Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was asked by her husband how she felt as she was dying.
"Beautiful," she replied, her last word. She died in his arms in Florence where he tended her alone.
Inventor Thomas Alva Edison said just before his death in 1931, "It's very beautiful over there."
Beautiful. Can it be?
There is a great mystery in dying that has gotten my attention in recent years. A favorite book, Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelly, is an important guide and resource for those suddenly thrust upon the final-illness scene; yet it is even better if we have no such prospect looming but simply want to live with greater understanding of a topic we generally like to keep far away from us.
Written by two hospice nurses who speak from experience of thousands of deaths, Final Gifts acknowledges that while each person's death is distinctly one's own, there are patterns and stages common to most that we likely will experience.
Preparation for dying draws me - not in a macabre or gruesome way - but with a spiritual intensity that longs to be prepared physically and emotionally as well. I have shared this pursuit with others who are facing near-death situations themselves. Yes, tennis might have been a more pleasant hobby, but for this season (and for the past number of years) death bids me to take a closer look.
Each of us will experience death and dying of those dear to us, perhaps many times over our lifetime. While I would choose to wedge the door shut if that would keep the unwelcome intruder at bay, I want to learn from those who have experienced this aspect of our shared humanity. I want to be as prepared as possible for a possibly incomprehensible loss.
I say I do not fear death. (I have yet to be fully tested on this hypothesis, you understand.) I do, however, fear grief, and I dread living without the presence and companionship of those we love. I have named my fears, and grief is at the top of the list.
Death is a part of life, an essential stage of moving from this life to the Life we cannot glimpse until we pass its threshold. We are not kidding ourselves to avoid it, or to act as though it might not happen to us. But it need not have the last word.
I believe there is an inaudible 'beautiful' that awaits us as well.
A young Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,
"There are so many mercies close around me that God's being seems proved to me, demonstrated to me, by His manifested love."
That loving presence would be tested a few days later when she learned of the death of her only brother, Edward, in a sailing accident with friends. She had parted with him with 'pettish words' on the day he left, and her grief was complicated by her intense remorse over that unreconciled quarrel. For years she could not hear of the sea or of her brother because of the lingering anguish she felt.
Only later in life did she write,
"Once I wished not to live, but the faculty of life seems to have sprung up in me again from under the crushing foot of heavy grief. Be it all as God wills."
She is not alone in expressing such a sentiment. Grief is oppressive. It settles in for a season - maybe a long season of drought and barrenness of spirit. The fog hangs even heavier when embedded within it is guilt for harsh words exchanged, or forgiveness withheld, or unexpressed love and appreciation. We long for the opportunity to settle emotional accounts.
The faith I embrace gives perspective that all do not share, I realize. Chief within it is the call to love and to forgive. Forgiveness is not easy, and it is not optional. But it does go a long way in resolving conflict and easing the burden we bear after last words are spoken.
Everyone has struggles and challenges, even those who appear to live a lovely life. Elizabeth's subsequent love for and marriage to Robert Browning is a 19th century love story that would inspire millions today, but their life together was not easy. Her father had forbidden his daughters to marry - a prospect that terrified and saddened them - and, though Browning thought he could speak openly with her father about the stance and persuade him otherwise, Elizabeth knew her father's edict to be firm, and they eloped. She pleaded for reconciliation with her father for the rest of his life, but he refused to speak with her and later returned all her letters to him, unopened - a final insult, it seems to me.
She knew something about suffering. Her mother and brother had died early in life; her poor health kept her confined to a room. She could not walk. Robert carried her up stairs or across the brooks near their home. She experienced real life: satisfying life and love mixed with unreconciled issues, family conflicts, and lifelong grief. And yet she could express devotion to God and rest in God's provision even though her life was filled with hardships to endure.
And she called it beautiful.
I want to know what is true....what is bedrock...what is helpful on this part of the journey....and I pray that God will guide through shared experiences and from impressions of the Spirit on this quest to live life to the fullest and to face the end of this life with courage and grace in the presence of the Lord.
God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." Hebrews 13:5
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." Psalm 34:15
Be strengthened in the Lord if you are facing an uncertain road ahead. Know that you are not alone. May we see 'common bushes afire' with God's loving Presence and have spiritual eyes to see something beautiful beyond our sight.