Practicing Dying

Hair flipping outside her helmet, knees narrowly missing the silver handlebars, with a fierce  yet wobbly determination, my daughter gripped the handles of her bubblegum-pink bicycle freshly shorn of its training wheels.  “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” I said.  “No need to worry about whether or not you are going to fall because you are definitely going to fall.  So first, let’s practice falling.  When you get the hang of falling, maybe you will be less afraid of riding your bike.”

I don’t remember all the details about how I was taught to ride a bike.  I don’t remember if someone tried to steady my shoulders as I balanced on the hefty banana seat.  I don’t remember if I was coached to look out, not down.  But I am fairly certain no one helped me learn how to fall, and no one assured me that I would fall before I had even tried to ride.

I don’t remember being taught about falling, but I have been hearing all of my life about the fact that I will die someday.  Mostly, I heard this in church and from church people.  Sunday school lessons and a fair number of sermons were primarily concerned with my death (and anybody else’s who happened to be present).  All of us will die.  I was encouraged to live with my death before me.  Would I be ready when the time came?

“Give your heart to Jesus because when you die you want to go to heaven and not burn in the fiery pit of hell,” they said.

“On the day of judgement, when you stand before the throne of God, having left behind this earthly life, you will have to account for all that you have done and all that you have left undone.  Live today as if it is your last,” they said.

“If you leave this place tonight, if you die in a car wreck on the way home, will your soul be in eternal peace with Jesus?” they asked.

I believe these statements, and others like them, were intended to help me live a more full and loving life.  If I could be free of the fear of dying and death, I would be free to live as a person motivated by agape love, a person characterized by faith, a person grounded in hope.  I think these admonitions were supposed to encourage me and provide a foundation of perseverance when I found doing the “right” thing too hard or too loathsome or too boring.  In a way, the church was saying, “You are going to fall.  Maybe you won’t be afraid of falling if you know how to do it well.”

I am born to die.  You are born to die.  We are all going to die because life encompasses death.  As a person of Christian faith, how I proceed to my death, how I recognize and negotiate the terms of my death, how I incorporate the eventuality of my “falling” into death has the potential to give balance to my wobbly life and to serve as a reminder to look out, not down.  The problem is that the primary ways I was taught to practice dying were built on fear – fear of failing to return God’s love, fear of God’s disapproval, fear that I (or anyone else) would be too weak to choose the leading of God’s Spirit if the punishment and reward failed to be utterly persuasive.  The problem is that focusing solely on this system of punishment and reward seems to disregard prevenient grace, the grace of God at work in us before we are able to respond, the divine spark within human beings that longs to be united with the All Consuming Fire of God’s love.  This emphasis on the reward and punishment which accompanies death seems to belittle God’s ability to woo us as God’s Beloved and to demean the capability of God’s Spirit within us to reciprocate God’s love.  Cannot God’s love do more than we can ask or imagine?  Cannot God’s love defeat the power of death?

I am still practicing dying but in a way more akin to falling or maybe sky-diving.  My practice of dying is less rooted in imagining a certain home in a Revelation kind of heaven (though many times I find great comfort seeing my loved ones walking streets of gold or strolling in peaceful green pastures).  Instead, my practice of dying is unveiled in a daily acknowledgement of my limited self and an awareness of the cosmic nature of God in Christ.  I practice dying by letting go into the unknown, immeasurable, immense nature of God’s presence that has known me before I was born, that knit me together in my mother’s womb, and that will receive me in death – though I do not know exactly how.  I practice dying by trust-falling into the presence of God when I am still and quiet and simply breathing, an experimental existing non-existence.

