We gaze at each other across a species divide in mutual admiration on this morning, a moment of pause between night and day, full of welcome for the returning pleasures of sight and sound and touch, one of us, at least, grateful to be made of living stuff, the other simply purring. By virtue of being alive, we keep entropy at a standoff, continually reorganizing other life forms into us as fast as our cells get old and die. I assume that I alone, of the two of us, am aware of our temporality. Living stuff -- that is, the cat and me -- is as grass which today lives and tomorrow is cast into the oven, and I know it. I know the cat is given less time than me. She is young for a cat and I am old for a human, yet I will probably outlive her. Unfair only if I forget the great leveler that awaits all living things.
In the meantime we maintain a fantastic organization: specialized organs for the processing of food, the exchange of gasses, for learning and memory, for locomotion and reproduction. There is also that for which no organ has yet been found. We smile at each other across a species divide. We seek each other out, pressing our hearts together in mutual contentment. We enjoy a proximity to certain other living things. We grieve when a creature that has been dear to us is no longer living. What has happened? What was warm with life now cools, though no change in chemistry has occurred. Activity stops and cannot be coaxed back. Where did it go?
One morning in the early fall of 1975 while my children were in school I set out to explore the Ohio State campus. By the time I made the half-hour trip from my house, sunshine had turned to rain. Nevertheless, I set off across The Oval under my umbrella. It was the first time I had been there, so it was unremarkable to me that I was the only human crossing the oldest part of the campus at that moment. Everything about Central Ohio was new to me, from buckeye trees to bluegrass, and I was eager to experience it all.
I walked one of the small paths that criss-cross the broad expanse of lawn between the old, steep-roofed stone buildings surrounding The Oval, mostly looking down because of my umbrella, not up into the spreading beeches and buckeyes as I might have on another day. On another day I might have missed the tiny mystery that planted itself deep in a place for which no organ has yet been found and became a part of the metaphysical stuff that is me. On another day, the little play might not have been enacted at all.
Ahead of me about 20 feet on the path I was taking were two squirrels, both drenched with rain, their coats showing streaks of pink where the rain had parted wet fur. They were still. One of the squirrels was looking directly at me. Her look seemed to challenge me. I stopped and stood still. Water dripped from her nose onto the other squirrel, lying dead in her arms. She licked the rain from the dead squirrel's face and chest, which she had lifted and held to her in a little lamentation equal to Michelangelo. She continued to lick the dead squirrel's face, occasionally stopping to hold my gaze with a look that seemed to say, "Can't you do something, you who are so smart?"
I was utterly dumbfounded. No, I could do nothing. the rain came faster than it could be licked away. The little dead squirrel, which had seemed so cherished, began to stiffen and change. The squirrel who held and washed it dropped it and moved away. The tiny body, once quickened with life, became a lump of garbage, no longer calling to others or evoking their interest. The transformation of entity into nonentity happened before my eyes. It did not happen at death. It happened when the living squirrel let it go.
Twenty-four years later I would re-enact this little drama, holding to my chest a body so recently inhabited, washing a familiar face until it began to stiffen and change. I too eventually got up and left. What just happened? I can create protoplasm, but I can't make it live. I can hold a living body close and dear, and yet its activity stops and cannot be coaxed back. For a few more moments I may speak to it, address it as though it were still inhabited, but nothing can be done. This change is permanent. When I get up from this lamentation, I will arrange for this body to be taken away for burial or burning.
Death is the second greatest mystery I know. The first is love. Love that holds an expectation beyond death. Love that recreates or goes on relating to a presence after its carbon-based, living stuff has been cast into the oven. Love that goes on seeking out its object in the face of death and in spite of it, the same love that resurrected Jesus, that we celebrate on Easter.
But today we mark the crucifixion. Today Jesus' mother held her dead son in her arms, wiping his face, holding him to her breast for the last time until his body, so cherished, began its final change. Perhaps she looked up to God saying, "Can't you do something?" Eventually, I know, she got up from her lamentation and arranged his body for burial. Today my attention is caught by the mystery of death -- exactly to the moments of pause between life and death when the living, at least, are reluctant to let go of the pleasures of sight and sound and touch, still holding to those beloved bodies, still believing the one we love is made of the flesh we hold right here in our arms.
This morning I am keeping watch in our church's columbarium, the Nepenthe Garden. I relieved a good friend, who had relieved another good friend, and so on, throughout the night. The sun has risen over the church roof and rests on the palms over the Altar of Repose. A red-headed woodpecker is breakfasting on a few hapless insects who were minding their business deep in the palm's heart. White flowers have been stripped from their bushes to decorate our altar. Weeds have been lifted from the ground by their roots. I squash a mosquito, full of my blood. Life and death proceed, hand in hand -- my hand in God's hand, his terrible, beautiful hand, pulling me forward.
I remember my cat, who so often wakes me inches from my face, who has now refused food and solace for two days. Early this morning she spent a few minutes on my lap, purring but obviously feeling poorly. From a lifetime of cats, I know they can sicken and die in a few days, shots or not. I hope this one will remain in her little hunk of living stuff a bit longer, and that I will too. But ultimately, even with all our specialized organs in fine fettle, we are as grass, she and I, along with mosquitoes and woodpeckers and weeds.
My faith is that in life's tomb, in that very process of letting go and moving on, creation is redeemed and renewed. I hope that death, too, looses us and lets us go. That we will be able to leave our little hunks of dead protoplasm behind us and move forward. The Angel of the Tomb says, "The one you seek is not here." Jesus himself says, "Do not hold on to me." There is a time when, for life to proceed, bodies -- all that is organized and keeping entropy at bay -- must be abandoned. My faith is that this is not the end of the story.