On Living with Dying Liturgy of Life Reading Group: Reflections on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich

This week in our reading group we began Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  It shouldn’t surprise us by the title that the book begins with the death of its main character.  We find Ivan Ilyich in his coffin and the funeral about to start.  Meanwhile Tolstoy introduces us to the people in Ivan’s life, his friend’s like Pytor Ivanovich, his wife and family.  Some are grief struck, others are wondering if the funeral will disrupt their game of cards or more importantly if Ivan’s death will affect them financially.
On Living with the dying: Liturgy of Life Reading Group: Reflections on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich

 

“Apart from the speculations aroused in each of them by this death, concerning the transfers and possible changes that this death might bring about, the very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.

‘There you have it. He’s dead, and I’m not’  was what everyone thought or felt.”

 

a few pages later . . .

 

“He had changed a good deal; he was even thinner than be had been when Pytor Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as with all dead bodies, his face had acquired greater beauty, or, more to the point, greater significance, than it had had in life. Its expression seemed to say that what needed to be done had been done, and done properly. More than that, the expression contained a reproach or at least a reminder to the living. The reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least he felt it didn’t apply to him personally. But an unpleasant feeling came over him, and he crossed himself again, hurriedly- too hurriedly, he thought, the haste was almost indecent- before turning and heading for the door.”

 

I admit I know the feeling of self preservation that Tolstoy describes, dashing through my mind, too quick to stop, every wave of sympathy is paired with pure selfishness, “at least the shooting wasn’t at my kid’s school,” “at least it wasn’t my husband who died in the car crash,” “at least I don’t have breast cancer.” It seems there is a deeply rooted human impulse to protect oneself from disaster before allowing oneself to share in the grief of another.  And I wonder if it is this very attitude which leaves so many feeling isolated and forgotten during times of sorrow.

In my other reading I’ve been working through a book on the history of Christian Hospitality.  In it the author develops the idea of “cultivating marginality” that is, intentionally developing in ourselves a solidarity and familiarity with those on the margins, whether they are there due to illness or violence or economics.  This idea has deep roots in our Christian heritage.  We have always been a people called to move away from comfortable places. We use  disciplines of fasting and prayer, alms giving and  service of the poor to accomplish it.   We are intentional to align ourselves with discomfort until it becomes a familiar place so that the suffering can find themselves comforted by one who understands grief and be aided in encountering the true Comforter.

Ivan Ilych knows more about this than any of us.  He has fought the final battle, he has crossed over from death to life and  faced  head on the reality that fills us with constant dread, that one day we too shall die.  Ultimately those of us living will not know the realities of death until it is our turn. But we have opportunity now to follow in the path of our Christian fathers and mothers and align ourselves with those who suffer, not to turning our faces away in fear or self protection and not to distracting ourselves with entertainment or worries of the world.   Ivan’s knowing face would probably make all of us who live a life trying to flee the realities of death feel uncomfortable because we are intended to live differently, to engage with the marginalized, to sit at the bedside of the dying, to consider the immigrant our friend and in this we will ease the pain of those who suffer and perhaps even prepare ourselves for our own end when it comes.

This post is part of our Reading Group series. Right now are reading Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. We would love for you to join us.

 

For more from Liturgy of Life you can subscribe here for monthly emails, like me on facebook, or join our facebook discussion group. Thanks for reading friends I look forward to connecting with you.

 

Thanksgiving as Prophesy

We crowded in front of the stage gripping our cameras with sweaty palms. They tottered out, girls in white bonnets,  boys crowned with Indian headdresses and we wrung our hands mouthing along with them the words we knew by heart.

In their chirping voices they sang of the first Thanksgiving, of the Indians and Pilgrims gathered as friends around the table. They finished with a bow, cheers erupted and cameras flashed. We applauded but at the same time our hearts sank.  We wanted this to be the end of the story or at least an honest indication of its trajectory. We wanted to spare them the truth, that all the opportunity they possessed had been stolen from someone else.