Why do I practice dying?  Because I believe I will live a fuller, richer, more abundant life if I see my death as part of my life.  I practice dying because I believe that the fear of death, in its many forms, is the cause of most human suffering.  Afraid of the death of a relationship, we manipulate and control the other or ourselves.  Afraid of the death of a way of life, we seek any and all means to prop up failing circumstances never counting the cost of greed and an unquenchable thirst for power.  Fearing the death of our influence, we fail to give ourselves in service to others or to promote a way of living which mirrors a wounded and suffering Christ.  Fearing the death of another’s approval, perceptions, or affirmation of us as “good people,” we fail to expose weakness, vulnerability, and struggle and so keep up the pretense (in cooperation with many around us) that we aren’t “one of those people,” all the while forgetting that healing is  undeniably tied to our willingness to uncover our wounds before the loving gaze of Grace.  I practice dying because I believe that fear and unconditional love exist at cross purposes to one another.  I John 4:18 says it much better than I can.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” 

So, if you were to ask me to give you some tips on learning how to live well, I would say, “It’s like riding a bike.  Learn how to fall, and maybe you will be less afraid.  Maybe you will then be able to look out, not down.”

bike riding

How have you practiced being less afraid of death?

© Amy Persons Parkes 2013

Companions: Voices in my Head, Books by my Bed

Everyone needs companions in life.  Some of mine live with me.  Some are a phone call and a country away.  Some have died and still speak to me in dreams, through old letters, and archived emails.  And some of my companions are only such because I read what they write and add their voices to my inner conversations.  Here are a few of those companions who speak to me.

Daily reflections:

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations

Henri Nouwen Society
Henri Nouwen’s Daily Reflections as written in his book Bread for the Journey.

Daily meditations from the Irish Jesuits that I read in book form, but the meditations are also accessible online.
The book is Sacred Space:  The Prayer Book 2013
The website is

Books by my Bed:

The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort and Spiritual Transformation

The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort and Spiritual Transformation by Kathleen Dowling Singh

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault

 A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman, Edward W. Beal (Editor), Margaret M. Treadwell(Editor)

Primary Speech

Primary Speech by Ann Ulanov, Barry Ulanov

To Pray and to Love

To Pray and to Love by Roberta C. Bondi

For a more extensive list of authors and books who have been companions and conversation partners, here is a link to my favorites on Goodreads:

Favorites Bookshelf

Who are your companions?

A Different Epiphany Journey

Loyola House Feb 2012 062

Father Thomas Keating describes centering prayer as being like a scuba diver settled on a large rock upon a riverbed.  You do not rest on the rock alone; God is present alongside you.  The river is Life, streaming, flowing, trickling, cascading and altering current and course with flood and drought, with falling rock and shifting ground.  Anchored by God’s presence, you allow the waters to flow past you, over you, and around you.  Above the riverbed your thoughts and feelings float like boats on the water’s surface.  From your underwater perch on the river’s floor, you can distinguish each thought and feeling, observing the boats come about, heel, pitch, heave to, and founder and thus giving freedom to your thoughts to be just as they are.

On this day of Epiphany, on this day of enlightenment, of gift-giving, of insight, I allow the vessels of my thoughts and feelings to jostle against one another – sloshing and spitting water, spraying and listing. Some are catching wind.  Some lay dead in the water, awaiting a brisk breeze.  I am aware of them.  I know from a glance at their sunken underbellies what lies tucked away in each hull above.

But for this Epiphany, on this day of light, I will sink to the riverbed; and I will place my openness before the Ground of Being, before the Source of all Light, before the One who gives desire to travel far and to see and know wonder.

For this Epiphany, I will sit on the river’s bottom with the One who birthed my being and know that these boats sail only for a time; and then, they will pass.  I will wait in the deep down place knowing even I, too, will be changed from “glory into glory,” knowing that once I was no more than a slumbering hot water bottle radiating heat on my mother’s chest.  I will rest below the river’s surface for this Epiphany knowing in the end, I will release the mainsail of my breath and I will surrender the headsail of my ego and sail on in another river as another vessel.

In loving memory of Wayne and his puckered whiskered lips, ready for another smoke and his next witty retort.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2013