In 1903, Quaker and holiness leader, Hannah Whitall Smith, referred to graceful aging as a “great art,” and “delightful.”
It is so delicious to be done with things, and to feel no need any longer to concern myself much about earthly affairs. … I am tremendously content … to await quietly and happily the opening of the door at the end of the passage way, that will let me in to my real abiding place.
Haven’t we all known people who embraced their older-age spirituality with grace, facing death with something close to quiet passion, preparing to slip into the shadow of the valley as though into hope? Equally, haven’t we known others who raged, as Dylan Thomas railed against the approaching death of his father:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Death as foreigner, yet in centuries past, death too often hovered as a family member at the threshold. Parents would teach their children this bedtime prayer, both as a prayer and a lesson about death:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Too, children would sing and dance of death:
Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes! ashes! we all fall down.
Death was a part of life. And for us, falling to sleep each night is a dress rehearsal. You close your eyes, let go, and give yourself over to something greater. Spiritually, and perhaps intentionally, you let yourself slip softly into the eternal Christ. An interior light reminds you that the atoms and molecules that constitute the body and appear to contain the soul do not contain the soul at all.
The chalice is not the wine.
With my eyes closed, I feel the soul as aura more about and around than within me. What is the body’s job, anyway? To hold eternity at bay, one breath at a time? I am keenly aware that I, too, shall slip one day into eternity. Slip into eternity as though coming home at the end of the day, wrote Bryant Kirkland, where the approach of darkness has a warm familiarity to it.
The first hours of winter’s nights are glad hours of return to warmth and love and light. (Home After Dark)
Yes, so many people fear death as darkness, as a light extinguished. But you and I need not fear, for we have built our home and hearth in faith, where there is return at the end of the day,
to glad hours of return to warmth and love and light.
Consideration of the body and soul, the body and death leads to thoughts of birth. If the soul escapes the body at the end (does it?), then how fearful and wonderful must be the opposite pole, the point of beginning, birth. From before you were, I knew you, writes the psalmist. Or, as reported in Genesis,
when God began to create …
Who was it who said,
In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning? (T.S. Eliot)
How is it possible for a soul or spirit or little slice of something eternal to slip to into the fine space between atoms of carbon flesh to animate them? Exactly what happens at the beginning? Or, at the end?
Such thoughts are to marvelous for me. I cannot say, so I simply close my eyes, and drift off to sleep.