Hope and dying are related. Dying is a daily – moment-to-moment – letting go. It is like breathing out. Dying means constantly letting go of the energy that diffuses over a lifetime, but also of the illusions and judgments we create and the false identity they produce. Dying is what enables us to work with the life process that some call God, for it is by letting go of the illusions we live by that we come to know our true identity as united with life and God. We experience this deeper order of things as beauty, goodness, truth, and peace. It is what some call enlightenment or salvation.
Working with life in this way is a continuous emptying and uniting process where we occasionally glimpse the radiance that awaits us as the Welsh poet, RS Thomas writes in ‘The Bright Field’:
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had treasure in it. I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it. Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
It is this experience of brightness, these glimpses of eternity that are the foundation of real hope. This brightness requires that I give away all that I have in order to possess it. ‘Giving away all’ refers to dying in any moment, as well as the final letting go of this life, in order to live more truly.
I saw this brightness, recently, in a friend, a short time before he died after many years of struggle – and letting go. As he sat across from me at the table in our home he seemed almost translucent. Someone described this afterwards as a radiance: as if he had let go – given all that he had – and been taken (embraced, perhaps) by the eternity that is the ultimate reality that awaits us all. His radiance helped me to realize that ‘awaiting’ refers not simply to an after-life but to the radiance that is within every moment.
This letting go is not resisting, refusing or rejecting life, rather it is embracing it more fully, but without clinging. It is allowing it to pass through us, as it were, the way the breath of life passes through us, enlivening us for a moment (eternity, in the true sense) and then passing on. Were we to cling to it, it would kill us.
This is the process of Life/God who simply breathes out and creates all things that breathe in to give form to Life/God for an eternal moment, and then breathe out to let it continue on its way of realization. This is the mystery of God-becoming: an unfolding universe, an evolving world. Trinity is the Christian symbol of this life process of giving (Creator), receiving (Created), and returning (participating by letting go).
It is a process that is natural to all living beings and all forms of life that spontaneously receive and return: breathe in and breathe out; are born and die. The challenge is the impulse of life-forms to cling to the life they receive. This impulse, which is part of the natural selection process, is directed toward genetic proliferation: the survival of the species. In the normal course of things this natural selection process defers to higher levels of life where stronger forms prevails: what we call evolution. The same impulse applies to us self-reflective species, in whom an increasing conscious-awareness also struggles with the call to let go and die, and to defer to higher levels of being and living. Natural selection in our case uses feelings and thinking to create the illusion of specialness – separation, superiority, etc. – in order to promote its purpose of genetic proliferation. In an increasingly complex world, this illusion is maintained even at the cost, not only of other species and forms of life, but ultimately, at the cost of our own.
But this illusion of separateness and superiority, according to the Buddhist tradition, is the source of all suffering, our own and others. So our real work – our essential purpose as human beings – is to remove this illusion and thereby see who we are and what is really happening. As William Blake once said:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
This work was reflected in my friend’s difficult dying – letting go – process that revealed a deeper radiance: the eternity that awaits us all, as the poet says. It is symbolized in the iconic figures of our traditions – Jesus, Buddha – who let go essentially and ultimately, thereby, live eternally. Resurrection and Enlightenment are attempts to describe this evolutionary process.
And this is where true hope lies. We’ve all known it in the deep longing that we experience at least occasionally in our lives, in moments when life breaks in, in spite of our clinging illusions: those times when we find ourselves saying, ‘now I know what’s important..’ or ‘…from now on…’ These are cosmic nudges that give us glimpses that are the foundation of an intuition-based hope of a deeper reality, an invisible order where ‘all shall be well,’ as the mystic Juliana of Norwich described it.
This hope is not an easy (or even simply a difficult) optimism but a dimension of the soul, as Vaclav Havel (the playwright President of the Czech Republic) once said. He added that it is a hope based not on the possibility of success, as we know it, but anchored somewhere beyond this world. This hope gives us the ability to work with the challenges of life simply because it is good and right to do so.
A growing awareness of the illusions – the products of natural selection – that shape our feeling and thinking and promote our sense of superiority and separation, tempers this hope:
I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing (TS Eliot)
But a growing awareness also expands this hope into a participation with life that embraces everything.
This season of light in the face of darkness is a profound symbol of hope. But it is also a time for cultivating this hope through awareness-sharpening practices like fasting and light-generating rituals like the Solstice fire.
These practices and rituals reflect the journey from a childhood – spontaneous – Christmas with its Santa Claus possibilities to an adult – deliberate – Christmas that fosters true wonder that comes from letting go of the illusions that hold us bound. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem about Advent captures the process:
We have tested and tasted too much, lover - Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder. But here in the Advent-darkened room Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea Of penance will charm back the luxury Of a child's soul…
The lights – on the tree, on the wreath, around the fireplace, decorating the walls – reflect this childlike en-lightenment in the darkness that will continue until….
I leave the last word on this to TS Eliot and his story of the Maji who came to honor the child-king of a new era, only to discover – or be reminded – that the process of hope is a continuous dying:
I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.