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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

November: A Time to Reflect on Death

November is the month traditionally dedicated to reflecting on death. For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, this is an appropriate time to do this reflecting, for we are experiencing the season of fall. For us, the days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping, and the leaves are cascading from the trees. In the Church calendar, November 1 is the feast of All Saints, when we honor all those men and women who have gone before us in the faith—especially those not formally canonized. November 2 is called All Souls Day, the Feast of the Poor Souls, the Day of the Dead, or the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. We remember in special prayer all the deceased who are “awaiting their entrance into the fullness of heaven.”

So today, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on death. As we know, nothing is more certain than the fact that we will die. Yet, for most of us, nothing is more uncertain than the time and manner of our death. In his Rule, the great St. Benedict counseled his monks “to keep death daily before their eyes.” (Rule 4.47) Was he suggesting something morbid? Not really. Perhaps Benedict believed what the poet Carlos Castaneda said about death: “Death is a wise advisor.”

How does our death advise us? Remembering our death can lead to a greater appreciation for the gift of life. Death reminds us how every single day is immeasurably precious simply because our days are limited. Anne Lamott writes: “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small stuff.”

Death, paradoxically, is the ultimate mystery of life. What adds to death’s mystery is the fact that no one really knows what happens during death and after death. We Christians, of course, believe that death is the portal to everlasting life. But what exactly does that mean? Volumes have been written on what heaven is going to be like, but most are merely speculation. It’s good to keep before us the image Jesus used to describe heaven: a wedding reception. Wedding receptions are ordinarily times of joy, love, happiness, great food and drink, wonderful music and dancing, meeting old friends and making new ones, good conversation, and lots of laughter. If we truly bought into Jesus’ image of heaven, maybe we wouldn’t be so afraid of death.

To have some fear of death, of course, is only human. Even Jesus in Gethsemane was terrorized by his impending crucifixion and death. But sometimes the fear of death can lead to the denial of death. This happens when we refuse to think about death, talk about death, see a doctor, or even write a will—as if we were going to live forever.

Over the years, many people have said some wise things about death. I’ll close with a few I like:

1. “I think the dying pray at the last not ‘Please,’ but ‘Thank you,’ as a guest thanks a host at the door.” Annie Dillard

2. “The one who practices mercy does not fear death.” Pope Francis

3. “Death is not the enemy who puts an end to everything, but the friend who takes us by the hand and leads us into the Kingdom of eternal love.” Henri Nouwen

4. “When we die, we leave behind us all we have, and take with us all we are.” Anonymous

5. “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'” Erma Bombeck

6. “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! ‘What a ride!'” Hunter S. Thompson

(All photos by Pexels)

For Reflection:

+ Did anything stand out for you in today’s reflection—perhaps one of the quotes?

+ How often do you think about death—especially your own death?

+ Has death ever been a wise advisor for you? If so, in what way?

+ When you find yourself fearing death, does anything ease your fear?

PS: A big “Thank You” to all who made this past weekend’s virtual retreat sponsored by the Sophia Spiritual Center in Atchison, KS. Twenty of us explored together “Spirituality: The Call to Holiness and Wholeness.” The wonderful participants were from Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, and Ohio. I was inspired by their backgrounds and their obvious goodness! And a special thank you to my contact person Donna Coleman for all she did to help make the retreat run so smoothly—especially by being my great DJ!

John Shea wrote, “The best way to prepare for death is to develop a capacity for surprise.” This hymn, based on St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:9, echoes that sentiment. It’s called “Eye Has not Seen” and it’s written by Marty Haugen.

I invite you to write a comment below. Our readers (and I too!) love hearing from you.

19 Responses

  1. Happy Monday morning to you all! Wonderful blog as always and one of my top ten favorite church songs to end it. Since I’ve been in the medical field my entire career, and have had health obstacles my entire life. I’ve never been afraid of death. I know when the lord is ready he will welcome me with open arms and I will then partake in the joyous reunion with my beloved family and friends who have passed before me. I will finally meet my older sister who was a stillborn. My beloved grandparents G-pops S., Grandpa C., Gram C., G-ma S. & my Uncle Bob. My dear friends Luis Q. & Jimmy H. All of my four legged children that have crossed the rainbow bridge way to many to list. I do know my boys Mack & Duff will be waiting to show me all the glory heaven has for us. Let us all continue to show compassion for others and do our best to bring a smile to someone’s face daily while we are here on this earth. I wish a blessed day to everyone.

  2. Sr Melannie, hello! Hello, all!

    Thank you for this post. So many things invite reflection. (And an unexpected appearance by ol’ Hunter S. Thompson! Wowzers.)

    It’s weird that I delight in nature turning toward winter. Why is it that I positively thrill as the leaves are letting go, perhaps Hunter-Thompson-ish in their dying blaze?

    I’m afraid of Death. I fear that God will be the Scowling Greybeard rather than the Kindly Light.

    While I cherish the reflections here, I wouldn’t want to lose the dimension of how absolutely terrible and devastating death can be, especially to someone who has been bereaved, whether of a relative whom we thought “would always be there” or of a friend lost in midlife to a cancer that claimed her a mere six weeks after diagnosis.

    On a lighter, and perhaps stranger note, I wonder, sometimes, where my funeral will be held (I’m technically Catholic, as is all my family, but I’ve been active in an Episcopal church in the last year and a half). I wonder who, if anyone, will speak at the funeral, and what the music will be. And sometimes in idle moments, I try to plan these things: I’d like to have “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” and “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” and of course, “Ave Maria,” if the Episcopal choir would be willing to perform that last!

