The Danger in Clinging to Life
As I sat in that room, which was filled with people who had more education and experience than me, I thought, “I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to be here.” At the time, I was an adjunct faculty member and this was my first time attending a faculty/staff meeting with the college president. It was well known that the institution was facing financial hardship, and the meeting was called to address concerns around potential cutbacks and layoffs. Throughout the meeting, people remained pleasant and respectful, though it was clear that they were worried. The president spent most of the meeting reassuring people that everything was being done to avoid layoffs and to keep the institution strong. However, the question that wouldn’t leave my mind was “Under what circumstances are we willing to let this place die?” I loved that college, but I couldn’t help but worry that if the only goal was survival, the institution may face a fate worse than death. Despite this persistent question, I was too afraid to raise it, at least in front of all these people. However, later that day, still unable to get that question out of my mind, I emailed the president and raised my question. He responded kindly, but in essence said “Don’t worry, we’re not going to let this place close.” Though I’m sure he intended this response to be comforting, it was not.
Fast forward to the present and this institution has lost its identity, has lost what I loved about it. In an attempt to stay alive, it has bowed to demands from wealthy donors and market pressures. It remains alive, but it has lost its soul, continuing on as a kind of zombie; a husk of what it once was. Sadly, this story is all too common. Indeed, this tale seems to explain much political corruption, in our country and across the world. If I just make this compromise, if I just bend on this conviction, then I’ll have the power to make a difference. It will all be worth it in the end.
A vivid illustration of the dangers of self-preservation at all costs comes in the recent series Midnight Mass. In this series, Father Paul, a young, charismatic priest, comes to a small island community to temporarily replace the aging, sickly Monsignor Pruitt. Under his leadership miracles begin to occur on the island, beginning with a girl regaining the use of her legs, then moving to counteract the effects of dementia, and eventually even reverse the effects of aging itself. The community, which had been slowly dying due to isolation and the effects of an oil spill, is reinvigorated. Faith abounds. It seems all could join together and proclaim, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Yet, as you may have guessed, not all is as it seems.
Father Paul eventually reveals that he is, in fact, Monsignor Pruitt. His health and youth have been restored to him by an angel. At least what he refers to as an angel. He intends to build his small parish into an army of the Lord, to carry the divine gift given to him by the angel to the rest of the world. God’s kingdom has come at last. Death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. Monsignor Pruitt’s plan comes to a climax at an Easter vigil, where the angel is revealed to the congregation. Despite Pruitt’s appeals to scripture, which note that people are nearly always afraid when they encounter an angel, it is clear to the audience at home, if not in the fictional church, that this creature is anything but angelic. Dressed in priestly robes that have been torn to make room for the creature’s massive leathery wings, stands a gray, hairless creature, whose influence shortly reduces the parish to a state of hedonistic butchery.
Though there are many different ways to read this show, I’d like to highlight the bitter irony in Monsignor Pruitt’s attempt to defeat death that ultimately ushered in a fate worse than death. In his attempt to revitalize the community to which he committed his life, he led his flock to subject themselves to a monster and ultimately become monstrous themselves. He made compromise after compromise, always reassuring himself that his actions would be redeemed in the end. His lies, deception, and ultimately murder, all were the price God and the angel called on him to pay to bring this gift to the world, to defeat the final enemy that is death.
Currently, we find ourselves in a season awaiting new life. In Advent, we long for the Christ child, to come into our world and bring redemption. Amid this yearning for new life, however, I caution you to not hold too tightly to life. Whether that life is your own, the life of an institution, the life of an idea that you cherish, know the point beyond which you will not compromise. Know what foundational principles you value more than life itself. In a sermon reflecting on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, given less than a year before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses this topic:
I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause—and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.
What King feared more than physical death was a death of the spirit, a loss of what makes life worth living. So, this Advent, hope for new life, pray for renewal, anticipate the coming of the Messiah. But, I also ask you to join me in trying to keep in mind that the child whose birth we long for taught us that in order to find our life, we must lose it for him. If we cling stubbornly to what we think is life, we will ultimately only be left with death, or worse.
Image credit: Gustavo Ruiz, link to original image: https://lynnecollier.com/2021/01/21/a-wolf-in-sheeps-clothing/