And then we came home to this video, filmed at a meeting of White Nationalists in Washington D.C. (yes those are Nazi salutes) filled with statements like,

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.”

 

 

No amount of wishing will make this or any evil act untrue. Our children must know of the Trail of Tears, the Slave Trade, Jim Crow Laws and the shooting at Charleston.They must understand that in America, freedom has only existed for those in power and that bravery is what is required of those who live on the margins.

 

Thanksgiving as Prophesy

And yet it is Thanksgiving and we have been waiting for it all year. We want to eat turkey with our families and to watch the Macy’s Day Parade and to play football and eat pie.

We want to celebrate the idea of Thanksgiving even if it is mostly myth.  We long to hear the story of a people who needed help and received it, of a table of hospitality spread before them, of two races and languages sitting down together and sharing a meal.

I hope that Thanksgiving is more than a piece of cultural propaganda.

My prayer is that this would be a prophetic feast.  Just at Israel celebrated the Passover for a millennia before its meaning was more fully revealed though the sacrifice of Christ, I hope that Thanksgiving is painting us a picture of what is yet to come.  Today we celebrate our heritage but we feast in the hope of reconciliation. We anticipate the day that our children will sing songs of truth, proclaiming justice and freedom and liberty for all.

 

 

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On the Religion of Time-Saving Thoughts on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

 

The Religion of Time Saving, Thoughts on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Liturgy of Life

 

My husband woke us while it was still dark. We threw a few bags in the truck and cranked the windows down. Soon our nostrils were tingling with the scent of salt air. By moonlight we lowered our new purchase, a 1973 Boston Whaler, into the water. Our daughter leapt into her life jacket and we boarded. A brown pelican escorted us out to the Laguna Madre.  On the bay we cut the engine and the momentary silence was replaced with the shouts of gulls arguing over their breakfast and the splashes of jumping fish.  Wide awake now in the damp breeze we watched eagerly as the sun painted the sky.

There is nothing more typical than a sunrise. It happens predictably every day and yet each one is unique and not even the greatest artist can create an image that compares to the majesty of the real thing.  Always fleeting.  Always sacred. Always worth cherishing.

.    .    .

We have been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s, Animal Vegetable Miracle, in the Liturgy of Life Reading Group and she has me thinking about my time and how I spend it. Each day seems to go faster than the one before it. Each night brings a new list of what I have failed to finish.  Life is a race and I desperately need to catch up.

 

“If we were to find a common religion for contemporary America, we would do well to call it, The Religion of Time-Saving.  We are as a people over-committed, and spread thin.  We complain about the pace and yet every new gadget that promises it will help us save time seems to fail us. We spend our days racing from one obligation to the next spending most of our time hurrying through miserable tasks so that at some point we get to spend a few minutes doing what we enjoy.”

 

The sunset tells a different story. It is a story that is most easily discovered when slow down enough to watch a plant grow, or take the time to harvest our own apples and make them into sauce for the winter.

 

Kingsolver says,  “All that hurry can blur the truth that life is a zero-sum equation. Every minute I save will get used on something else, possibly no more sublime than staring at the newel post trying to remember what I just ran upstairs for. On the other hand, attending to the task in front of me-even a quotidian chore-might make it into part of a good day, rather than just a rock in the road to someplace else.”

 

She goes on to describe the life of one of her farmer friends,

“He uses draft animals instead of a tractor. Doesn’t it take an eternity to turn a whole field with a horse driven plow? The answer, he says, is yes. Eternal is the right from of mind. “When I’m out there cultivating the corn with a good team in the quiet of the afternoon, watching the birds in the hedgerows, oh my goodness, I could just keep going all day. Kids from the city come out here and ask, ‘What do you do for fun around here? I tell them, ‘I cultivate.’ “

 

As long as we live our days will start with a sunrise, and in us, each day, our Creator is painting a life saturated with His glory, a reflection of His very self, one that is astoundingly beautiful yet will always pale in comparison to the fullness of who He is.  Every sunrise is an invitation to a sacred life that is at the same time novel and mundane.   Always fleeting.  Always sacred. Always worth cherishing. Now we only need to figure out how to accept it.