    At any rate, I’m grateful for this reflection, which has generated many and various thoughts. And good to see “old friends” Henri Nouwen and Pope Francis among those quoted!

    Peace and light, all. Have a great week! (And if you’re like me, enjoy November!)

    1. Always so good to read what you have to say, Tom. Yes, around here, at this time of year, the day dies early. There are still some flowers hanging on, ones that have been in my yard since June, when the days lingered long. I feel a keen sense of sadness when I see them. I want to tell them, “Fear not, I’ll see you all again in a few months.” Soon, when all the leaves let go, we will be able to see into the forest, past its foliage, where we often see downed trees and such. Maybe that’s what this time of year is for — to look within, see what’s fallen, take stock, and know what’s fallen will ultimately nourish the green to come. God bless.

      1. John, at this time of year, I always return to Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall”. My thoughts turn to Margaret and Goldengrove “unleaving” (isn’t that a lovely word!) So poignant. God bless.

  3. Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
    Good morning, all…

    So many good things here that I hardly know where to begin! I’ll start with gratitude: Thank you, sister Melannie, for another thought-provoking, soul-nourishing blog. And thank you for your reference to Saint Benedict. As a Benedictine oblate, I try to read his Rule every day (key word being TRY), and in conjunction, I read books about the Rule by other Benedictines. In one such book (sorry, I forget both author and title) the author writes about what’s quoted above, claiming, instead of being morbid, Benedict wants us to see the Heaven that’s before us each day. A beautiful mindset to adopt! Or, as Emily Dickinson writes: “Instead of getting to Heaven, at last –/I going there, all along!”


  4. Thank you, Sister Melannie.
    I especially love Henri Nouwen’s quote “…Eternal Kingdom of Love”. I have felt very unloved for much (if not all) of my life. That is a long story but that’s the gist of it. While on this side of eternity, as a human being, I feel limited in my ability to experience God‘s love. Even though I am not finished here on earth, I long to feel and be enraptured in God‘s love.

  5. As I reach the twilight of my life, I think of heaven as a new and glorious event. However, I will also miss leaving earth, it’s been a great run. Leaving earthly “things” behind is a job for my heir’s. I have to be reminded , “You don’t see a hearse going down the road with a Uhaul on the back”! I love the song, I had to sing right along with it. Thanks Sister Melanie.

  6. Yes, I am apprehensive of death because I have never done it before!. But I do hope and know the grace will be there at that time.

    1. Beautiful reflection on a topic that is frequently on my mind. As we age, it natural to ponder death in accordance with how we have lived our life and our eternal home. I facilitate a weekly grief and loss group that presents the raw emotions of those left behind from a sudden or anticipated death, and the long journey to healing.
      I often find myself fearing the loss of my spouse, but never fearing my death. I’m so ready to meet our blessed Lord according to his plan .

      I’m sorry I missed the retreat !
      Hope it will be presented again in 2022.

      Thank you Sr Melannie for your Reflections
      Always brightens my week.

  7. I lost two dear friends recently, and love the mental picture of the wedding reception in heaven. Of course,Jesus is serving the good wine.Miss their earthly presence,but take solace in their joy. Thank you for this reflection.

  8. Hello Sr. Melannie ~
    I’m not sure where this quote came from, but I reflect on it often in prayer:
    “Insofar as we learn from God how to die to all that is less than or other than God’s love as our sole security & identity, it just might be possible that when the moment of our death finally comes, nothing will happen. For in some deep, unexplainable way we will have already crossed over into the deathless love of God.”
    I share this as something I find reassuring and worth pondering . . .

  9. I am looking forward to being with God in that heavenly embrace. When I think of saying goodbye to all I love here on earth, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” in the Chronicles of Narnia. I love his description of heaven. Everything we love here will be there—only better! In that place outside of time, in one sense we are already there—greeting our loved ones, including our animal friends and trees. Some say that only humans will go there since humans are made in God’s image. But God never said that the other beings weren’t!

  10. Thank you Sr. Melanie for your reflection about the death and the song that you had chosen. It is true that we do not know what we will experience when we die but Jesus has helped us by talking about a feast, a banquet.
    I am not afraid of the death because I am created out of LOVE and wait for the moment that I may fullly live the LOVE that is in the Trinity between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I am waiting to go HOME where Jesus has prepared a place for all of us. Thank you again for your weekly encouragements and the good songs that go with it.

  11. Today is All Souls Day and I’m catching up on the email backlog. My brother-in-law put me in touch with you blog a couple of years ago and I’ve been following regularly. I’m a permanent deacon in our archdiocese and was assisting at Mass with my pastor a bishop. Two hours later he and I shared a funeral Mass. It occurred to Erma Bambeck.

  12. Something occurred and my comments were scrambled. It should read: It occurred to me how appropriate to celebrate a funeral today. The prayers and readings in the funeral liturgy are very well done and remind us that life is changed and not ended. Erma Bambeck’s quote nailed it for me.
    Thanks for your reflections, quotes and music.

  13. You noted that VOLUMES have been written about heaven. I bet those writers will be among the most surprised when they encounter “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard.”
    I find that I need to let go of every earthly image, because eternity seems too long, wedding banquets seem too loud and crowded etc. Jesus will have to surprise me.

  14. I think about death often and after 65 years of marriage, my husband and I talk about it frequently and ponder on what we will do when there is only one of us. We were high school sweethearts and have never been alone. I don’t fear death as much as I simply love it here and don’t want to leave.

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Meet Sr. Melannie

Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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