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December 16, 2003

Life's alotted span

It is a biblical passage that says that to each of us is alotted the span of years three score and ten, but it would seem that this is an average and not a rule. An item on Bear Left on Unnamed Road entitled "If I could save time in a bottle" is worthy of consideration by us all. Our time on this planet is not infinite and there does come a point when, however reluctantly or unprepared, we have to leave.

It is at this season that a lot of us lose our older relatives, and some of us have already started to lose contemporaries. I was reminded of this sharply last week when, just as I prepared to leave for Poland, a friend and fellow Server, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He was only a few years older than I. My father died at 57 - the age I have just reached - and my only comfort in that is that I do not smoke and have not had some of the damage he inflicted on himself. My first encounter with the death of a friend was a boy taken by a shark when I was in my early teens. Next was another friend who died playing hockey aged just 28. And there have been others, "cut off in their prime" as the Book of Common Prayer puts it rather sucinctly.

Recently at our Abbey Church we have had a spate of burials of young men who have managed to kill themselves in motor accidents, tragic losses all to their families and friends. And this really highlights our dilemma. When will it be our turn to make that final transition?

Probably fortunately, it is not given to any of us to know the exact hour, or the nature, of our departure from this life. This is where people of faith have at least some hope of life beyond the termination of this existence, but, sadly, for many this is seemingly bound up with a vision of something which closely resembles the very material society in which we live. I'm afraid I cannot subscribe to that view.

It is my belief that, in death, we are transformed into beings of spirit, unbound by the parameters of three dimensional existence. The part of us that is the "image of God" is freed to exist with God and in God. Consider being with God, in a form of pure spirit. Consider the unlimited nature of such an existence where you can be everywhere and everywhen.

As John Donne wrote in the 17th Century, "No man is an island, entire unto itself ..." and expands his thesis to show that the death of any person of our acquaintance diminishes us. The absence of that person from our daily, weekly or hourly existence must affect us. It is not as though we can directly or tangibly share any of our little pleasures or moments of triumph with each other any longer, but, we can look forward to eventually (in our due season) being once more able to be in touch in a very different and much more complete way. The loss is therefore temporary and not a permanent thing.

Like Ron B, I try to stay in touch with those whose love, life and fellowship is important to me. After reading his piece I will also try to be a little more in contact with my family even though we are scattered across the country and the world, and I thank him for reminding me. I cannot know the hour in which I will be called to make an account of my life to my Maker, but I can at least try to ensure that those I leave behind know that I cared enough about them to have tried to never leave unsaid anything that will have made them feel good about our relationships.

Cecil John Rhodes, the architect of modern South Africa, the man reviled for his vision of a united country in which all it's peoples could enjoy the benefit of its wealth, once said, "So much to do, so little time!" He was dead at 47, of consumption, yet he had achieved almost all that he set out to do, dying eventually in the comfort of his faith.

We are all given much to achieve, some of us achieve it and leave behind a legacy which our families and friends can rejoice in, others, for all sorts of reasons, apparently don't achieve their goals. But who are we to say what these should or should not be? Perhaps their purpose here was fulfilled and they need to move on to something greater, we cannot know this either.

Our society has come to expect that death can be indefinitely postponed, or at least regulated in such a way that we can expect to carry on living as long as we like, yet it is not that long ago in human terms, that this was not the case. Perhaps we need to look again at our values and at our expectation of life. After all we live in a dangerous universe and are exposed to all manner of risks even in our own homes.

In all our planning and our hopes we can only really be certain of two things. Death and taxes, and Death is the one we all fear most precisely because it is a transition into the totally unknown.

I know that many of you do not share my faith or even subscribe to the notion of a life beyond this one, and I am saddened by that knowledge because I believe that sooner or later we will all meet in that life and have a lot of sorting out to do!

Pax vobiscum.

Posted by The Gray Monk at December 16, 2003 12:40 AM