 

 

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This post was inspired by my current read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading Group series. We would love for you to join us.

 

For more from Liturgy of Life you can subscribe here for monthly emails, like me on facebook, or join our facebook discussion group. Thanks for reading friends I look forward to connecting with you.

 

 

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On meeting God at The Table

 

Where do you go to meet with God. Thoughts from the Table. Liturgy of Life Reading group, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

 

On slow mornings I sip my tea, sit at the breakfast table and listen to the dreams of a four year old. As we finish our toast  I pull out a book of Bible stories, we read and then say our morning prayers.  Today we came to a story about Moses going up Mt. Sinai to meet with God.

God’s presence descends on the mountain, consumed with smoke and crashing thunder. The people are trembling with fear.  Moses and 70 elders ascend to worship and offer a sacrifice.  Then something even more amazing happens.  They see God,

“and they saw the God of Israel.  There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.”

And then these guys, surrounded by all this greatness, seeing God with their own eyes, the earth around them quaking, they sit down and share a meal.

 

“. . . they beheld God, and ate and drank.” (Exodus 24)

 

Not far back we were reading about Abraham and three visitors who come as angels representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Abraham recognizes them as the Lord and before they say a word he has his wife baking bread and his servant slaughtering a calf.  They sit down and eat.

 

Is it possible that something as ordinary as eating could be crucial to our spirituality?

 

Food is central to so many stories of the Bible. Sin comes into the world when Eve eats the apple, God’s first gift after the fall is the flesh of animals for food, worship for centuries is primarily through the slaughtering and offering of animals which are then eaten, dietary restrictions are a central part of the practice of Judaism, God declares His grace for His people through the Passover feast, He demonstrates his faithfulness by feeding them with manna, Christ’s first miracle is turning water into wine, and His final time with the disciples before his crucifixion is a feast called The Last Supper.  In His death and resurrection we see the redemption of eating as we partake of His body and blood in the Eucharistic feast.

 

Yet food in our culture has been reduced to fuel, something to quiet our grumbling bellies and get us through our next task.  Its’ preferred form is a to-go box or better yet liquefied into a smoothie or squeeze pouch.  We understand it by its’ most basic nutritional elements, carbs, protein and fat, devoid of any value in its wholeness.  The traditions around preparation and consumption of food have nearly vanished from our society.

 

I don’t have any genius revelations here, only the observation, that if our Christian traditions or history mean anything to us then we may want to revisit food and I don’t just mean taking another glance at the doughnut table during coffee hour.  As Christians we believe that all of the world exists as a communication of God and that in offering what we receive back to God we are drawn deeper into Him.

In the preparation and consumption of our meals we partake of God and His gifts to us.  Of course this is still true if we are microwaving a frozen pizza.  It’s not that any one food or style of eating is necessarily holier than the other. But our pace of life and even our willingness to eat food in isolation or that isn’t carefully prepared, nutritious or even tasty, is affecting our physical health and is perhaps limiting our experience of God’s grace.

What does it look like to submit our food choices and our eating habits to God’s authority? How would we cook or eat differently if Christ was physically dining with us? (Because of course He is. He dwells in you and in me).

In a world that is overheating, with red faced politicians spewing hateful messages, with bombed cities and homeless refugees, with our own mind boggling schedules it may feel insignificant to spend an hour drinking a cup of tea or preparing a loaf of bread. But in the swirling haze, in the trembling and quaking, in our deepest fears, sitting down at the table and eating together may be the very place to begin to meet with our God.

 

 

This post was inspired by my current read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.by Barbara Kingsolver as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading Group series. We would love for you to join us.

 

For more from Liturgy of Life you can subscribe here for monthly emails, like me on facebook, or join our facebook discussion group. Thanks for reading friends I look forward to connecting with you.

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