I am not a Trekkie, but recently, I stumbled across an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that speaks to me as I confront the death of of my friend, brother, and mentor, Father Michael Christiana. In the episode, Data, the android, asks Captain Picard a question that haunts my own heart: What is death?
Data is not human, and so he asks this question without the burden of sorrow and dread most of us carry when we encounter death. A couple of weeks ago, when I received the text that announced Fr.Christiana’s death, my reaction was all too human. I was terrified. Fr.Christiana had struggled with leukemia for a long time, but my heart was still not prepared for his death. The news shook me to my core, and I found myself asking the same question Data asked: What is death?
With this big question in mind, now, I would invite you to imagine yourself vacationing on a peaceful Caribbean coast, happy and complacent with your life. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a hurricane ravages the roof of your vacation home. Shaking with fear, you hide in the basement. When you emerge, everything is different. The beautiful home is gone, blown away. You realize that everything is temporary. You understand that ultimately you cannot control the destruction that is part of life. The news of Fr.Christiana’s death had the same effect on me. It forced me to confront my own vulnerability. I had to acknowledge that I, like all people, must also face death.
Fr.Christiana always encouraged me to encounter the love of Jesus on a more profound level. On a long road trip from Los Altos, California, to Chicago, Illinois, our conversation deepened my belief in the Creator God. Our frequent late-night sharing helped me see that while we human beings are fragile and fallible, we’re also capable of overcoming sinful inclinations. When I was in anguish after facing racial discrimination from some of my fellow Jesuits, Fr.Christiana reminded me of the true meaning of Ignatian spirituality. “A Jesuit is a man of possibility,” he said, “God will not let you down, so you need never give up on hope.” Fr.Christiana’s mentorship, prayers, and support kept me grounded–he is one of the reasons I’m still a Jesuit today.
Now, as I face the painful reality of Fr.Christiana’s death, , I realize he has one more lesson to teach me: through his own dying, he reveals the meaning of death. He helps me face that question Data asked Captain Picard.
The Captain responds to Data’s question with the comment that some people believe death is a “blinking into nonexistence.” When Data questions him as to his own belief, however, the Captain affirms that he believes “our existence is part of a reality beyond what we now understand as reality.” Fr.Christiana shared this belief. He was a mystic, grounded in the realm of the spirit even as he lived the life of an active college chaplain.
An avid reader of Meister Eckhart, Fr. Michael Christiana believed that “God alone must work in us . . . to bring to perfection God’s likeness in us.” From Eckhart, Fr.Christiana learned that death has a spiritual meaning that goes far deeper than the mere physical event of the perishing body. As Eckhart would say, “The soul must abandon her own being. This is where the death that is spiritual begins. If the soul is to undergo this death, then she must take leave of herself and all things, holding herself and all things to be as insignificant.” Having learned this lesson, Fr.Christiana could face physical death without fear. He could affirm with Eckhart, “Nothing was ever my own as much as God will be mine, together with all that he is and all that he can do.” In other words, my vacation home may be blown away by a hurricane and the things I thought of as my possessions may be scattered by the wind, but Fr.Christiana’s life and death assure me that my true security in Christ cannot be shaken.
Fr.Christiana was a man who always gave of himself, and even in dying, he continues to give to me. His death teaches me that I too can face the impermanence of this world without fear. Like Star Trek’s Data, I can interrogate the meaning of death without sorrow or dread but rather with holy curiosity. As much as I am sad to lose Fr.Christiana’s physical presence, somehow I feel even closer to him now, for there are no goodbyes in the spiritual realm. As the great Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. For those who love with heart and soul, there is no such thing as separation.”
This world is finite—but in Christ, I find permanence. Fr.Christiana’s death challenges me to look past this question: What is death? to the still deeper question: How do I die to myself so that Christ can bring me fully to life?