Category Archives: Eternity

David Bowie, Shakespeare, Death, and Hope

For the past few months, I have been teaching religion class on Monday nights at a parish in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Recently, I found out that the church was right next to the home of the late rock-star David Bowie. Although I never saw him myself, I heard that he lived an unassuming life there, frequenting local cafes and bookstores.

Two days before he died, Bowie’s last album Blackstar was released. It is being described as his “sung epitaph”, his great artistic farewell. He produced the album knowing that his cancer was terminal, and it is full of themes of mortality and death, especially the song Lazarus. I watched its music video with a priest who remarked, “Here you see pop culture touching the eschatological.” Having watched it several times since, I find myself agreeing with him more and more: even in the somewhat pagan art of David Bowie, one can see a soul grasping for truth.

Haunting Awareness of Death

The Lazarus music video begins showing a frail David Bowie trapped in a dark hospital room.   The music is eerie avant-garde jazz, punctuated with ominous sax and trombone riffs. A dark figure under his bed reaches towards him as Bowie anxiously recognizes his approaching death: “Look up here, man, I’m in danger!”

The next scene shows a more energetic David Bowie in a room with a wardrobe, dancing in way that recalls the performances of his youth. He sits at a desk to write out his last creative inspiration, aware that he is racing against the clock. As time ticks away, he writes more and more frantically, just barely finishing before Death beckons and he exits the scene.

The video is packed with meaning, but what caught my attention before anything else were the numerous memento mori. The most obvious are the hospital room and the mysterious figure beneath the bed (a weird version of the Grim Reaper). Another is a skull that sits upon Bowie’s  writing desk. Also evocative of death is the dancing Bowie’s skeletal costume, as well as the way he jerks like a wind-up toy reaching the end of its short kinetic life. The most dramatic (in my opinion) is the coffin-like wardrobe into which Bowie closes himself at the end of the song.

Seen as a whole, Lazarus is itself a great memento mori, a vivid reminder of the certainty of death and the fleetingness of life. A man who had it all – fame, money, and glamour – recognizes and embraces the fact that he will soon lose it all in death.

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, Pieter Claesz, 1628
Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, Pieter Claesz, 1628

 

Sic transit gloria mundi. 

Lazarus strikes me as a sort of musical vanitas, an artistic reminder that Death awaits everyone without exception, and thus all earthly things are “vanities of vanities.” In particular, it calls to mind a Dutch vanitas that I saw last week in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This work by Pieter Claesz (1596/97–1660), shows a skull on top of a book and a quill, recalling to the viewer the ephemeral nature of personal production. No matter how much or how well one writes in the book of his life, sooner or later, Death decides the final chapter.

In turn, the smoldering candle in the Claesz painting reminds me of  a great literary vanitas by Shakespeare, coming from the mouth of a desperate Macbeth:

 …Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more.

Glimpses of Hope

Battling with terminal cancer, David Bowie must have known during his performance in Lazarus that “his hour upon the stage” was coming to a close. Like Shakespeare and the great artists of the vanitas genre, Bowie was well aware of the inevitability of death, and he expressed this awareness as only an artist can.

Most of us are familiar with Bowie’s life and know that, like many rock stars, he was was no paragon of moral virtue, and much of his art was morally questionable at best or downright blasphemous at worst. But despite all of this, he was nevertheless very human – he was searching for hope and meaning in a world that often denies both. Throughout his song, hopeful glimmers pierce through the darkness, especially the beginning and ending verses that serve as reassuring bookends.

The opening verse: “Look up here, I’m in heaven!”

And the final verses:

Oh, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free!/Ain’t that just like me?

Bowie’s swan song expresses the very human angst that we all experience when confronted with death and the fleetingness of life, but it also shows the hope that the end of life is just the beginning of a better one. The title itself calls to mind the great episode of John 11 when Jesus Christ proclaims himself “the resurrection and the life” and raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.

We can take heart from this artistic glimpse of hope that David Bowie left us, as well as from these words that his wife wrote on Instagram shortly before the news of his death broke: “The struggle is real, but so is God.”

Advertisements

Waking up to Life

Dear friends,

Today is All Souls Day, when we pray for our departed and peacefully remember the eternity that awaits us. In this context, I would like to share with you this powerful experience that I had a few years ago on my first hospital visit with a priest.

God bless!

Eric


We were in the Dutchess County Hospital, passing rooms with silent, withered occupants.  We came to Room 349 and entered quietly. He was lying in bed, dressed in a hospital gown.  His arms were painfully thin and his eyes sunk deeply into his skull.  He was all alone.  No daughter, no son, no wife, no brother, no sister, no nephew, no cousin, no distant relative, no friend, no power of attorney: he was dying alone.

After introductions and gentle shaking of his weak hand, he looked up from his bed and rasped, “It’s all over!”  The words struck deep, “It’s all over.”  What can you say to a man on death’s door?

The priest knew exactly what to say.  With a smile that lit up the room, he responded “No! Everything is just about to begin!”

