The River:
Reflections on the Times of our Lives


A parent fears that their child will die before them. A husband or wife fears that their beloved spouse will die first. Can God make all their wishes come true? All we can do is believe that he knows the best order for his creatures to live and die.

Sermon 296
, 5.6.

Augustine's analogy for life as a river flowing towards a distant eternity is often helpful for understanding our present condition, but it can lead to a false expectation, the expectation that our eternity is somehow far away. We promise ourselves and those we love many years before death and when this does not happen, we feel that we have suffered a catastrophe beyond comprehension. When the one who dies is our child, we feel that this death is especially unfair.

Perhaps another analogy for human life is more helpful for understanding such truly tragic situations. It was suggested to me by my memories of happy summer days sitting in the calm shallows off Miami Beach, my body lapped by the warm azure waters, my head barely above the surface, my eyes looking across the sea towards the seemingly limitless horizon. As I moved about, my splashing created small bubbles on the surface which momentarily floated like individual capsules of rainbows, eventually disappearing into the great expanse of the sea. As I sat enjoying the experience, I thought to myself:

If only I could rise above my life and look down upon it from a great height would I not see that my life in time is nothing more than a tiny bubble floating in an immense sea, that the line between time and eternity is only a thin membrane easily pierced, that it is only a delicate bubble-surface that separates my narrow life now from a infinite life beyond?

In this picture of the human condition what we call "death" becomes merely a movement through the thin membrane from life to life, from our present tiny bit of life to a life without limits.

It is a fact of our life in time that we are never that far from eternity. From the first moment of our existence in our mother's womb we are surrounded by, supported by, buried in, almost crushed by the immensity of the eternal sea. Once we have passed into the next life, if we were to look back, we would no doubt wonder why we had been so fanatically attached to the narrow, confined life that we lived in this bubble of time. Just now we are very much attached to our "bubble" and understandably so. It is the only life we know. Like a fetus comfortable in the quiet darkness of the womb, we cannot imagine what an independent life in the light might be like, and if ever offered the option to leave or stay, we might say to our savior, "I will stay where I am, thank you very much!"

Of course staying in place is impossible. Eventually we must be delivered from the body of our mother just as someday we must be delivered from the body of our time. To return to Augustine's river analogy, we cannot stay on this plateau forever. We can accept the inevitability of this fact with some equanimity as long as we do not feel that we have been "cheated" out of this life, that we have had a fair chance to make our mark, to fall in love, to have some fun.

This feeling of "deserving" a reasonably long portion of earthly life is the reason why we are so disturbed when a child dies. It seems that the poor thing was never given a chance at earthly joy. It is especially hard to accept "early leavings" when the death seems to make no sense, when it comes from a random, accidental event or from a cruel human attack. In some ways death from disease is easier to accept than death from random violence or human malice. To die of disease or decrepitude is part of the human condition. For a child to die by murder signifies something terribly wrong in the universe, the presence of an evil that seems satanic.

Augustine, who lost his own young son to disease, was perhaps still trying to make sense of his loss when he wrote to a confrere:

When someone asks why souls are created for those who are going to die so young, the only response that can be made is that we must leave such matters in the hands of God. We know that the things that occur in time are planned by his love and that this includes the moment when a person is conceived and the moment when a person dies. If God counts the leaves on the trees and determines their formation and their fall, is it likely that he is indifferent to the appropriate span (sometimes short, sometimes long) for each human life? Is it not likely that he would make certain that no life is shortened or lengthened beyond that span required for it to sound its proper note and thus take its place in the harmony of creation's song? Letter 166, 5.13.

It is a fact of life that some will leave for eternity from a life barely begun, while others will depart much later, carrying with them the good and bad residue of a long life courageously but imperfectly lived. We all share a nature which demands that we change and grow as long as we live, but the length of that growth is different for every one of us. There is no good time or bad time to die for any of us; there is only our time. We do not know when that time will come. All that we do know is that death comes in its own good time, that time which is indeed good because determined for each of us by the providence of God, that God who is above us and before us and, indeed, with us as we race down our separate ways to the time and place where we will plunge into eternity.

Jesus came to break the barrier between this passing life and a good life in eternity. Walking this earth he was indeed (as Augustine said) "free among the dead" because death had no power over him. (Sermon 231, 2). Perhaps that is how we should think about our dead, especially our dead children. They are not "free among the dead" so much as "free among the living," freed finally from the limits of the tiny bubble of life in which we all spend our time now.

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