The nearness of death
At two o’clock this morning I was awoken by dull pain behind my eyes. I turned over. It persisted. I got up. It persisted. I drank a glass of water. It remained. It’s the first time I have ever been woken up by a headache.
Sitting on the couch in the darkness of our pre-dawn living room, my mind began a fanciful search for explanations. Sinus pressure? Brain tumor? Something else? You’d be amazed at where your mind can wonder.
I chose to linger on brain tumor. I know it’s a morbid thought, but sometimes thinking about the worst can bring needed perspective to an otherwise over-full life. It brought to mind the words of Psalmist: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (90:12).
The sense of the nearness of death, and also of resurrection, presumably played some part in the way that the church formed it’s liturgy of the hours.
From the service of Compline* (said before retiring to sleep):
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit; For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
Keep me, O Lord, as the apple of your eye;
Hide me under the shadow of your wings.
A petition* is also prayed:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
As we enter into prayer before going to sleep, we have the chance o reflect on the contingency of our lives. Each day there are countless opportunities for us to cease to exist–disease, accident, etc. Every day that we do not die is a gift because, ultimately, life itself is a gift.
The western church has, I think, lost it’s sense of the giftedness of life. We assume our existence without question. We rarely pause to consider why we have come into being–what is our purpose? We have been distracted from first things by many other things.
This is one of the reasons I think it’s prudent for contemporary Christians to retain and (for some) appropriate for the first time, the liturgical tradition of the Christian church. Liturgy allows us to step outside of our current context and turn our minds and hearts to giving praise to God in ways that reveal and remove our cultural blinkers.
If we take seriously the Psalmist’s petition–that we should desire wisdom–then we do well to learn to pray with holier and wiser men (and women) than we. The liturgy enables us to do this.
*These forms of the prayers are from Phyllis Tickle, ed. The Divine Hours. Pocket Edition. (Oxford 2007).