The dying man’s grave, pained expression lightened a little, “Well, I guess you’re right.”

Glancing around his room, I noticed a muted TV set, connected to the wall on a metal arm.  The first game of the World Series would take place that night.  One of the coaches was speaking in the pre-game press conference.

The priest tried to converse with him.  Each attempt was met with a brief reply and a distant gaze.  I thought about talking with the man about the World Series.  Opening my mouth to ask whom he thought would have the better chance at the pennant, I stopped myself.  What would he care?  This man is about to die.  He is about to leave the world. He doesn’t give a darn about its World Series.

In this room where death was so close, the World Series was nothing more than background noise and images on a screen.  Beyond this room, people were glued to the TV, treating the result of the World Series as a matter of life or death. Inside Room 349, death approached and everything else was fading away.

As the priest prayed over the man and gave him communion, I began to experience an emotion that I did not expect on a visit to a dying man. I was actually happy for him. He had received the Anointing of the Sick. He was clean; he was about to see God. I was excited for him.  This man was on the verge of making it. He was almost out of the valley of tears. Just on the other side of death his eternal reward awaited.  In a few hours, he would be free of his suffering and within the embrace of the Father.

True, this man was close to death, but he was also close to Heaven.

It became apparent that the man was heavily sedated with painkillers, so our conversation did not last long. But the experience of the dying man impacted me deeply.  God spoke to me through him.  I left with a yearning for what the man was about to get. I realized just how close heaven is, and I realized how much I wanted it. It awakened in me the desire to renew my effort and to keep striving for heaven. God used the visit to the dying man to remind me that heaven is closer than I think.

Speaking with and watching him slowly let go of life, I experienced death vicariously. I saw what will one day happen to me. I saw things from the perspective of a dying man. For us, daily life seems so immediate, so real; things like the World Series seem like events of tremendous importance. But in Room 349, death was approaching; life was becoming more like a dream, something fragile, something less than reality that disappears as soon as the sun rises.

God brought me close to death to refocus me on what really matters. Compared to the reality and eternity of heaven, life is just a fleeting dream. Death is not a sunset, but a dawn. When we die, we wake up to the beautiful reality for which we were made.

“Unbearable Beauty”: Your Upcoming Resurrection

20140417-161738.jpgHappy Easter, everyone! As we celebrate our Lord’s victory over Death, I would like to  share a post that I wrote and published a year ago during a difficult time: my mother was dying of cancer, and as I aided her in her final weeks, I was struggling to keep strong my own hope in the Resurrection in the face of her imminent death. 

The thoughts that I share below came to me in prayer as I asked God to strengthen me and prepare me for what was about to happen.  I found great consolation in knowing that my mother was about to experience her own resurrection, which our Lord granted her two weeks into the Easter Season.


In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis recounts a fictional visit to heaven. During his tour of paradise, he encounters numerous holy men and women, but one in particular leaves a deep impression. He meets a spectacularly clothed woman and is absolutely entranced by “the unbearable beauty of her face.” Impressed by her appearance and by the large entourage of angels and saints who accompany her, Lewis asks his guide if she had been a woman of particular importance on earth. It turns out that by worldly standards she was just a simple old lady named Sarah Smith. But the guide goes on to explain that “fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Sarah Smith may not have been a celebrity, but she spent her life doing good for others – she spent her life loving: “Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.” Sarah was a mother to everyone, and in heaven she is accompanied by a procession of her spiritual children. She is even joined by the animals who benefitted from her generous heart: “Every beast and bird that came near her had a place in her love…Now the abundance of life that she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

20140417-161754.jpgRecently, we celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus, an event that is so huge that we do not limit our celebration to Easter Sunday. Throughout the Easter Season, which will continue until the Feast of Pentecost, we commemorate and celebrate Christ’s definitive victory over death.

How important it is to remember that in celebrating Our Lord’s Resurrection we are celebrating our own! As baptized Christians, we have a share in Christ’s new life and it is only a matter of time before we are in heaven with our own resurrected bodies. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul reflects on the beauty of the resurrected body:

It [the natural body] is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

Our future resurrections give us a special dignity, on which C.S. Lewis offers an interesting reflection:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.

20140417-161728.jpgThe character of Sarah Smith is a symbol of “the risen body of maternal love.” If motherly love is so beautiful on earth, we can only imagine how it will be manifested in heaven! But not just mothers – anyone who truly loves during his time on earth will be rewarded with a risen body, the ultimate fruit of his love. The beauty of your love on earth will flow into your resurrected body, and since God is never outdone in generosity, don’t be surprised if your resurrected body is one of “unbearable beauty.”

A Time to Re-Focus on Heaven

2013-02-17 CES_Paseo_Greccio_164A couple of years ago, I accompanied a priest on a sick call. Since it was my first time visiting someone with a terminal illness, I was not quite sure what to expect or what to say. We entered the room and saw a thin old man lying in his hospital bed. After being greeted, he looked at us sadly, and with a raspy, gasping voice said, “Well…it’s all over!” I will never forget the priest’s reply: with a big smile, he looked at him and responded, “No. It’s all about to begin!”

