens to our lives when we “keep death daily before our eyes.” We try to live the majority of our days as if they were our last, enabling us, when we come to the moment of our deaths, to know that we have lived a good life–a life surrendered to love.  

And now, here is wisdom from Thomas Keating (1923-2018), to help us all learn to live lives surrendered to love. I think you will be very glad you took the time to watch this transformational tribute.   

Thomas Keating — A Life Surrendered to Love

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