I began writing this newsletter at 2:13 a.m., on a red eye flight from Calgary to Atlanta. Even though it was the middle of the night, my internal clock was so messed up it hardly seemed to matter anymore and I was filled with enthusiasm for the week I had just spent on Vancouver Island. I had lots to say.
Unfortunately, the next day when I looked at what I had written, I realized that perhaps 2:13 a.m. is not an hour in which I should be trying to record coherent thoughts, so I put a little space between me and the keyboard. A week later, I am now on the other side of the continent in Largo, FL and it is only 8:21 p.m. We can see if this turns out any better.
The good news is that although six days and 18 hours have passed my enthusiasm for Vancouver Island remains undimmed. The island is so, so beautiful and the people are so, so hospitable. The Diocese of Victoria is a wonderful host and it was a joy to partner with longtime friend Fr. Charlie Bouchard in facilitating a series of clergy / leadership study days on preaching difficult moral topics. I want to promise you that we did work hard. In between times, however, we were able to walk around the famous Butchart Gardens in the peak of their fall color. We strolled through Cathedral Grove with Douglas fir so tall it was like they came right out of Jack and the Bean Stalk. (Some were estimated to be 800 years old!) We hiked out into the Strait of Georgia during low tide and saw a bald eagle take off from the shoreline. And then, one of the coolest things of all: we were able to observe the run of the salmon.
I had heard of the salmon run before but never witnessed it with my eyes. For about three or four weeks each fall, mature salmon who’ve been enjoying life in the Pacific Ocean suddenly have some sort of intuition that it is time to return to the freshwaters in which they first hatched four years earlier. They swim through rivers upstream, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers (don’t I sound so Canadian?) and it is exhausting. When they finally arrive to their destination, the females use their tails to dig a hole for their eggs, sometimes wearing down their tails down to a nub in the process. And then after the males fertilize the eggs, both the males and females die, their bodies providing important nourishment for the ecosystem in which their eggs will spawn. Fr. Charlie—always the Dominican—reminded me of Thomas Aquinas’ claim that if God has gifted creatures like fish with such a strong sense of instinct to take them to their final destination, how much more so must God aid us in our journey toward our ultimate end.
Watching the salmon struggle with such determination against the current became an apt visual for much of what Charlie tried to share during his part of the study days: How do we talk from the pulpit around what a “good death” looks like? Do we have any notion of what that would look like any more and how can we aid congregations in thinking about this more head on, rather than pretending that death is something we will not have to confront in our own lives or something that we can have control over. Charlie noted that in 1900, 90% of deaths occurred fairly quickly through plague, disease, childbirth, accidents. Only 10% of people knew in advance that they were dying. Now those percentages have been reversed. Only 10% of us will die suddenly. 90% of us will have time to think about what is happening to us. There is gift to having a longer time to ponder death, but it can also be frightening. The whole month of November which starts each year with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls can be a time of keeping the mystery of death before us.
Only hours after I landed (at 7:33 a.m., if you also like to keep track of such things), I had the privilege of joining my family via Zoom to participate in the annual interfaith prayer service conducted by the first year medical students at St. Louis University for the families of those who have donated their bodies to science in the past year. Both my dad and my dad’s brother were remembered in this year’s service, just as my mom was six years ago. The students read from scripture and shared prayers from their own Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions for those who had died. Then several talked about what it had meant to them to be entrusted in their anatomy course with the bodies of our family members, who in their own dying process had decided to make of their very own bodies a final gift to try to further knowledge of disease and improve health for others. A few referred to our loved ones as their very first patients. I think the comment that touched me most was a young woman who said she felt like an imposter in medical school. Who could trust her to care for them? Was she worthy? But that our loved ones had made that first act of great trust in her by placing their bodies in her care.
There are of course many facets of a “good death” but through this service, I was reminded powerfully of the witness my own parents and my uncle have offered me in continuing to make one’s life a gift even on the other side of death. There was a generosity of spirit that permeated every aspect of their lives and they did not want death to end that. They gave the very last thing they had to give for the betterment of the next generation. Does it sound terribly weird to say that when I write about their giving unto death, I am simultaneously seeing before my eyes the running of the salmon and hearing the assurance of Aquinas? How much more so must God aid us in our journey toward our ultimate end.
If you would like to watch the service at St. Louis University yourself, I think you would find it very moving and a wonderful meditation for this month of November. It is about an hour long, but once you get into it, I suspect you, too, will lose all awareness of time.