Appreciating the Sacrament of the Present Moment by Michele Stopera Freyhauf


In order to be at peace, it is necessary to find a sense of history – that you are both part of what has come before and part of what is yet to come. Being thus surrounded, you are not alone; and the sense of urgency that pervades the present is put in perspective. Do not frivolously use the time that is yours to spend.  Cherish it, that each day may bring new growth, insight, and awareness.  Use this growth not selfishly, but rather in service of what may be, in the future tide of time. Never allow a day to pass that did not add to what was understood before. Let each day be a stone in the path of growth. Do not rest until what was intended has been done. But remember – go as slowly as is necessary in order to sustain a steady pace; do not expend energy in waste. Finally, do not allow the illusory urgencies of the immediate to distract you from your vision of the eternal.

                                                     (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, The Final Stage of Growth, 167)

Freyhauf, Feminism, Religion, Durham, Old Testament, Blogger, Bible, Gender, Violence, Ursuline, John CarrollLast month we lost a good friend unexpectedly.  His death, just days after his 49th birthday caused me to confront my own mortality. His death also makes me think about that void in life that we leave as well as the legacies we leave behind. How will I be remembered?  Did I make a difference while on earth? Have I served and given back enough?  

We all think death has a specific order – generations pass in successive order, a parent should not outlive their child; but that is not reality.  Death is a profound personal experience that is shared; it is also subconsciously active throughout our life, no matter how we try to avoid thinking about it.  Schubert Ogden in The Reality of God states “it is this very awareness of our mortality that endow the moments of our life with vividness and intensity. In this sense, our who existence is, in Martin Heidegger’s phrase, a ‘being toward death’ (Sein zum Tode)” (224).  Heidegger’s phrase seems to restate Freud’s view about the “death drive,” represents an inherent urge to return to a state of calm without danger, an inorganic or dead state, a place of safety like our mother’s womb where life originally emerged from.”

No matter how different cultures react or cope with death, common elements exist; a psychological and social need to adjust with loss or come to terms with the natural process of death.  Halbwachs distinguishes physical death from social death.  Physical death is biological, but social death deals with the “social significance” that remains of the person that is physically gone. This leads me to the point of legacy and how we are to be remembered.

Because this subject has been weighing on me lately, I began to read more on the theology of death and doctrine of God.  While researching, I came across an article by Sallie McFague, “Falling in Love with God and the World: Some Reflections on the Doctrine of God.”  She explores her own mortality through an ecological lens of God:

“Seventy-three years ago I was seven years old and experienced God for the first time. Coming home from school one day, I suddenly realized that some day I would not “be here” for Christmas, and even more shocking, I would not be here for my birthday. “

There was a time that we did not walk the earth, and there will be a time when our walk will end.  This is a reality that no one can escape.

McFague describes herself as “contingent” – created by another, not on this earth forever, dependent on something else.  Because so much of the written work about death is rooted in creation, “contingent” becomes a new concept that emerges in this theology, especially in connection with God.  She further compared the  experience like an  awakening that occurs through the unconnected experiences of transcendence and immanence as though she was sleepwalking “in full stride” or “brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning.” Possibly a “conversion” experience?

Besides this notion of being contingent, I really liked McFague’s statement that:

“if we live within God now, then surely when we die we will simply live more fully in God….what we cherish now – the God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves here on earth – will be even closer when we die.”  “Death is not to be feared nor is it the only time we meet God. God is the milieu of earthly existence and ‘heaven’ is here and now.” “My death will be a seamless transition to living more fully within God.”

Death is all around us. With each breath we take, we are one breath closer to death. Alfred North Whitehead speaks of this as “perpetual perishing.”  Death is final. Ogden asks “can anyone really be comforted solely by the thought that (s)he will live on in the memories and appreciations of poor mortals no more sensitive than him (her) self? Is the final meaning of my life simply the ever-decreasing impact I make on the other (wo)men who come after me?”  This for me speaks to legacy and mentoring – who have I touched, impacted, or inspired.

In Natalie Kertes Weaver’s book The Theology of Suffering and Death, she provides a spiritual inventory (106):

  • Who have I been all this time?
  • How have I used my gift of human life?
  • What do I need to “clear up” or “let go of” in order to be more peaceful?
  • What gives my life meaning?
  • For what am I grateful?
  • What have I learned of life and how well have I learned to love?
  • What have I learned about tenderness, vulnerability, intimacy, and commitment?
  • How am I handling my suffering?
  • What will give me strength as I die? What is my relationship with this, which will give me strength as I die?
  • If I remembered my breaths were numbered, what would be my relationship to this breath right now?
  • Am I satisfied with my relationship with people close to me? If not, what might I be able to do to increase my satisfaction level with my relationships?
  • Am I satisfied with my relationship to God/Higher Power/The Divine/my faith community, as I understand it? If not, what might I be able to do to increase my satisfaction with my relationship?
  • Am I satisfied with my sense of self? If not what might I be able to do to increase my satisfaction with my own self?
  • Have I asked others for help I might mend in improving these relationships?
  • Have I forgiven others, myself, and God for the disappointments in my life so that I can life, and, when it is time, so that I can die freely and in peace?

McFague also states that we should rejoice “in the present moment” and learn “to appreciate the sacrament of the present moment, how every bit of creation mirrors and indeed ‘rings out’ that unique aspects of the divine that one is.”

