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Mystical Death

The Situation

If there’s one thing we don’t like thinking about, it’s death. Yet there is nothing more important, nothing that more defines who we are and how we act, than our approach to death and our understanding of its significance.

“Look to the end,” Thucydides and Herodotus remind us, to determine the utility and worthiness of a human life. “Persevere to end,” the martyrs and saints remind us, to gain the crown of life and take one’s eternal place in God’s household.

These axioms are well and good, but to what extent can we truly apply them to our lives if we have not yet died? We can hope that our life—which, according to many survivors of near-death experiences (NDE), is said to be re-lived or to flash before our eyes—is worthy of praise rather than recrimination. We can pray that—like those who have gone before us to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Col 1)—we will accept death when it comes, having cast out mortal sin and embraced the peace that passes understanding (Phil 4). But we can’t really know until we cross the threshold.[a] That is the crippling paradox of death: it is all-but-certainly coming for all of us, and yet we have no direct way to prepare for it or know what to expect.[1]

How quickly we forget that Christianity does claim we have experienced death. We have died to sin (Rom 6), been buried with Christ in baptism, and raised with him through faith (Col 2). The old takes on the new, and we are transformed. Perhaps we forget these claims because they are bandied about as buzzwords and rarely analyzed mystically. Although the plague has changed things, we still tend to compartmentalize death. We see it as something separate from life. Something that needs to be boxed away in special locations with special rules. Something from which people ought to be sheltered. (Apparently and unsurprisingly, we have learned nothing from the story of Prince Gautama’s overprotective father.) This is not the way it should be.

The Solution

A few weeks ago, I was reading casually in Saint Bonaventure’s Major Legend of Saint Francis. A passage suddenly jumped off the page, wherein the Seraphic Doctor describes Francis’s zeal for prayer:

He did not receive grace in vain.

Many times he was suspended

in such an excess of contemplation

that he was carried away above himself and,

experiencing what is beyond human understanding,

he was unaware of what went on about him.[2]

I paused for a moment to really consider what this means and what it would have looked like to those around him. Hagiographical depictions of mystical death sound strange to modern ears. Like Paul’s third-person account of his own ego loss (2 Cor 12), we can’t really find the words necessary to convey such a radical shift in perspective. But we are told that this kind of experience is a grace. It is a gift; albeit one few are able to receive.[3]

Of course, Francis continued to live on after these experiences. Bonaventure makes it very clear that Francis balanced the active and the contemplative life, such that “like the heavenly spirits on Jacob’s ladder, he either ascended into God or descended to his neighbor.”[4] So we aren’t talking about a mystical death that renders all earthly action pointless, or devolves into pointless navel-gazing. What we are talking about are stories and teachings that help us see this life as a training ground—preparing us to die.

According to the mystics, death is transformative. The universe is either evocative, or it isn’t. This life is either a journey toward death, or a futile attempt to avoid death. Those are the only two options. Regardless, if our goal is to preserve our selves without change, then we are fools grasping at straws. And this activity of “grasping” for self-preservation itself facilitates sin, since repentance is metanoia or change of heart.

I have even considered the idea that the experience of hell is something like perpetually clutching to one’s consciousness, and thereby closing oneself off to the transformative presence of God.[5] The Great Divorce is an excellent primer for this viewpoint, which also finds support in the Church’s doctrine that hell is a state “of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”[6] Aquinas supports it too with his statement that there is no true eternity in hell.[7] And Dante describes the deepest pit as an icy, frozen wasteland—because Love is activity and all Love has ceased—where Satan sits, separated from it all, in a morass of his own making. He is the static lodestone toward which all egocentric action devolves. Turned perpetually inward, he has nothing left to do but wallow in his own misery.

Let’s avoid this, shall we? Let’s embrace the primary Christian hypothesis—backed up by experience in all fields of knowledge—that God works through death to create life.[8] In the words of our Lord: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16). At some point, we will all need to let go.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. Ben’s life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. His interests outside the Academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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