Meditation on Dying and Caring)
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (125 pages)
thoughts of death and dying would come afresh to us during Holy Week, I
thought it fit to introduce a book on this somewhat sombre theme.No, it is
not a book about the death of Christ, though there are allusions to it.It
is simply a book about dying.
has been referred to, since more than two decades ago, as the “new
vulgarity of the 20th century.” It seems like the subject is
still vulgar, albeit not very new anymore, and this is the 21st
I was a professional preacher, if I should dwell at any length on the
theme of death (and the context was not a funeral service), some member of
the congregation would remark about the sermon being somewhat
“morbid”. “Why is the
preacher so obsessed with death?” I might ask in return, “And why are
we so obsessed with not wanting to die when death is the most certain and
universal of all human experiences?”
me, having crossed the half-a-century-mark, thinking about death seems to
have become harder to avoid. I now make it a point to read the obituaries.
People I know have started to go, and it seems meaningful to try
and keep track of who’s gone.
on death and dying catch my attention, too, especially when there are so
few of them. And then one
comes along penned by a renowned spiritual writer, it easily gets on my
divides his book neatly into two parts: dying well and caring well.
Not only need we be mentally prepared to die; having been thus
prepared, we become enabled to help others prepare.
One: Dying Well. This is what
you would call an “oxymoron” – a
contradiction in terms. If
you are going to die, then nothing is “well”, is it?
Nouwen argues that if it is something we’ve got to do, we might
as well make a good job of it.
Nouwen, it all came out of a sabbatical he had been given to write.
He begins by describing the debilitating effects of being locked up
in a hermitage (his choice), sans phone, letters, meetings, etc.
Truly a good way into early stages of dissociation that marks the
approach of death [p. 20, 21]!
he had to do. It was his
calling as a writer. To be
thus isolated. To think, feel,
explore – probing into the interior of his soul that he might share what
he finds with others. “The
inner life is always a life for others.” [p. 23]
And in that statement, he encapsulates what dying well and caring
each of those two major sections, he uses a fixed pattern – that of
being a child, a sibling, and a parent.
die well, we need to re-enter childhood.
In other words, accept the constraints that come with age.
For Nouwen, life is a cycle that moves from dependency to
dependency [p. 31, 32]. When
you are a baby, someone has to clean you up.
Some day, that process may well have to be repeated.
It is the inability to accept this dependency that makes dying
die well, we need to recover our sense of oneness with all humanity.
Civilization has always been built on the concept of distinction.
We want to be different, to stand out, to be special.
And these things make it hard to die.
Nouwen says we need to accept mortality as a symbol of our oneness
with humanity. There is
healing power in human solidarity. Nouwen
includes as part of his argument the story of a woman who went to the
die well, we need to re-envision a new dimension of fruitfulness.
“Our death may be the end of our success, our productivity,
our fame or our importance among people, but it is not the end of our
fruitfulness. The opposite is
true; the fruitfulness of our lives shows itself in its fullness only
after we have died.” [p. 53, 54].
backs this up further with illustrations from history.
For most great men of history, their significance often became
clear only after death. For
Nouwen, this means that we need to shift our focus – from “doing” to
“being”. “Our doing
brings success, but our being bears fruit.
The great paradox of our lives is that while we are often very
concerned about what we do, or still can do, we are most likely to be
remembered for who we were.” [p. 56]
Two: Caring Well. The second
part on caring for the dying uses the same sub-themes of childhood,
brotherhood, and parenthood in the same apparently artless fashion.
To care well, we need to see the subject of our care as a child
(“instrument of God’s grace” to use Nouwen’s words) [p. 69],
rather than as a burden. We
need to see in them the face of God – the “brotherhood of God” [p.
87]. If you feel uncomfortable
with this idea (as I used to), try thinking about the Christ incognito
in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
to care well, we need to see the goodness of our subjects who themselves
are not aware of that goodness. Nouwen
tells the moving story of the death of Connie, his secretary, with whom he
had worked for many years. He
speaks of how her goodness shone through her dying [p. 104]
And we, the care-givers, like parents and midwives, bring to birth
for future generations the life or spirit of the dying person.
me, Henri Nouwen’s Our Greatest Gift has been a moving read.
I may not be able to agree philosophically or theologically with
everything Nouwen says. But to
me, part of living and “dying” is to acknowledge the greatness of
someone from whom I have much to learn.
For this reason, I find his “parting shot” particularly
we have the courage to let go of our need to cure, our care can truly heal
in ways far beyond our own dreams and expectations.” [p. 109]
(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)
Rev Ng Seng Chuan
today was focussed upon the theme for Passion Week – the week that led
to Jesus’ entry into
meditation was based on what went on with the group of disciples Jesus
was leading into
speaker then suggested that that scenario was in fact representative of
current realities. The
church today is no different. We
are still preoccupied with our own self-aggrandizement – if couched in
spiritual terms or worked out in a religious context.
And we are still resentful (even if this is not expressed
overtly) of the achievements of others – particularly if we found
ourselves in less fortuitous circumstances, be they to do with sickness,
sorrow or some other deprivation.
we move once again towards Holy Week and Good Friday, we need to be
mindful of what it means to be identified with the Master in His
“passion” or suffering.
David Lim 6/4
Ng Geok Har 7/4
Alan Tay 10/4
Peter Wong 10/4
Tan Khai Nee 10/4
Pauline Kwek 11/4
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This page is updated on 10 Apr 2004.