I read the news, look for a bit of cheer and oddly find it here in a column on the death of Richard John Neuhaus.
In Defense of Death
William D. Eddy was an Episcopal minister in Tarrytown, N.Y., and an admirer of the writer and theologian Richard John Neuhaus. When Rev. Eddy grew gravely ill about 20 years ago, I asked Neuhaus to write him a letter of comfort.
I was shocked when I read it a few weeks later. As I recall, Neuhaus’s message was this: There are comforting things you and I have learned to say in circumstances such as these, but we don’t need those things between ourselves.
Neuhaus then went on to talk frankly and extensively about death. Those two men were in a separate fraternity and could talk directly about things the rest avoided.
Neuhaus was no stranger to death. As a young minister, he worked in the death ward at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, a giant room with 50 to 100 dying people in it, where he would accompany two or three to their deaths each day. One sufferer noticed an expression on Neuhaus’s face and said, “Oh, oh, don’t be afraid,” and then sagged back and expired.
Much later, Neuhaus endured his own near-death experience. An undiagnosed tumor led to a ruptured intestine and a series of operations. He recovered slowly, first in intensive care, and then in a regular hospital room, where something strange happened.
“I was sitting up staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat,” he later wrote in an essay called “Born Toward Dying” in his magazine, First Things. “What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple, and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two ‘presences.’ I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that ... .
“And then the presences — one or both of them, I do not know — spoke. This I heard clearly. Not in an ordinary way, for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: ‘Everything is ready now.’ ”
That was the end of Neuhaus’s vision, but not his experience. “I pinched myself hard, and ran through the multiplication tables, and recalled the birth dates of my seven brothers and sisters, and my wits were vibrantly about me. The whole thing had lasted three or four minutes, maybe less. I resolved at that moment that I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what had happened. Knowing myself, I expected I would later be inclined to doubt it. It was an experience as real, as powerfully confirmed by the senses, as anything I have ever known.”
Most scientists today would say that Neuhaus’s vision was the product of him confusing an inner voice for an outer voice. He was suffering the sort of mental illusion that sometimes befalls epileptics before a seizure.
Neuhaus took it the other way. While most people might use the science of life to demystify death, Neuhaus used death to mystify life.
When he wrote about his experience later, his great theme was the way death has a backward influence back onto life: “We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already under way.”
Neuhaus spent the next days, months and years impressed by the overwhelming fact of death. This made him, he writes, a bit blubbery. “After some time, I could shuffle the few blocks to the church and say Mass. At the altar, I cried a lot and hoped the people didn’t notice. To think that I’m really here after all, I thought, at the altar, at the axis mundi, the center of life. And of death.”
It also made him almost indifferent about when his life would end. People would tell him to fight for life and he would enjoy their attention, but the matter wasn’t really in his hands, and everything was ready anyway.
He quoted John Donne who also was changed by a near-death experience: “Though I may have seniors, others may be elder than I, yet I have proceeded apace in a good university, and gone a great way in a little time, by the furtherance of a vehement fever.”
Cancer returned, and Neuhaus died last week. In his final column for First Things, he wrote again about his mortality.
“Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much I hope to do in the interim.”This awareness of death, and of the intermingling of life and death, gave Neuhaus’s writing an extra dimension — like a metaphysician who has been writing about nature within earth’s atmosphere and suddenly discovers space.