Sunday 23 March 2008
Given at Canterbury Cathedral
‘The last enemy to be overcome is death’ (I Cor 15.26)
Your hair and your nails may keep growing for a while after you die; but nothing else does. Death is when growing stops – the routine ways in which your body repairs itself and grows fresh tissue, and the ways in which the mind and heart stop developing. We know the suffering that is caused when the mind and heart have already apparently stopped responding even before physical death – the agonizing spectacle of vegetative states or dementia. That’s why people sometimes speak of these conditions as death-in-life. Signs of life are signs of response and development, and when they’re not obviously there, we don’t know what sort of life is really present.
So too we talk of the death of a relationship when nothing moves it forward; and we say that individuals or whole cultures are in some sense dead when they seem to be producing nothing fresh; they’ve lost the skill of responding and can only repeat, like the unhappy person suffering from some sorts of dementia. We fear dementia because we fear being trapped in sameness, repetition; we fear the death of love and imagination; we fear death itself because it is the end of all change. And we know that it is inescapable.
Recognising that this is so, that all the processes we value because they enlarge and enrich us will one day simply stop, is hard but it is part of growing up. Artists, scientists and psychoanalysts have in different ways warned against the dangerous illusion of thinking we are immortal. Maturity lies in accepting the truth – and then making the most of every moment of sensation so that our response is as deep and wholehearted as may be. ‘This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long’, as Shakespeare has it at the end of one of his most memorable sonnets (no.73).