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religionat Durham University. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll Universityin Theology and Religious Studies, is a Member of Sigma Nu, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://durham.academia.edu/MSFreyhauf. Michele can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.

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Categories: Activism, Belief, Bible, Death and Dying, Earth-based spirituality, Ecojustice, Embodiment, Gender and Power, General, Identity Construction, Loss, power, Process Philosophy, Prostitution, Reform

9 replies

  1. Michele, this is lovely. In these days of terrorism around the world, we need to be thinking about “what happens after” and perhaps planning ahead…when we return to the lap of the Goddess and live there for awhile before we come back to a life on earth. I think the list of questions is excellent. Brava!

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  2. Great post, thought provoking.

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  3. Thank you, Michelle, for this post. I can always spend more time reflecting on my own mortality. Like most Americans, I fear death, but less so with the passing years. In fact, thinking about my memorial service while reading your words, I realized that I will leave a legacy, and that was good to know. I especially appreciated Natalie Weaver’s list of questions. I’m going to print them out and think about one each day for the next 15 days. Thanks.

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  4. Excellent questions. One reflection that was pivotal for me was when I fully embraced the realization that not only would death choose me at some point, but that I also have the choice to choose death before then should I wish to. Living is a choice, and dying can be a choice as well, and with that reflection, how do I want to LIVE?

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    • Yes, I’m finding it difficult to make choices about how to spend my time, now that I’m retired. It’s hard to balance time for myself with doing things for others. I do want to make a positive difference in the world, but it’s hard to know what effect one’s actions will have. Even when trying to “do good,” we can inadvertently hurt someone or cause trouble down the road. I guess the best we can do is the best we can do!

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  5. Hmmm. Is the fear of death inevitable? Is our culture’s inordinate fear of death in part a result of the denial that death is the appropriate ending of finite life–that was part of the Platonic and then Christian insistence on the immortality of the rational soul? If we fully accepted our bodies and our interconnections with others, wouldn’t we also accept our own inevitable death? I do not want to suffer inordinately in a final illness and I definitely don’t want to suffer dementia, but I can truthfully say that I accept that death is the appropriate ending of a life. Whatever we have done in our lives will live on the lives of others for a time. Why should we wish for more?

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    • Carol —

      I don’t think fear of death is inevitable. I think it ‘s socially/religiously constructed. In the US — a Christocentric culture — death is seen as either a failure (for e.g. of the doctor for not saving his/her patient) or as the outcome of sin (within Christian theology and ultimately a very specific sin, that of Eve as the temptress who seduced Adam to eat the apple) or as complete annihilation (if you’re a secular humanist). I was raised in a Christian church and as a child learned that after death I would go to heaven if I was good and to hell if I was bad (to use childhood language). That makes death a very scary prospect, and as you know what we learn as children has a great ability to stick around, whether we agree with it intellectually or not.

      To talk about this a little more historically — From the times of the ancient Greeks, our culture has tried to reach beyond the final threshold of death to a kind of permanence, whether it was the immortality of song desired by Homer’s heroes or the actual immortality of the Olympian gods that Heracles supposedly attained through his heroic deeds. I agree with your implication that we have Plato to blame for how this became intimately tied into our culture, because neoplatonism’s flight from the body during the early centuries of the first millennium removed us even further from an acceptance of death. Plato may have endowed us with some good ideas (I’m not so sure about this), but his opposition between the spiritual (Idea) and the bodily (Matter) was not one of them. He saw the body as mortal, chaotic, and sensory and the soul as deriving more directly from the “One,” a construct that was interpreted by early Christian theologians as a synonym for “God.” As Christianity incorporated Neoplatonism, it began to see death as the consequence of human sin. As a result, early Christians no longer accepted death as a natural part of life, but viewed it as a state to be transcended through belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection overcame the finality of death in Christian tradition, providing believers with salvation from both their sins and the death to which these led.

      This creed became dogma when Christianity outlawed the doctrine of reincarnation in 533 CE at the Second Council of Constantinople. Instead of seeing dying as an essential part of life, Christian theologians declared death to be absolute and final, followed by either heaven or hell — eternal reward or eternal damnation. As a result, the ancient underworld changed from a place where the soul resided between lifetimes to a place of everlasting torture and punishment. Such an end must have made dying a fearful prospect, but perhaps no more fearful than complete and utter annihilation, the way most secular North Americans think of death today.

      I wonder to what extent these fears shape Christian end-of-life decisions in the US. In March 2008 the _Journal of American Medicine_ reported that devout (Christian) Americans were much more likely to resort to aggressive, life-prolonging treatments in the last weeks of life. Did they see death as a failure? Or were they afraid of what the hereafter would bring?

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  6. Wonderful exegesis Nancy. Only thing I wonder about in what you wrote is why should the end of individual life be seen as complete and utter annihilation? I do not think “I” will live on and in that sense “my life” will end. Is that complete and utter annihilation? Only if we have no ties with others. If we do, then our lives will continue to influence the world for good and for bad as long as we are remembered. Ending yes, complete and utter–depends on what we mean by the term.

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    • Carol —

      I guess that could be seen as overstatement. It probably reflects my personal belief — based on experiences concerning my own past lives — in reincarnation. I think this belief, beyond being based on past lives I’ve recalled, helps me to live my life today. It may be an illusory help — as my daughter said to me as a child, so what if we reincarnate; we don’t remember the life we’re living right now — but I think I wouldn’t face the day as well without it. Besides it’s true for me.

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