St. Benedict informs my life with Eric, my husband who lived in a Benedictine monastery for 18 years, starting in high school. Benedictines are taught to “keep death daily before your eyes”; (Chapter 4, vs. 47) just one line in the whole of the Rule of St. Benedict. Some monasteries within this order will keep a human skull in their dining area, as a reminder. Always, there is one shoveled and open grave. It’s a both/and teaching.
What’s not so clear to me, and depends on the translation and edition you might be reading, is why this is part of their teaching. From what I can tell, on the surface it is a method to keep monks from Sin, a word that causes me to have a brain warp when I see or hear it, packed to the gills with judgment and fear and some sort of dark Catholic realm of desolation, my mother’s birthright as a French Canadian, and my father’s atheistic dismissal. If you keep death daily before your eyes, the idea seems to go, then you will be less likely to step into the horrors of sin, because if you can die at any moment, you might die in sin, which is a big no-no in their world. For me, I don’t tend to buy this for a minute. God is way bigger than this notion. Way bigger. Because these folks tend to have a very hollow, narrow definition of sin itself. Like too much laughter, for example. Yup.
A friend of mine, a nun, described Sin to me once in a way that actually made sense. She said that sin is anything that you do, internally or externally, that keeps you from your own inner core of goodness and spirit, that separates you from your experience of God, or the Buddha or whatever you want to call it. From the shimmer, for example. From joy and from love. From Grace. So, I wouldn’t like to die separated from the shimmer. I get that. I just don’t buy all of the Rule, it’s oppressive. Thank God Eric left.
So, I’m back to my tightrope of living/dying, holding both at the same time, my koan. My belief is that St. Benedict intuited this fundamental wisdom and built it into his Rule for communities seeking God, leaving it to us to unpack.
Why does this matter? I have had several dear friends who, approaching death, refused to acknowledge it, and believed that by denying their death, they would somehow be assisting or ensuring their longer life, that intention was everything. No one was allowed to harbor the idea that they might be dying, and still visit. They each died with lies and falseness all around them, fierce to the end, giving it their all.
Some of the books I’ve been reading lately, here in cancer land, do suggest that one “decide to live” and not even allow the thought of dying to enter one’s mind; a single minded focus on living, only. It’s the idea that the mind controls the body and one ought to be able to do this, to literally stop one’s dying based on the power of one’s intention. It’s a powerful idea, and I understand why my friends took that route.
There is an element of aggression in this, however, for me. To follow the principle of non-violence, it seems to me that I need to lean into the very unfolding itself, accepting not knowing from one moment to the next, both living and dying simultaneously.
By opening my heart to balance, to homeostasis, to equilibrium, to the slack tide, the Tao of dying (the yin/yang of it) together with St. Benedict’s blessing, this fits me the best.
For now, anyway. Koans are tricky.