The Taser's Edge

Embracing Death, Worshiping Death, Accepting Death

Is there a difference between embracing death as a Christian (see previous post) and worshiping death?  Undoubtedly.  But where is the line between the two?  This week makes it blurry…

Monday: The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
You don’t need to live in a world where the word “martyrdom” seems always linked to Islamic terrorism to find the early Church’s connection to martyrdom disturbing.  Read the Apostolic Fathers (some of whom having brushed shoulders with New Testament writers), particularly Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna, and you begin to realize that in the early Church, they had no conception of a good death apart from martyrdom.  It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that a peaceful death was a faithless death.

But the story of Perpetua and Felicitas is particularly stomach-churning.  In the tale, Felicitas is eight months pregnant when she is locked up as a Christian.  Her friends are going to be executed, and her concern is that the Romans won’t execute her as a pregnant woman.  The happy ending is that she is able to indeed give birth a couple days so that she could enter the arena with her comrades.  Perpetua meanwhile directed the untalented sword of her executioner to her own neck.

I manage my church’s blog, and so I write about saints from time to time, but I didn’t know how to touch that story.

Tuesday: Shrove Tuesday
Not much en vogue these days, but the idea once was that you made Confession before the beginning of Lent, and then you would have a feast to celebrate about your reconciliation with God and everyone else before Lent began.  Holy water (again bringing baptism and death into the picture) is often used as part of the Absolution.

Wednesday: Ash Wednesday
A symbol of a torture and execution device is written in the product of fiery destruction on your forehead to wear for a day after you are told, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Friday: Today
I came across the Spring Men’s Fashion Collection – Anatomy of Change – by Thierry Mugler, put together by and featuring Rico (or Rick) Genest, aka “Zombie Boy,” who has, unsurprisingly, also done quite a bit of work with Lady Gaga.

This post doesn’t even deal with all kinds of death suffered this week by people around the world (from victims of crimes, their governments, tsunami).  What is the Christian way of relating to death?  Is having a skeleton tattooed all over your body materially screwier than lining up to get ashes smeared on you once a year?  Than eating the broken body and drinking the poured out blood of the God-Man every week?

At the end here, I really don’t like the word “embracing” to describe the relationship Christians are called to have to death.  Perhaps, though, “accepting” (vs. “blocking”, as Sam Wells puts it in Improvisation), will work.

“Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot

“Ash Wednesday” is apparently the first major poem Eliot wrote after his Christian conversion, which seems very fitting, as Ash Wednesday calls Christians to begin again at the beginning–death in order to know life.  Apologies for the ways that a blog really isn’t an appropriate way to adequately format poetry:


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.


Tuesday Reading Roundup

City of God by Augustine of Hippo
Augustine continues tearing it up.  For me, it’s good timing, as I’ll be putting together a homily for Ash Wednesday in the next couple weeks, and he’s helping me to begin to understand what it means.  It’s not the most sunny picture of this life.  From Book XIII, Ch. 10:

In fact, from the moment a man begins to exist in this body which is destined to die, he is involved all the time in a process whose end is death.  For this is the end to which the life of continual change is all the time directed, if indeed we can give the name of life to this passage towards death.  There is no one, it goes without saying, who is not nearer to death this year than he was last year, nearer tomorrow than today, today than yesterday, who will not by and by be nearer than he is at this moment, or is not nearer at the present time than he was a little while ago.  Any space of time that we live through leaves us with so much less time to live, and the remainder decreases with every passing day; so that the whole of our lifetime is nothing but a race towards death, in which no one is allowed the slightest pause or any slackening of the pace.  All are driven on at the same speed, and hurried along the same road to the same goal…

Now if each man begins to die, that is to be ‘in death,’ from the moment when death – that is, the taking away of life – begins to happen in him…then everyone is in death from the moment that he begins his bodily existence.  For what else is going on, every day, every hour, every minute, but this process of death?

Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Crouch continues to hold my attention, although I have this sense that I’m not entirely tracking with him, so we’ll see if that firms up into something nameable.  Until then, a great thought from the guy…

As we’ve seen, Genesis 1-11 lays out culture as, on the whole, a downward trajectory from the Garden to the city: from God’s original good intention to a wholesale human rebellion against the world’s maker.  Suppose you knew nothing of the middle of the story – suppose your only Bible lacked everything between Genesis 12 and Revelation 20…”Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; and the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1).  Ah! you’d think.  God is starting over again, just as he was tempted to do at the time of the flood…

But then you’d read Revelation 21:2: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

The what?  The holy city?

