This Advent I’m Thinking About Death

A few months ago, a friend introduced me to WeCroak. It’s an app for my phone, and it’s premise is simple. According to its ‘about’ page: “In Bhutan they say that contemplating death five times daily brings happiness.” So five times a day, with no discernible schedule, I get a push notification from WeCroak that says, Don’t forget, you’re going to die. When I tap the notification, it takes me to a simple screen – a black background with a quote about death in white letters. And below the quote, the name of the person who said it. 

Some are pithy, familiar phrases:

“Death takes no bribes.”

Benjamin Franklin said that.

Others are a bit more, shall we say, graphic:

“The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”

Thanks for that, Gary Snyder.

Others still hit me instantly and deeply:

“The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy.”

That’s from Jack Spicer.

November, we formally mark the recollection of our beloved dead, has passed away. Now we’re in the season of Advent, a penitential season, a time to take stock of what we need and whether we’re willing to wait for it. And, as if All Souls and Advent weren’t a reminder of death, we’re still living in this pandemic, which has claimed the lives of nearly 1.5 million people worldwide.

With all this death surrounding me, I’m not sure that five-times daily reminders have done anything for my happiness.

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As a Jesuit in formation for the priesthood, I’m taking classes at Boston College that are all over the place. In a single day, I might be reading about the role of authority in the Catholic Church, Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement, W.E.B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking work as a sociologist of religion, and the history of the Rites of Ordination. Latin phrases come at me rapid fire – lex orandi, lex credendi (what we pray is what we believe), sensus fidei (sense of the faith) and sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful), among others. I’m often scrambling to keep it all together, a nod to the rich and complicated reality of my faith tradition.

I also take classes that are geared toward developing skills – at some point, I have to learn how to say Mass, how to hear a confession, how to baptize someone, how to offer a graveside service, and how to preach.

Recently, I and some of my preaching classmates offered attempts at a funeral homily, which means that we’ve all been lingering on death and its place in our world. Don’t forget – we are all going to die. 

The exercise yielded more questions than answers. What’s the right thing to say? What’s the wrong thing to say? What’s the right tone? Did I make too many hand gestures? How do we face the fact that some people don’t want to hear anything we have to say? Or, of what our faith offers in response to the death of a loved one? And on, and on, and on. Questions. Uncertainty. Mystery.

Two things were abundantly clear to me this morning. One: we are never alone in facing death. Two: we have no choice but to face it. It will come.

***

A good question to ask this Advent: for what do we wait? 

I think I can safely say that the entire human race is waiting for this pandemic to end. As is often the case when I am sick and forget what it feels like to be healthy, I have almost forgotten what life before this pandemic was like. I sometimes forget that I live in Boston, and I have forgotten the joy of getting a burger at a pub and playing trivia. 

We’re waiting for 2021 and the hope of a crowded table once again. We’re waiting to be with each other, to give hugs recklessly, to actually be in Madison or Omaha or Chicago, and not just Zoom with friends who are there. 

We’re waiting for justice for immigrants, people of color, the unemployed and underemployed, the unhoused, the sick with no access to healthcare, the imprisoned. We’re waiting for turbulent airplane rides and trips downtown on the Green Line. We’re waiting for a new president, and for perhaps some freedom from thinking about the election every single day.

And, we’re waiting again for God to come among us, to come as close to us as we are to ourselves. It is the here but not yet, the gift of a God who chooses to live alongside us and work actively in our lives, to suffer with us in life and in death, to show us what it means to love. 

WeCroak has, I think, made me happier. Why? Because it reminds me that I’m not waiting to die. I am waiting to live again. 

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Photo by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash

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