The Blessing of Death

Although I will not in the end recommend Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, Should We Stay or Should We Go, it is a brilliant and devastating literary portrayal of the problems with that basic human desire to control our own death. The book’s premise is of a married couple who decide, when they are about 50, that they will commit joint suicide when they are 80. They make this decision for the usual reasons: avoidance of living a painful life without control, not wanting to drain precious health care resources, and so on.
    Their plan brings them unexpected blessings. As they draw closer to age 80, they find themselves savoring each day in a more precious way. After all, they know they have specific, finite number left to live. Yet while she loses interest in following politics and other news, he discovers he is all the more passionately committed. (Their death date turns out to be a date fixed for Brexit.) Nonetheless, in the end their plan is just a mess. The fateful evening comes, and she decides not to go through with it. He does; she lives on to be 92 and one day is hit by a bus.
    You, dear reader, are now at the end of chapter 2. There are lots more chapters to come. What gives?
    It turns out what you just read is only one possible ending. Shriver goes on to give nearly a dozen alternatives, each wilder than its (ahem) predecessor. You are in the hands of a wickedly funny satirist, and you wonder: what will the author throw at us next?
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    There are two things going on here.
    One is, we humans don’t want to lose control over our lives. For this reason we desire to master the details of our death. This is the basic motivation to legalize assisted suicide.
    The other is, we don’t want to die. Hence, scientists are working on ways for people to live forever, or at least for a long, long time. There is a lot of money and effort in this “immortality” project.
    What Shriver shows is how the first leads to the second, with consequences that are unexpected but, in retrospect, really rather predictable.
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    Thus, in one of the fantastic alternatives, both the husband and wife forgo suicide and live on and do well, make a ton of money, and become able to enter into a program to have their bodies frozen. They have incurable ailments, but they figure that by the time they are awakened (or thawed out) cures will have been discovered for their diseases. In the event that is true. But the future human descendants who thaw them out are very strange. They communicate by thinking, by entering each others’ minds. And they cannot stand to be inside the minds of these two people. In further irony, the husband and wife discover that they aren’t that impressed with themselves either.
    They have managed to finesse death and come to life in a fantastic future world, only to realize too late that (in Christian terms that Shriver does not use) their sins have made the journey with them.
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    Death is a blessing in disguise for human beings. It seems not to have been in the original design, and it is always a sorrow. Nonetheless, it needs to come to each of us, someday, sometime, not in a manner of our engineering, certainly not as an object of our own actions, but as something we accept will happen to us in some unplanned and perhaps messy way.
    There is nothing worse than imagining myself, as I am today, going on living forever. Hell is the unending continuation of what is right now. I remember figuring this out as a teenager; I wrote: “Our deepest fear is not that there is nothing after death, but that after death nothing will be different.”
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    Thank God for Jesus Christ!—who has gone ahead, through death, into the realm of light and life, where we can awaken and find our sins have been done away with.
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    Out & About. But does Father Austin know his left hand from his right hand? Last week I announced that “Philoctetes,” a play by Sophocles about solitude and humanity (the title character is exiled to live alone on an island), will be discussed at the next Good Books & Good Talk seminar. I gave the date as Sunday, October 6. Lots of you noticed (which is at once encouraging and embarrassing). I meant to say: Sunday, February 6. The conversation is to begin at 5 p.m. at Incarnation in Dallas. “Philoctetes” is a short read, and I commend it, no matter what you think about them highfalutin Greeks. (Bonus points for catching the cultural reference.)
    On that same day—Sunday, February 6—I am to preach at the same Incarnation in Dallas at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m., at the traditional services. February. I got it.

The Prayer Book is a Real Book

 In the present state of the church, every Episcopalian should hold the Prayer Book close. I mean this physically: the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a real book, and it is something that should be handled, used, suffer wear and tear, be carried about, and treasured.
    Christianity is a physical religion. Especially in this emerging post-pandemic period we need to shout from the rooftops: People are bodies and spirits together. Come to church to see other people! Worship is more than a message: it is sacramental in itself. We cannot do baptism without water, nor Communion without bread and wine, nor marriage without holding hands, nor unction or ordination without the laying-on-of-hands.
    It is a very short step from the physicality of worship to the following gift of the Episcopal Church: we have a Prayer Book, an actual, physical book. We need to handle it.
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    If you look at the physical Book, and not at a portion of it reprinted in a leaflet nor at an online version of it, you will see: Serious thought was given to how this Book looks. The font is elegant and simple. Pages are laid out intelligently. The capitalization of words reflects thought.
    The structure of the Book also is intelligible. It opens with what “common prayer” has meant throughout Anglican tradition: forms of prayer for morning and evening. Then it goes through rites that pertain to various stages of a Christian life. We begin our Christian life in baptism. We are nourished in Communion. We are strengthened in confirmation. We fall short of our baptismal promises and can be restored through a rite of reconciliation. Marriage and illness are common parts of life for which the church offers guidance and prayer. And we all die.
    But the Book has still more. It has the Ordinal, which lays out the terms and understanding of what the church is through its provision for ordained ministry. It has the Psalms in a translation that is modern and timeless—our specially good fortune as Episcopalians. An intelligent “outline” of Christian faith is developed over some twenty pages. Many other prayers are given for various moments and aspects of personal and social life.
    Just a brief summary like this should show what a rich treasure our Book is. We need to encourage people to hold it in their hands, to have copies in their homes, to feel it and love it and use it.
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    Here comes the controversial point. If the Prayer Book is such a gift, why do we not teach and encourage people to use it? Why, in particular, is it so common for congregations to print out, or put online, the words of the service?
    It cannot be because we feel saying something like “Please turn to page 355 in the red Prayer Book” is an interruption to the atmosphere of worship. Even with everything written out, one still hears “Please be seated” or “Let us stand to say the creed.”
    I judge it is a leftover of the feeling, when the 1979 Book was new, that it is too complicated. It is undoubtedly more complicated than its predecessors. There are, for instance, two Rites for the Eucharist and, between them, six eucharistic prayers. And there are many other alternatives and some open-ended options. Easier for everybody, it is felt, to have these things laid out in a pre-printed leaflet.
    Still, it seems to me we might pause and consider the difference of Episcopal worship today from 25 years ago, when most congregations instructed people to find the normal worship service in the Prayer Book.
    There is a massive environmental cost in our increased use of paper and toner, and an increase in operating costs in producing the weekly leaflets. Quality control also becomes an issue. Misprints slip in. In addition, local changes to Prayer Book theology can be made without being noticed.
    More fundamentally, worship is no longer a normal place for people to become familiar with the Book. We also lose those moments of divine serendipity, those occasions when people wander into other parts of the Book, discovering, perhaps, Christian views about death or understandings of the nation or the characteristics of evil to be renounced in baptism.
    The 1979 Book does present challenges in its complexity. Still I believe we should be aware of what we have lost. Might it not be possible, as we return to physical togetherness in worship, that we find ways to worship with the physical Book in our hands?
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    Out & About. This Sunday, January 16, I am to speak at Good Samaritan church in Dallas on the parish as a school of friendship. That’s at 9:30, and I also will preach at 10:30 on the wedding at Cana.
    Then at 5 p.m. at the church of the Incarnation in Dallas I will lead a seminar discussion of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. The seminar runs to 6:30 p.m. As I noted last week, with unadorned simple prose Paton’s classic takes us to apartheid-era South Africa, with an Anglican priest at the center of personal, social, political, and ecclesiastical tensions and worse. If you don’t know this book, you should; and if you do know it, it might be a good time to read it again.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."