Shortly after my thirtieth birthday I saw something new in my face: age. I have had, in some respects, a difficult life, and at times I have felt a million years old with all the burdens and psychic wounds to match. But never before have I seen the touch of time in my features, which have always made me look younger than my years.
There it was staring back at me. Two faint lines across my forehead. The lightest dusting of shadows under my eyes that will one day crease my features like dry creek beds. Granted, it was late, after a long day at work. Granted, I had a touch of conjunctivitis, which could not have helped. Nevertheless, the proof of time was revealed in that moment.
These words are not an expression of panic, nor hand wringing. And I still look young for my age. And I am not at all addicted to the cult of youth-at-all-cost: beauty and youth are not identical, and neither is essential or even necessarily desirable.
The marks of time’s seductive kisses drew my awareness to a memory that lurks all too often in my body and mind (which are really the one thing, a continuum from matter to spirit): death is my fate. Before I was born, I was ordained to die. “Like acres of wheat we’re all grown to be mown” (Beastianity).
This is not a sad thought to recover. I am not afraid of death, which of course makes me unusual as a human being. I have had a bit to do with death. It has hurt me, stolen loved ones with untimely haste, and several times almost had me before my own fair allotment of breath. Even as a child I had shed my fear, had it shriven from my bones.
The memory of my inevitable demise points me to a horizon of infinite mystery – the mystery of being a conscious being in this vast universe. Confronted with the impenetrable veil, one’s life stands out all too starkly. The small mercies for which one feels gratitude, the endless barrage of wounds, the compromises and concessions into which one drifts and atomises.
Death sends out its call, strings the beads of momentary living onto a single thread. Where chaotic experience invisibly carries us through scattered moments, death draws all into alignment. It brings us to the forest clearing and, in the thought of absence of life, the very shape of life is exposed.
And we forget, and forget, and forget. If indeed we ever remember in the first place. I believe it a poor thing to get to later life without being touched vicariously by death through the loss of loved ones. Death shocks us from the cocoon of our self-evidence. If we have not embraced it then the very foundations of our whole life may prove wanting when the unavoidable time comes and we must cope with loss, with the outrages of fortune’s arrows and slings.
Death points us to a paradox: to set our living with deep roots, so that this transient existence might be as soundly made as it may be, we must confront that same transience, the skull and scythe hovering impatiently in the wings of every stage.
Not the confrontation of aggressive emergency surgery. Not the confrontation of dogmatic faith in the hereafter. Rather, we must court death, embrace this god so that our denial of its power does not make of it a devil. Not to literally paint ourselves in its livery, but to let it draw our attention clear of the infinite hall of mirrors from which life is composed.
Facing the mystery of death is facing the mystery of life. The two are one, and though we tend to only understand them implicitly, unconsciously, we nevertheless always must encounter them together.
The mystery of death is a mystery of memory and forgetfulness. We touch the mystery and recoil, and in the icy gasp of our vulnerability we find our reptile emotionality – fear, fury, the fire of lust.
The mystery of death is a mystery of vulnerability. We carry our death with us always. It spans out before us, probing for the shape of our unfolding life. We carry our death with us, our finite nature, our helplessness before the vast eye of the cosmos, which exceeds our deepest wisdom and our subtlest science.
The conclusion is inescapable: we face the mystery of death whether we wish to or not. We face the mystery of death whether we realise it or not. It curls its tendrils around our every breath. It haunts the choices we make as much as it does the choices we decline. Therefore I ask: how best to face this mystery? Death’s precociousness is legendary: how may we make ourselves equal to the doom that we carry in our very flesh?
The mystery of death is the mystery of life, and it trades in the currency of memory and forgetfulness. It trades in the currency of vulnerability. How might we enrich the wealth of our vulnerability? How might we strike a balance between memory and forgetfulness so that we might fully embrace our demise and the riches of the life that precedes it?
My answer is simple: through memento mori. By building reminders of the elusive memory of death into our life. Yet any reminder loses its gloss in time: the amnesia of our world-encircled nature guarantees it. Thus facing the mystery requires more than a one time effort. We have to renew our memories, continually wash the soporific of daily living from our eyes and ears.
Spiritual practice offers many means for this rememorialising: doing the gardening, meditating, creating art, reflecting on myth, and others. Conversations where we ask questions to which we genuinely do not know the answers; rituals in which we truly put aside our egos and embrace the irrepressible life that binds this universe together. When we go beyond ourselves, we also go deep within ourselves.
And what of Heathen spirituality? Odin is a god of death. It is this that earns him the right to be called All Father.