Walking back to where I had parked my car after the retirement service for the local vicar of the Somerset parish in which my family live, I met one of my uncles.
We chatted and then he asked where I had been. ‘You could do that job’, he said.
‘No, I couldn’t,’ I answered. (Well, I didn’t, having spent the past year in Dublin, I responded with an Irish vernacular term).
Partly, I couldn’t do it because I have no license, I am persona non grata. I was rebuffed by two Church of Ireland bishops I approached last summer.
More significantly, I couldn’t do it because I think the language of bishops is platitudinous nonsense. They attempt to nuance and finesse everything. They think that by obfuscation and the redefinition of things in theological terms, they can change reality. It is a just verbiage.
Ask a bishop about death and you will get a pouring forth of words, but little from the heart, and nothing from the guts.
Have you ever heard a bishop stand up and say, ‘I hate death?’ Have you ever heard them say that it is horrible, that it is vile, that it should be destroyed forever?
Instead there are the religious cliches, the vacuous comments, empty platitudes; never more so than when someone dies. Funeral sermons are the worst, there is an urge to stand up and tell the preacher to just shut up. Why can’t things be called as they are?
An acknowledgement of what it is that people really feel would at least have integrity.
I hate death. I hate it, hate it, hate it. I hate all the euphemisms we use for it. I hate watching the grief and the pain. I hate the emptiness that is still there years afterwards. I hate the silly words of Saint Francis in his silly Canticle of the Sun.
‘We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death’.
Praise God for death?
Would Francis have been so favourably disposed if he had watched his child die for lack of food or medicine? Or seen his loved ones killed by marauiding soldiers? Or if he had sat with someone who was being destroyed by a neurological disorder?
Tradition says Francis died while preaching; not lying in a bed where illness deprived him of life, inch by inch.
Tom Stoppard’s character Guildenstern protests at presentations of death and expresses a sense of the emptiness it creates:
It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on.
That’s death: someone we loved, gone.
A disappearance that deepens with the passing years.
Francis got it wrong when he spoke of our ‘Sister Death’: one cannot regard with fraternal affection something so inexpressibly dark.
It is actually Saint Paul who better captures the mood of those of us who would seethe at preachers’ platitudes, those of us who would stand in churchyards and question the meaning of life and rage at the injustice of mortality.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:26, ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’.
No sisterly regard from that apostle, no ambiguity. Death is an enemy, death is to be destroyed.
Destroyed, not greeted.