Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Life in the midst of death

Death is so present at the moment. Covid-19 deaths in the UK (and other countries) are sky-rocketing, in quite scary ways. Within our church communities, we know a number of people who have lost loved ones recently. 

And yet there is always a tension between death and life. There is death in life, and life in death. I have no firm belief about what an afterlife might look like, but I find comfort in traditional Christian imagery around the life to come, even if it seems more like poetry than prose to me. Indeed, I think such words and images exist to comfort the grieving rather than to provide anything like a model of the nature of the universe. Certainly I learnt much more about the words of Brahms' Requiem "What then do I hope for? my hope is in thee" after I said goodbye to a colleague who shortly afterwards died; and I learnt more about the statement in Revelation 21:4 that "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more" when I read it at my father's funeral.

And these words are especially encapsulated in music for me. In John Rutter's Requiem, there is a wonderful setting of the Agnus Dei, the traditional words from the Requiem Mass in Latin, that read "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace" (Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem). Those words are given to the high voices, who sing in a hopeful, but tense and anxious way. At the same time, the low voices sing under them words from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: "In the midst of life, we are in death". 

And the combination is breathtaking, and achingly hopeful and sad at once. There is death in life, and there is life in death. 

Image: American Society for Cybernetics
This combination was one of the many themes found in the writing of the anthropologist and systems thinker Mary Catherine Bateson, who died a week ago on 2nd January 2021 at the age of 81. I was very fond of her work - in my book Systems Thinkers (with Karen Shipp), we wrote of her "strong respect for the individual with an awareness of wider forces to which they relate" and described her as "an individual who has taken systems ideas so deeply into herself that they influence all of her thinking and writing, and who has written at length about that process". 

Since her death I have been reading a lovely piece she wrote in 1993 entitled 'Into the Trees' (written for an anthology which can be found online, but also republished in her excellent collection Willing to Learn). She writes at length about forests as embodiments of this tension between death and life: 
Walking through the woods, I am reminded that there is as much death here as life. It is a mistake to think the word forest refers only to the living, for equally it refers to the incessant dying. It is mistake to speak of preserving forests as preventing the death of trees. Forests live out of the deaths of toppled giants across the decades, as well as the incessant dying of microscopic being. Without death, the forest would die. Ultimately, it is only the removal of trees that can deplete the forest. ... Death is apparently not a failure of life, but a mode of functioning as intrinsic to life as reproduction. To see life without seeing death is like believing that the earth is flat and matter solid - a convenient blindness.
Mary Catherine Bateson was a committed member of the (American) Episcopal Church, so she would have known the old Book of Common Prayer, and I see in her words their insight that in the midst of life, we are in death. One of her much-loved articles discusses the death of her father, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, under the evocative title 'Six Days of Dying'. In a marvellous interview for the podcast On Being, originally recorded in 2015 but rebroadcast just days before her death, she said about her insight from writing about her father's death:
death is a very important part of life that we shouldn’t deny, that in spite of our terrible hubris and greed and competitiveness, that we can learn to see ourselves in proportion and realize that we’re small and temporary and don’t understand as much as we need to. And we live in a time of real urgency, where we have to mine the insights of the past.

Mary Catherine Bateson wrote extensively about life - perhaps her most widely-read book (and the theme of the much of the On Being interview) was entitled Composing a Life, on how we learn to live as a form of improvisation, and progressively find meaning in our lives as we go. Eventually life ends, but that brings me to one last piece of her wisdom from her memoir of her parents, With a Daughter's Eye, p.269 (thanks to my colleague Kevin Collins for finding the reference - there's a searchable version on Amazon):

The timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it.

I appreciate that wisdom as a historian of people with ideas, whose ideas can only really be understood once we them in full after their death (and sadly I've often understood systems thinkers best through their obituary and memorial articles in journals). But I also appreciate that wisdom as a person, still coming to terms with the death of my father just over a year ago, as we all need to take time to reflect on the lives of those we have known and those we have loved. Even if their stories have ended, our reading of those stories goes on for a long time to come.

In the midst of life, we are in death. But hope can be found in life, and hope can be found after death.

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Life in the midst of death

Death is so present at the moment. Covid-19 deaths in the UK (and other countries) are sky-rocketing, in quite scary ways. Within our church...