Making a Friend of Death

In our monastic calendar the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus is a very jolly affair because, for us, it is primarily a feast of friendship. We don’t have to agonize about the different roles of Mary and Martha or ponder the effects on Lazarus of those three days in the tomb. Instead, we can reflect on the three siblings’ friendship with Jesus, and the influence on him of all the hours spent in their company. This morning, however, the BBC web site has announced new guidelines for the care of the dying proposed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. It is obviously time to think about Lazarus again.

Many people shy away from death and dying. In the West, it is quite possible to reach late middle age without ever having seen a dead body or held the hand of a dying person. We are often confused, awkward. We don’t know what to say or do. Instead of seeing the dying person, we see something else, something strange and perhaps terrifying. Very few death-beds are really dignified, as most of us understand that term. There is, instead, a mess of feeding-cups, morphine-pumps, crumpled bed-clothes and — often — the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital. But it is not these that confer or withhold dignity from the dying person. It is the atmosphere of love and reverence surrounding them that matters. Even in the most appalling circumstances, a gesture of love and reverence can be transformative.

When Lazarus came to die, I think we can be confident that he was surrounded with love and devotion. In death his body was treated with as much reverence as in life — washed, anointed, bound in linen cloths and placed in a tomb. When our Lord Jesus Christ came to wake him from death, he was ready. The binding cloths fell away and Lazarus stepped once more into the sunlight. He had experienced death as a friend, and it was his Friend who called him from it.

It is said that St Francis added the verses about ‘Sister Death’ to his Canticle of the Sun just a few moments before he died:

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.

He had learned that death was not to be feared: dying was only the means to attain eternal life. Sin held more terror for him. Most of us are not so brave, or clear-sighted. We fear death as Francis feared sin. We see the death of our body as the end of everything, rather than an entry into glorious freedom. Perhaps we need to wait a little. We cannot manufacture an understanding we do not yet have. In the Benedictine tradition, we are exhorted to keep death daily before our eyes. We are to make a friend of death and live each day as though it were our last, with joy, gratitude and selflessness. I think Lazarus, called from the tomb, would have understood that, don’t you?