What is Death? Lessons in the Via Negativa from Holy Week

What is death?  It seems most creatures are not preoccupied with that question.  Instead, they are very busy getting on with life securing their individual place in the world and carrying on the work of their species.

Cemetery in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

But humans are regularly asking ourselves that question.  And especially when witnessing it.

I see death as a reminder that our work is finished on this Earth.  Our time and presence and witness is finite, it has a beginning and an end, an alpha and an omega.  And yes, our work is united to our ancestors who did theirs before us, work we have inherited. 

In a powerful interview on PBS news this week, a man who had lived a full and adventurous life as a reporter in wars and conflict situations was diagnosed with a brain condition that assures him he will die this year.   He said he has learned more this year than in all the rest of his life combined.  More about love and forgiveness and what life is for.

The Pietà at the Härterichstraße 12 building in Bad Mergentheim, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus did not want to die.  He sweated blood and cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane that this “chalice be taken from me.” 

Few of us want to die—until we are ready and the time comes and we practice one more time that Letting Go and Letting Be lesson that life has taught us many times over.  Eckhart: “We sink eternally from letting go to letting go into the One.”  Letting go is an eternal practice, it has been going on for 13.8 billion years.

Death is a reminder to throw oneself fully into life—to live fully one’s commitments and values.

“The BEAUTY of an ORDINARY LIFE – simple living.” Reflections of Life

Jesus’ death was that of a martyr and a prophet.  I have known at least two martyrs in my life:  One a student—Sister Dorothy Stang who became a teacher to me; and another a teacher, monk, writer—Thomas Merton with whom I had a correspondence.  Both of them were people fully alive, fully aware, fully in love with life in spite of its many and perilous struggles.  Both lived from their conscience and seem to us to have died prematurely.

Jesus reminds us to “rejoice and be glad when people abuse you and prosecute you on my account….This is how they persecuted the prophets before you.”  (Mt 5.10-12)  Living love and preaching it carry their price no matter how death comes to us.

See Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart.

And Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey.

And Fox, Original Blessing, pp. 132-177.

Banner image: This powerful photo, taken in Normandy, France, is entitled “NO WAR.” Image by unai Pascual Loyarte on Flickr.

Queries for Contemplation

What is death to you?  Do you recognize it as an end of your work on Earth?

Recommended Reading

Meditations with Meister Eckhart: A Centering Book

A centering book by Matthew Fox. This book of simple but rich meditations exemplifies the deep yet playful creation-centered spirituality of Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart was a 13th-century Dominican preacher who was a mystic, prophet, feminist, activist, defender of the poor, and advocate of creation-centered spirituality, who was condemned shortly after he died.
“These quiet presentations of spirituality are remarkable for their immediacy and clarity.” –Publishers Weekly.  

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox lays out a whole new direction for Christianity—a direction that is in fact very ancient and very grounded in Jewish thinking (the fact that Jesus was a Jew is often neglected by Christian theology): the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality, the Vias Positiva, Negativa, Creativa and Transformativa in an extended and deeply developed way.
Original Blessing makes available to the Christian world and to the human community a radical cure for all dark and derogatory views of the natural world wherever these may have originated.” –Thomas Berry, author, The Dream of the Earth; The Great Work; co-author, The Universe Story

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5 thoughts on “What is Death? Lessons in the Via Negativa from Holy Week”

  1. Avatar

    Death is a Continuation of Life without Beginning nor End. Is it not the Saints who are recognized as such for miracles attributed to them while not seen in the flesh?

    “Eager Anticipation – A Love That Allows Us to Choose Our Outcome”
    ‘Get ready for it.’ Do we eagerly await a stream of love and ecstasy flowing through our mortal selves? Is this not where the human and Divine meet and transform? What are we giving up, letting go of, for that experience? Is this where love and ecstasy penetrate our soul unlike any other gift or wanton desire of the flesh? Is this not what eager anticipation is? Is this not our ‘vigil’, and if not, how can it be, should we desire it?
    What do the symbols of the Alpha and Omega mean to us? Is this not a statement of our consciousness and ‘being’, of our spiritual and soulful experience beyond the ‘flesh’ alone? Is our faith not one of taking transformative steps in the ‘here and now’ that leads us in eager anticipation of greater awareness, a greater consciousness of the ‘here and now’.
    The Easter Vigil is all about waiting for and waking up to love and ecstasy. Do we deeply and devotionally desire what the ‘Vigil’ offers, or do we prefer to wake up to the randomness of another good, so-so or hellish day? ‘Love’ provides us with the freedom to choose our outcome. What greater love or experience exists that allows us to do that both in the now and beyond the flesh alone? — BB.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you Matthew and DM Team on today’s beautiful meditation on death!
    What is death to me? Like you Matthew, and many others, at age 80 I’m also reflecting more on my own death. It is partly about reflecting on the end of my work/life on earth. Fortunately and gracefully, my contemplative spiritual Faith and journey has been preparing me to deepen my awareness/experience of the Sacredness, Beauty, and Divine Love of the Eternal Present Moment within and around me with All of Living Creation. The woman in the enclosed DM video, “the BEAUTY of an ORDINARY LIFE – simple living” expressed and described this meditative living of the Sacredness of the Present Moment very well in the ending stages of her own life.
    I have also recently been inspired to volunteer to do hospice bereavement counseling with patients and their family members — my sisters and brothers also experiencing end of life emotional and spiritual issues…

  3. Avatar
    Michael Dawkins

    I do not fully understand death , just as I do not fully understand life. Both are part of the great circle of oneness, The Great Mystery. Thank you Bill and Damian for your beautiful and insightful comments today.

  4. Avatar
    Brigid Cannon, OP

    I, too, am grateful for the reflections on Death given by Matthew, Damien, and Michael. I am remembering a moment whenI was a chaplain in a hospital in Nanticoke, Pa many years ago, when a woman religious asked me what is death.
    At that time I was inexperienced and stopped short by the question. I learned a lot about myself and what the patient was struggling with in letting go of in her life as a young woman religious in love with her ministry and struggling with death.
    Now, as an elder wiser woman religious, I am still learning what death really means for me. It is falling in love with God and trusting God is offering to me my deepest desire to be in Oneness in love with Father, Son and Holy Spirt. So I live each day and pray to become all that all that he desires for me since the moment I was created. I let go and let be trusting in His inexhaustible love till God call me home in the fullness of love.

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