Revelation 21:2 is the last thing a careful reader of Genesis 1-11 would expect: in the remade world, the center of God’s creative delight is not a garden but a city…Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift coming “down out of heaven from God”…

…when God walks among redeemed humanity at the end of the Bible’s story, he walks not just on garden paths but on city streets.

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson
The title remains as lame as last week, except that now I’ve read that chapter, and, er, hmm, it’s apt.  Johnson is moving through this set of conversations, all in the service of helping couples develop healthy attachment relationships through being honest and open about their emotions.  Now, being me (and I don’t mean that as a bad thing), I’m beginning to think through not only what all this means for my own marriage, not only what it means for my own ministry of pastoral care and counseling, but also what attachment theory has to offer for how we understand our relationships with God.  All the same basic questions apply: Does God really love me?  Really care?  Am I really safe in God?  Will I be rejected?  Will I be accepted?  Do I really know who this God person is anyway?

In conclusion, as much as I’m liking what I’m reading, I need to read a good novel.  I’ve made a tiny start on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but I’m not yet sure that it’s got me hooked.

“To Keep a True Lent” by Robert Herrick

Is this a Fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A down-cast look and sour?

No: ’tis a Fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat
And meat
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife
And old debate,
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Lenten Devotion 1.1

So what’s the deal with Ash Wednesday? (Yes, other than the fact that noseless people like the fellow to my left observe it.)  Today you may be wondering this very question.  Many of my kinfolk do.  Their problem and possibly yours:

Matthew 6:1, 16-18: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting…But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Interestingly enough, this is the prescribed Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday not just this year, but every year.  And today Dr. Warren Smith preached directly on Christians who respond to Ash Wednesday as either “hypocrites” (who really do want them ashes to show off their holier-than-thouness) or “cynics” (people like me and plenty of people I know who just don’t get how putting ashes on our heads jives with our practicing piety in secret).  His simple and fairly convincing procedure to figuring it out?  A mixture of exegesis and exploration of intent.  We aren’t wearing ashes because we are fasting, but because we are entering a season of repentance.  Wearing ashes isn’t supposed to mean we think ourselves holy, but that we see ourselves in need of repentance, in need of God.  And I think it’s good for most of us to be looked in the eye once a year and personally humbled: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (I realize that might be a bizarre sentiment to some, especially non-Christians, who read this blog, so ask.)

My problem, however: even if we are well-intentioned and mean the right thing by wearing the ashes, do non-Christians (and the many Christians who are not a particular kind of Christian) understand our intentions?  When Duke undergrads get on the bus, and there are a handful of people scattered throughout the bus with ashes on their heads, what does it mean to those undergrads?  Several may know that Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is a season leading up to Easter.  Others know Ash Wednesday as the day after Mardi Gras.  Still others know that some and not other Christians get ashes on their head once a year for some reason.  Who knows why?  Christians do a lot of things, after all.

But I am a Christian, a theologically well-educated one, one who cares about the historic forms of Christian worship and who belongs to a liturgical denomination and local church, and I am still conflicted about what the imposition of ashes communicates.  I am convinced that the ashes do plenty of communicating to non-Christians, and I cannot believe that the intended message of the ashes is actually being communicated to anyone outside of a very small group within the Christian community, most of whom already also wearing ashes on their foreheads.  It doesn’t matter if Eucharist and baptism don’t make sense outside the church, because they happen in the context of Christian worship.  Ash Wednesday goes straight out into the public sphere.

Now I say all this, but I am really looking forward to my first observed Lent this year (although I don’t know if I can call it observed since I didn’t get ashed today).

And there is some solace for me: the Orthodox don’t do Ash Wednesday, either (funny, in a decidedly non-haha way, considering that I quoted an Orthodox theologian in my last post, and yes, I know I’m not actually doing Orthodox Lent, either).  Then there’s also the good friend of mine, who really is a worship/liturgy nerd, told me that he doesn’t really get Ash Wednesday either, and that he thinks he might just go along with it.  If there are others of us out there, sit it out next year (lie like me, and claim you’re Orthodox, if you need a good defense) and for as long as it takes to figure out what your forehead is saying when you step out of the church building.  And if you’re a Christian who’s always been weirded out by Lent because Ash Wednesday is an offputting gateway, consider trying the rest of Lent first.  Really, you can.  I promise it still works.

To you and yours, have a Happy solemn Lent!.