Death Transfigures Our Separation
In the earliest hour of the fourth day of January, 2008, John O’Donohue died peacefully in his sleep. He had, only a few days before, celebrated his fifty-second birthday. For those who were with him on his birthday and in the few days that followed, memories of the time are filled with exuberant laughter, abiding love, and deep joy. His sudden departure took everyone by surprise.
Over the past year, we have heard from people all over the world offering beautiful condolences to those who feel most keenly his absence. They also express abundant gratitude for John’s life and gifts. We cherish these messages and thank you all for reaching out to us.
There are a few who have asked us to share our own experiences in relation to John’s passing. We find that our own words fail us when we are asked about our journey over this threshold; John’s words, however, remain faithful. We turn to his books and poetry, and find there: understanding, compassion, and a steadying hand as we navigate the revised universe in which we find ourselves.
from ANAM CARA: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
— John O’Donohue © 1997
WHEN DEATH VISITS . . .
Death is a lonely visitor. After it visits your home, nothing is ever the same again. There is an empty place at the table; there is an absence in the house. Having someone close to you die is an incredibly strange and desolate experience. Something breaks within you then that will never come together again. Gone is the person whom you loved, whose face and hands and body you knew so well. This body, for the first time, is completely empty. This is very frightening and strange. After the death many questions come into your mind concerning where the person has gone, what they see and feel now. The death of a loved one is bitterly lonely. When you really love someone, you would be willing to die in their place. Yet no one can take another’s place when that time comes. Each one of us has to go alone. It is so strange that when someone dies, they literally disappear. Human experience includes all kinds of continuity and discontinuity, closeness and distance. In death, experience reaches the ultimate frontier. The deceased literally falls out of the visible world of form and presence. At birth you appear out of nowhere, at death you disappear to nowhere. . . . The terrible moment of loneliness in grief comes when you realize that you will never see the deceased again. The absence of their life, the absence of their voice, face, and presence become something that, as Sylvia Plath says, begins to grow beside you like a tree.
DEATH TRANSFIGURES OUR SEPARATION . . .
It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, “Being here is so much.” It is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free. The more lonely side of being here is our separation in the world. When you live in a body you are separate from every other object and person. Many of our attempts to pray, to love, and to create are secret attempts at transfiguring that separation in order to build bridges outward so that others can reach us and we can reach them. At death, this physical separation is broken. The soul is released from its particular and exclusive location in this body. The soul then comes in to a free and fluent universe of spiritual belonging.
DEATH AS AN INVITATION TO FREEDOM . . .
If you really live your life to the full, death will never have power over you. It will never seem like a destructive, negative event. It can become, for you, the moment of release into the deepest treasures of your own nature; it can be your full entry into the temple of your soul. If you are able let go of things, you learn to die spiritually in little ways during your life. When you learn to let go of things, a greater generosity, openness, and breath comes into your life. Imagine this letting go multiplied a thousand times at the moment of your death. That release can bring you a completely new divine belonging.
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