On Being a Pilgrim (Part 5 – A Journey to Death)

There is one pilgrimage we will all take. We do not have a choice. There is one path we will all walk. John O’Donohue describes it bluntly in his book Anam Cara:

When we look into the future of our lives, we cannot predict what will happen. We can be sure of nothing. Yet there is one fact that is certain, namely, that a time will come, a morning, an evening, or a night, when you will be called to make the journey out of this world, when you will have to die. Though that fact is certain, the nature of the fact remains completely contingent. In other words, you do not know where you will die, how you will die, when you will die, or who will be there or how you will feel. These facts about the nature of your death, the most decisive event in your life, remain completely opaque.

Calton New Cemetery – Edinburgh.

Most of us live as if this is a journey we want to avoid. But what if we simply acknowledge that we are on this journey? What if we embraced the gifts it brings to us? What if we were brave enough to speak the truth? I will die. You will die. Each one of our lives has an end point. What might happen if we were honest about this?

In this time of COVID-19, I have been thinking about death more often. So many have died. Somehow, death feels a lot closer. As I have lived through the first few years of retirement, my own death comes to mind more frequently. I am constantly reminded that my time on this earth is limited. As I see friends and acquaintances die I know I am not immune from the same fate.

Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

And so we try to befriend death. Rather than avoid thinking about it, we try to lean in, to wonder at what gifts it might bring. I am finding that perspective helpful. There is an interesting song from Jason Isbell with the strangest title – “If We Were Vampires.” (It is a beautiful and sad song to which you might take a listen.) The provocative lyrics make death all the more real for me:

It’s not the long flowing dress that you’re in
Or the light coming off of your skin
The fragile heart you protected for so long
Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong

It’s not your hands, searching slow in the dark
Or your nails leaving love’s watermark
It’s not the way you talk me off the roof
Your questions like directions to the truth

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

It’s NOT many things…but IT IS “knowing this can’t go on forever…one day I’ll be gone.” The singer reminds us that there are many beautiful and precious things in life, but it is knowing that death will come that really underlines the beauty of this life.

As a person of faith, I have long believed that there is something beyond this life. But I actually don’t think about that place and time very much. Thoughts of the afterlife are not what the certainty of death bring to mind for me. What death does is remind me of the precious nature of this life and how limited it is. As the singer says, “maybe time running out is a gift.” I find myself not wanting to hurry the journey but to savor it. I find myself hoping that I am not so focused on what I think is important that I miss the gifts placed right in front of me. It may sound hokey—but I find myself just enjoying a brisk walk, a juicy peach, a child’s playful laughter, a silent tear, a clever turn of phrase, or my lover’s smile.

My one regret after walking the Camino de Santiago is that I didn’t stop more, notice more, engage other people more, embrace the journey more. Thankfully, in the Camino of my life—there is still time.

Thank you—death—for reminding me of that time.

Spiritual Practice: One Year Left

Here is the practice. Get a sheet of paper or a journal, a pen or a pencil and spend a few minutes reflecting and then writing an answer to this question: “If you knew you had only one year left in your life, what would you do with that time? How might you live—your moments, hours, and days—differently?” 

There are many ways to approach this. There are many ancillary questions that can guide us. Who would you spend more time with? Who would you avoid? What would you stop worrying about? What would you make sure to do? What loose end would you tie up? What would you let go of? What burden would you lay down? What would you stop doing? What dream would you finally fulfill? What truth would you tell?

If you decide to take on this practice, have some interesting answers, and want to be brave in sharing—feel free to post them in the comments. As for me, I need to go and think a bit more about the questions…

As a little gift, here is a link to my favorite song about the passing of time by the amazing singer/songwriter, Joni Mitchell: 

4 thoughts on “On Being a Pilgrim (Part 5 – A Journey to Death)

  1. Jim, you give us so much substance to ponder. Thank you for your compassionate and honest look at the one pilgrimage we all take. I’m deep in thought on your journal prompt and will get back to you. 😊

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  2. I’ve never been on the Camino, but I’ve read your blogs and it seems living life is similar to being on the Camino. Take it one step at a time and one day at a time. You never know what will be around the corner. Again, another great blog you have written.

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  3. I love your writing Jim. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece.

    I started thinking about the nature of opposites and how their mere existence increases our ability to experience their contrast. Would we even comprehend one without the other? What would “cold” mean if we didn’t have “hot,” etc. ?

    I also got to thinking about “The law of Supply and Demand.” Who knew
    Economics could be such a spiritual topic?

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