As we tried to converse with the patient, I was having trouble thinking of what to say. The TV was on and a coach was being interviewed about the World Series, so I considered chatting about the championship, but it occurred to me how pointless that would be. This man was about to pass on to something greater: he was on the threshold of eternity – everything else was just fading background noise.

En route to Eternity

I really enjoy traveling, which is good because as a missionary I do it a lot. It has always struck me as interesting how life takes on a very different tone right before a big trip. As the departure approaches, everything else becomes less and less important; all thoughts and energy go towards preparing for the journey, and it becomes hard to focus on anything else. The life of a Christian is likewise an ongoing preparation for the final voyage – as we get closer and closer to embarking, everything else fades away in light of the ultimate destination.

The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.
The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.

Lent is about preparing for Heaven. It is not about making ourselves suffer with fasting and abstinence. Our Lenten sacrifices are motivated by something very profound: the expectation of eternal happiness. Through personal asceticism, we distance ourselves from certain goods because we want to be more centered on The Ultimate Good for which we are striving.

The Lenten exercise of self-denial is necessary for staying focused. If we do not periodically abstain from earthly pleasures, we run the risk of forgetting the heavenly ones for which we were made.  In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

…earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our longing for Heaven], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.

A morning view from my dorm.
A morning view from my dorm.

Expectation of Heaven does not mean that we should go through life withholding from ourselves all that it has to offer. On the contrary, we should enjoy life, but we must do so realizing that each good thing is but a small foretaste of what is yet to come. Paradoxically, when we live this way, life becomes all the more enjoyable and fulfilling. Conversely, if we refuse to seek what is above and neglect to live for the joy of Heaven, we confine ourselves to the misery of shallow pleasures. As C.S. Lewis puts it elsewhere, when we limit ourselves to earthly happiness, “we are half-hearted creatures…like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.”

An Eternal Weight of Glory

I love this quote from St. Paul:

Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17

This verse resonates so much with me because not long ago I accompanied my mother on the final stretch of her earthly journey. Anyone who has accompanied a family member through a terminal illness knows that there are few sufferings as emotionally acute as watching a loved one physically “wasting away.” However, for Christians, this gradual debilitation is offset by what is at the other end. The illness and death, as painful as they are, are only “momentary light affliction” in comparison with the glory to come.

What can make terminal sickness seem like a “momentary light affliction”? Heaven.

We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this620-667-I-G36 world foreshadows it. When we encounter beauty, like that of a gorgeous sunrise or a moving symphony, we are touched and our hearts are tugged; a desire for something more is aroused. Again, C.S. Lewis says it perfectly:

We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.

This is what Lent is all about: it is a time for reawakening in our souls the yearning that we have for the boundless joy that awaits us. It is a time to embrace a simpler lifestyle in order to enjoy the peace that comes with simplicity. It is a time for preparing to put on the “greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch”; for receiving the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”; it is a time to prepare for Heaven.

“Unbearable Beauty”: Your Upcoming Resurrection

20140417-161738.jpgIn his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis recounts a fictional visit to heaven. During his tour of paradise, he encounters numerous holy men and women, but one in particular leaves a deep impression. He meets a spectacularly clothed woman and is absolutely entranced by “the unbearable beauty of her face.” Impressed by her appearance and by the large entourage of angels and saints who accompany her, Lewis asks his guide if she had been a woman of particular importance on earth. It turns out that by worldly standards she was just a simple old lady named Sarah Smith. But the guide goes on to explain that “fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Sarah Smith may not have been a celebrity, but she spent her life doing good for others – she spent her life loving: “Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.” Sarah was a mother to everyone, and in heaven she is accompanied by a procession of her spiritual children. She is even joined by the animals who benefitted from her generous heart: “Every beast and bird that came near her had a place in her love…Now the abundance of life that she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

20140417-161754.jpgOn Sunday, we celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus, an event that is so huge that we do not limit our celebration to Easter Sunday. Throughout the Easter Season, which will continue until the feast of Pentecost, we commemorate and celebrate Christ’s definitive victory over death.

How important it is to remember that in celebrating Our Lord’s Resurrection we are celebrating our own! As baptized Christians, we have a share in Christ’s new life and it is only a matter of time before we are in heaven with our own resurrected bodies. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul reflects on the beauty of the resurrected body:

“It [the natural body] is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Our future resurrections give us a special dignity, on which C.S. Lewis offers an interesting reflection:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

20140417-161728.jpgThe character of Sarah Smith is a symbol of “the risen body of maternal love.” If motherly love is so beautiful on earth, we can only imagine how it will be manifested in heaven! But not just mothers – anyone who truly loves during his time on earth will be rewarded with a risen body, the ultimate fruit of his love. The beauty of your love on earth will flow into your resurrected body, and since God is never outdone in generosity,  your resurrected body will be one of “unbearable beauty.”