Sometimes I get the messages I needed unexpectedly. I don’t have to look to find them. They come and find me. I just need to listen. Last Thursday when I was preparing for today’s service, I was desperately in need of inspiration to begin to write my reflection. Taking books off the bookshelf one after another, I began to wonder where I was going with all these seemingly irrelevant materials. Then a person stopped by in my study. She recently went to a workshop about death and dying. During the workshop one insight came to her mind, that just like it is natural for us to be born, it is natural for us to die. When babies come into the world, the very first thing they have to learn is how to breathe. They have to cross the very first threshold with a gift from God, a breath. They don’t need to be taught. They just know it. Similarly we can cross the very last threshold with a gift of God, grace. We don’t need to be taught. We just know it. That’s what she said. And I said, “Wow, I’ve never thought about that before.”
Our death denying culture tells us that death is the most unnatural and unwanted event, so we find it uncomfortable to talk about. As technology has continued to evolve, medicine has changed not only the end of life, but also how we see it – something we can extend and manage. Few of us are well equipped to embrace the end of life whether it’s our own or someone else’s.
Every Tuesday I go to St. Boniface Hospital for my clinical day as part of my training. My job is to accompany those who are facing mortality. For some, it can be the source of turning their lives around. For some, this is the last place they want to be. They are not ready to leave the life they’ve known behind. That is especially hard if there is any unfinished work. What struck me most is how people respond very differently facing the same issue, dying. Depending on their perspectives, it can be the most unnatural thing or the most natural thing. One patient, a life-long farmer reminded me of my own mortality saying “you are also dying, just like everyone else.” Spending much of his life in nature, he learned that death is part of life, and that to live is to die. Throughout the seasons he observed how nothing under the heaven could go against the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. A single grain of wheat itself can preach to us far greater than any great preachers can if only we pay attention.
What I learn from the farmer and the person who stopped by last week is how our act of remembrance can connect us to something bigger. We are connected beyond time and space. We are never separated as long as we can remember. To remember is to exist beyond the realm of individuality.
Elise Boulding, a Quaker and one of the pioneers of the peace studies field had this phrase about the 200-year present. When she said “present,” she meant past, present and future. So, according to Elise Boulding, we live in a 200-year present. This following simple exercise in remembrance can instantly expand the circle of our concern and influence. I invite you to join me in the next two minutes.
Go back to when – at your youngest age that you can remember, who the oldest person was that held you, and then just calculate back to their birthdate, roughly. Mine, from my grandfather, would go back into the 1910s – into the period of World War 1. And then you do the second part of the process, which is, you think about the youngest member of your extended family. And then imagine a robust life — to what decade might she or he live? You were held and touched, and you will touch the lives of people that cover a 200-year present.
To remember is to know where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong. It is the most important aspect of ceremony. We remember Jesus, how he lived, died and rose again every time we gather around his table. It is through remembering that we get to know who we are called to be and what we are called to do. Remembrance Day is a national ceremony in which everyone in this country remembers the courage and sacrifice of those who served their country and acknowledge our responsibility to work for peace they fought hard to achieve. By remembering we bring those who have gone before us, and those who are yet to come here with us. No one is left behind, no one is excluded in remembrance.
Richard Wagamese, in his book Embers – One Ojibway’s Meditations, talks about reverence in ceremony. He said, “To live in ceremony is the greatest and truest gift we can give to ourselves.” “Remember to remember.” He continues, “This is what Old Man said to me one time. He was speaking of ceremony, of the act of bringing myself closer to Creator, returning myself to innocence, my original power. Remember to remember. He meant for me, throughout my day, to recall that I’ve taken the time to pray, to give thanks, to ask for a return to humility. Remember to remember. When I do that, everyone and everything I encounter becomes the beneficiary. It’s a good teaching – as long as I remember.”
Remembrance makes us whole. The opposite is also true. The reason we suffer from amnesia is because it makes us feel disconnected from those we are supposed to connect – family, friends, community, nature, and the world around us. The increase of violence in our city has to do with a sense of disconnection people have especially among the marginalized. Violence is used when people feel powerless, helpless or hopeless. To remember is to heal. It’s not about waiting for the storm to pass, but living through it.
During World War 2, Etty Hilesum was living through it by remembering her inner peace. In her late twenties, Etty was a lively and ambitious Jewish woman, an aspiring writer living in Amsterdam when the Second World War broke out. Eventually Etty and her whole family were displaced to Westerbork transit camp; from there, they were sent to Auschwitz. She talks about what’s going on inside her mind, heart and soul; she has surprising depth and rich insight. Her brilliance makes me sad because I know how her life ended. She died in Auschwitz when she was 29 years old. I’m very much inspired by how she kept her inner peace in times of fear and uncertainty. Etty often said, “Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.” This is what she wrote in her diary:
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
Remember to remember. That’s how we stay connected, and return to wholeness. Remember our inner peace. That’s how we can bring it to our troubled world. We just need to listen and remember, the most beautiful and human thing we can do.