There are times when it feels that we can measure our lives by the deaths that appear to fill them – friends, grandparents, parents, beloved pets and so on and so forth. That is what bodies in the world do: they move towards the grave. Nobody is exempt – not the President of the United States, not the falling maple leaves in fall, and not the tiniest of caterpillars.
I have been digging graves since I was a little boy. I helped my father bury calves that died of fever. I buried the kittens run over by a car. Chickens were killed by the coyotes, rabbits and ducks were killed by the neighbor’s dog. Graves were dug at the pasture’s edge or alongside the garden or out in the grape arbor.
I killed chickens for the freezer, burying their feathers, feet and heads in holes behind the garage. I killed goats. I hunted in Fall and Winter, killing everything from pheasants to grouse to squirrels.
I even – back in the late seventies in our tiny town – helped dig graves in the cemetery, squaring corners the inelegant backhoe left near the bottom, clearing dirt from the grassy lip so it would neat and tidy for the funeral and burial.
I regret every animal death to which I have contributed, directly or indirectly, and every time I dig a grave, I hear the ego whisper in its cheerfully sinister voice: there’s a little bit of you in there, too. Soon there’ll be nothing left.
Lately, the graves I have dug are for our children’s pets: cats, fish, parakeets, ducks, chickens. Baby mice that we find. Baby robins.
Today I dug another. Haley, a Buff Orpington who had been declining for some time, died this afternoon.
When my daughter Sophia first became aware of death – her hamsters and later chickens and ducks – we talked about it. We talked about love and how when we remember somebody they are never really gone. She cut flowers for the little graves and wrote notes in little girl scrawl: I love you. I’ll miss you. We would pray a little together.
We made a space in which to try and look at death – make it less fearful, less mysterious.
As she has grown older, she has become more private. Over time, we have morphed to a place where I simply dig the grave, gently set the animal inside, and then leave.
It is hard to do that – she feels each death deeply, intimately, as only a child can – and I want to hold her like when she was a baby and the holding seemed to go on forever. I want to talk her through it. Words are what work for me, but they don’t for everybody, and I have to trust that. I have to be okay with it – as okay as I can be.
Last year, Sophia and Chrisoula and I talked a lot about God and death. Chrisoula is not a student of A Course in Miracles. Sophia is too young still to really understand the metaphysics and grasp the thought system. But in general terms, we talked about how we are not really bodies but more of a spirit temporarily residing in a body.
We can only go as far as we are ready to go. This is important. We want to be spiritual giants taking enormous spiritual strides across the illusory world to Heaven. But for the most part, we are broken and frightened and wracked with guilt and all we can manage our baby steps. I describe myself often as “stumbling” towards God and I am not – for once – being melodramatic. That’s what it is.
A Course in Miracles drifted onto my radar twice before I could finally read it – once in my early twenties, once in my early thirties. I don’t know why it didn’t take. It seems I could have used it – I was a bigger fool then than I am now. But you know. There is a time and place for all things.
We have to accept the parameters within which we work. The other day, Chrisoula and I were talking about death in the car during a long drive. It was a spirited and heady conversation. Sophia’s head bent deeper and deeper into her book. But at one point she looked up and it seemed to me there was a fire in her eyes. I felt as if she were saying – because I want to say it myself sometimes – don’t tell me death isn’t real. It hurts too much. It is way too cruel. Don’t tell me a pet I love is here just because I remember them. I can’t hug a memory.
So that is where she is at. She is angry at death. Today, as she gently shepherded Haley out of this life, she alternated between grief and rage. Why does this happen? Why does God let this happen?
It is so good to be honest! If we are not spiritual masters, then it is so good to say that! It comes as a relief to say “screw God.” Or “screw this world in which dogs die.” Or terrorism happens. Or nuclear weapons.
That is what it means to be a student of A Course in Miracles: not to be happy all the time, or inspirational all the time, or serene all the time. But rather to be fully and honestly human in the entire range of emotion and thought and not keep one shred of it hidden.
If you want to shake your fist at the sky and curse God, then go for it. I tossed the shovel aside today and said quietly, “I am getting really tired of digging graves.”
A Course in Miracles teaches that death is an obstacle we must address before we will know the peace that surpasses understanding.
What seems to be the fear of death is really its attraction . . . Made by the ego, its dark shadow falls across all living things, because the ego is the “enemy” of life (T-19.IV.C.1:5, 9).
So when I say I am tired of death, Jesus asks me to look closely at it. He says, “yes, this death thing has been a part of your ‘life’ as long as you can remember. Let’s give it some attention and see what happens.”
Why should I? Why should I look closely at “the ego’s mournful chorus, plodding so heavily away from life, dragging their chains and marching in the slow procession that honors their grim master, the lord of death” (T-19.IV.C.2:4)?
Because, answers Jesus, when we do, the attraction of death – as with guilt – disappears.
Touch any one of them with the gentle hands of forgiveness, and watch the chains fall away, along with yours. See him throw aside the black robe he was wearing to his funeral, and hear him laugh at death (T-19.IV.C.2:5-6).
This disappearance – this translation from fear and guilt to joy – is not a possibility; it is a sure promise. Why? Because the ego is a bad dream, as is its ruthless and vicious drama, and dreams pass.
Your dedication is not to death, nor to its master. When you accepted the Holy Spirit’s purpose in place of the ego’s you renounced death, exchanging it for life. We know that an idea leaves not its source. And death is the sure result of the thought we call the ego, as surely as life is the result of the Thought of God (T-19.IV.C.2:12-15).
Yes, it’s a bunch of words. Yes we aren’t always ready to hear them. It’s okay. When we are ready for the next step, the next step is revealed. All that we need is given in each moment, so long as we are willing to patiently allow the Holy Spirit – the promise of life – to guide our seeing. The patience of our teachers is infinite.
So it goes. Daughters grow up and need their parents differently. Fathers’ hearts break. We rage a little at God but come back to what works: love letters to beloved chickens. Graves dug with some measure of gratitude – that we can be of service in any way to those we love. We come inside and cook dinner. We read a good book.
Somehow – for all the chaos and futility of life – we always manage to find that faintest hint of light that allows us to go just a little bit farther. We are always drawing closer to one another which is to say, we are always drawing closer to Heaven. It gets hard but we remain fragile witnesses to the nameless and formless Love that never abandons us and is forever drawing us – step by tiny step – back into its unbelievably generous heart.