I. “You can’t take it with you.” We repeat this proverb regularly, don’t we? It’s the standard rationalization for spending money on ourselves, or giving a little to charity. “You can’t take it with you.”
But the real truth is worse, and it haunts me. When you die, I feel you do take it with you‒I mean, you take all your experiences, all your memories, all your accumulated wisdom, all the things that make you YOU with you. When I die, suddenly the so-many-odd years of experiences that add up to Rick Chrisman are gone. I will leave a family I created. I will leave some assets for them. I will leave some memories in their memory bank. But their memories of me are just an infinitesimal fraction of what I went through living my particular life. Each of us takes the equivalent of a long novel, many long novels, with us into that good night.
That thought haunts me. Even though some people leave behind enough money to get their names inscribed on a college dorm or on a hospital wing, even they will be taking everything meaningful away with them, like those fishing trips with dad, or the struggle with divorce, and Things [as Wallace Stevens wrote] to be cherished like‒passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued elations when the forest blooms; gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; all pleasures and all pains, remembering the bough of summer and the winter branch.
Every drop, the myriad events of life experience, too many to be shared with others, do they just evaporate when we die?
Other anxieties about death haunt other people just as much, and always have, evidenced by the fact that cemeteries are among the oldest cultural artifacts of every civilization. Their graves and monuments, the contents of the biers, the rituals that attend burial attest to the anxiety we feel before the reality of death.
Death has inspired endless curiosity, perplexity and abhorrence. Halloween, the night before Christians celebrate the departed, was thought to be the time when evil spirits wandered the earth looking for a home. It was believed that other spirits rose from cemetery graves to unite in a carnival called danse macabre. That’s why today’s Halloween costumes include skeletons and ghosts. Also, many grotesques with misshapen faces and bodies are common costumes—and these have invaded our movie houses and tv screens with frightening portrayals of the subhuman or uncanny. These make our friends with physical differences wince with pain at this time of year. Yet people seem to enjoy being frightened so much that horror movies have become a staple of the entertainment industry. Is this, too, a sign of our anxieties about death? Yes, and not just in this country—the Egyptian Book of the Dead, sky-riding chariots of Taoist China, the intermediate states between this world and the next, called Bardo’s, of Buddhism, the Seven Palaces of Jewish mysticism--all exhibit the worldwide obsession with “what’s next.”
Death became the ultimate enemy to be vanquished by any possible means. We moderns have resorted to drugs for altered states of consciousness, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, parallel worlds. Anything to glimpse what the after-world has in store for us, maybe to reunite with loved ones even. The ultimate visualization of this was given to us by Dante in his Divine Comedy, reporting his travels through Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise in the most lurid detail.
The sufferings of the present world caused immortality to become the wish ultimately longed for. We succumb to desperate speculation, looking for hope, mostly in the wrong places. Immortality figures throughout Christian piety and theology. It’s a selfish doctrine that quiets our fears of the unknown, often not amounting to more than saving our own skin, so to speak.
II. Meantime, little noticed is a contrary image in the Bible, it’s an image of life, called the Book of Life. You heard it referenced in the selection from Revelation and from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
The Book of Revelation resembles a fever dream, and its images shimmer with vague meanings and ambiguity. The origins of the Book of Life go back to the Old Testament genealogical lists, lists of peoples’ deeds, records of those born in Jerusalem, etc. The image reappears in a vivid amalgam in Revelation, as the record of the dead and their deeds. The Book of Life, in one commentator’s words, is a kind of “heavenly citizenship list” of the righteous, perhaps also of those who believe, or who want to believe.
The Book of Life is the positive incentive for right action, by contrast with the usual negative ones of punishment and fear. The faithful life is not to appear to do good by conventional or pious standards, but for love to inspire every action of yours for others and for yourself. St. Paul also converts the negatives of life, its sufferings and injustices, into the positive light by saying, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The evils you endure and death itself will be part of the glory—unite with Christ in this life and you unite with God in the next. Christ on the cross is the “open Book of Life himself, the book of the art of God’s love.” Luther held that Jesus Christ was himself the Book of Life. Nothing in life is wasted at death, all is well and all manner of thing will be well, wrote Hildegarde of Bingen.
Certain costs come with such faith‒decisions for or against the fads of culture must be made—the things to be resisted or rejected that Ecclesiastes called “Vanity”—“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is,” Paul wrote. Followers of Jesus find such decisions necessary to make. No action is morally neutral—it says even buying and selling have moral meaning. It may well require the non-conformism of a Henry David Thoreau and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Muhammad Ali. We need to let ourselves be interrogated by the image of the Book of Life.
Perfection and punishment for imperfection are exaggerated misreadings of scripture. We always make mistakes. The point of the Jesus-based life is to learn from our mistakes to become a better author of one’s own life story. To have one’s name inscribed in the Book of Life at the time of death.
III. It’s a way of saying, human histories become God’s history. God creates and goes on creating, co-creating with the universe and its human parts. You could say that we augment and enrich God’s reality as we die, not only our spirits return to God’s spirit but our complicated histories as well. The Book of Life symbolizes the cumulative nature of God. God is the sum of history, our histories. It is not the memories that are permanent, but the actions, the points of contact between human beings. This building will come down, but the fact that we worshiped here and touched each other will never go away.
Let’s end the Christian’s morbid obsession with the afterlife, and make an offering of our lives, mistakes and all. Because you do take it with you. And before you go, you know what you should do? Give it all back to God. And do this with joy and love, as St. Ignatius did—in this part of the Spiritual Exercises called the “Suscipe”—meaning, donation or gift.
First Point - This is to recall to mind the blessings of creation and redemption, and the special favors I have received. I will ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much He has given me of what He possesses, and finally, how much, as far as He can, the same Lord desires to give Himself to me according to His divine decrees.
Then I will reflect upon myself, and consider, according to all reason and justice, what I ought to offer the Divine Majesty, that is, all I possess and myself with it. Thus, as one would do who is moved by great feeling, I will make this offering of myself:
Take, Lord, and Receive - Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
I believe the point of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day is that our names will get inscribed in the Book of Life. Is this just another theology of wishful thinking? Not at all—call it my personal testament of faith in Christ whose God gathers us all up in glory.