From Part 1. Death and Dying in the Celtic Tradition
Opening the Heart to Death
Can you be with me in the cold morning of dying?
When the fire in me is out and nothing warms my blood
Can you watch with the eye of a mother?
When the candle is burnt and the friends have gone?
Can you just be, not wishing one more breath in me?
And when my eyes are closed shut,
Glad of the long quiet rest
Will you then travel still with me?
As I close this door behind
And open into the open heart of death
Sweet love call that brought me birth,
Now calls me safely back in earth.
This poem, originally in Gaelic, is one I have remembered for over half a century, having first heard it read, with a sense of wonder in the original language, by my mother who taught me in primary school in Donegal, Ireland, from 1948 until 1959. Even as a young person I found this poem comforting as it regarded death and dying in a friendly way and asks the carer to ‘watch with the eye of a mother’ and simply ‘be, not wanting one more breath in me’. The ‘watcher’ was asked to ‘travel still with me’ as the dying person was taking a journey ‘into the open heart of death’.
This reference to opening into ‘the open heart of death’ is interesting; it seemed that the old ones saw death as all-inclusive, all-embracing, like an Anam Cara (soul-friend) who gives the ‘long rest’ and sings a ‘sweet love call’ that ‘calls me safely back in earth’. This idea of a love call calling us to ‘in-body’ and calling us back to spirit again, is part of Celtic belief regarding birth and death. They believed that a note or sound calls us to embody (‘in-body’) whilst the same sound in a higher octave calls us to disembody. The closing of the door of earth-life is an initiation that the soul experiences as it enter into the various passages in the spirit world. It is the leaving behind, the experience of decathexis (i.e., where memories, etc., no longer arouse emotion) from all material form, the great transformation. The Anam Áire, carer of the soul, the one who journeys with the soul in the afterlife will ‘travel still’ with it as it opens into the ‘open heart of death.’
How can we possibly talk of the open heart of death when it seems that its sole purpose is to take from us what we love and, furthermore, how can we be expected to open to something that seems to have no regard for life?
How can we sit easily with such a heartless one who steals from us the deep, connecting bonds of friends and family and who will eventually take our own breath and leave others bereft and mourning too? Surely it would be insanity to consider inviting the antithesis of life itself into our consciousness!
Indeed, would it not lead to all sorts of unnecessary grief and sorrow and eventually bring only depression and emotional breakdown, encouraging the taking of one’s life?
Surely opening the heart to death would be to deny life and all its beauty, energy and abundance. All these statements seem very reasonable and very sensible. And somehow as I write them they speak of a great fear, ignorance and defensiveness, as if the essence of life itself was being threatened and we, the custodians of this precious gift, have a duty to protect it from this beast of prey, this thief death. Considering the immensity of the suffering, the challenges, the seeming arrogance and treachery that death often brings, many of us are left feeling overwhelmed and victimized by its power.
This was not the philosophy of our ancestors the Celts. They were always prepared for that inevitable visitor. Death was seen as a great journey, a great adventure into the vastness of our own nature, into the earth of our self. Death was not seen as a thief in the night, as nature had prepared them well in her changing seasons and moods. Death was seen as a natural way of dealing with An Tursach mór, the great tiredness, and they were ‘glad of the long rest at last’.
Contemporary religious education concerning death does not make us more conscious, so most of us spend time and energy avoiding this so-called intruder and, by whatever means, try to keep its stiff, icy fingers off what is near and dear to us. We seem to be of the opinion that this will make it easier for us to live our lives fully, without fear of the future. When life asks us to die the smaller deaths, i.e., to let go of someone or something in order to move on in our lives towards fullness, unwillingness to accept change will not facilitate this. Ignoring the inevitability of death will not help us to have a deeper respect for this life and live it more consciously moment by moment.
Closing our eyes to anything creates fear and fear keeps us ignorant of facts and ignorance of the facts keeps us unconscious. We are here in our earth bodies to widen and deepen our consciousness so that we will have eyes that can see and ears that can hear as Jesus the Christ advised. Partial seeing shuts us down, blinds us to a wider more all-encompassing reality that accepts birth and death as the unique ways in which life expresses itself in form and out of form. Consciousness is the opposite of avoidance. The more our awareness widens into our psyches the more we will be able to see through the eyes of unconditional or impersonal love.
In other words, consciousness provides us with a new means of connecting, of communicating, of knowing. It enables us to see and hear the hidden or symbolic messages in all we encounter. In consciously observing the changing seasons of nature and applying these changes to their own lives, the Celts were enabled to live soulfully and die in the same consciousness. Celtic Christians sought to have with them ‘The mind of Christ’--i.e., where our egos or earth-minds become one with our essential nature, which is Spirit or Life itself. This mindfulness helps us to know more clearly the purpose of our lives in earth-form and we joyfully realize that: Life is not threatened by the loss of form.
It is our ignorance of this fact that has kept us from looking at death in a more wholesome and holy way. The deep disappointment and despair for many of us is the realization that we are not the controllers of life; that life is and always has been and it is not dependent on whether we are in earth-form or spirit. What Celtic spirituality has taught me is that our individual soul is subject to the guidance of spirit/life as it is merely a messenger--that which brings the abundance of energy to our natures. It is so deeply comforting really to know that we as human beings, unique and complex expressions of life, birthed from the vast expanse of life force itself, have something glorious in common with all other expressions of life whether they be in body or not, and that is:
We all have a responsible relationship to this mighty energy in which all created phenomena live and move and have their beingness. It is not a matter of life’s being in us for a while, rather we are forever in life and subject to its laws and mysteries.
This is a humbling thought and one that helps to open our hearts in the deepest gratitude to life that sustains and nurtures us in earth and in the life after earth. Our greatness is that our essence is life itself. We come from life: we return to life. This is all. We are forever in life and we cannot escape this fact.
Whilst it would be quite naïve of me to think I can ever comprehend what earth-life and spirit-life are all about, I would, however, like you to join me as we ask for guidance from our Celtic wise old ones to look at the subject of spirit-life and see if we can move from a place of either longing for it to come quickly--so that we do not have to deal with our wretched lives--or seeing it as an empty space of darkness and an end to all life. Maybe we can just reach a more informed state regarding our relationship with it. The belief that death will come as a ‘thief in the night’ only makes sense if we believe that we own life. A thief only takes from us what we rightly own. Celtic spirituality believes that we do not own anything--in nature, not our own souls, not the land, or any aspect of creation. The Celtic idea was that we are the custodians of the earth and our own lives in the earth. It is up to us to guard life, not possess it. The belief was that we cannot fully understand the majesty of nature but can only live our lives in reverential relationship to it. Our Celtic ancestors lived their simple lives carrying within their hearts and souls a sense of gratitude to life for the graces they daily received and the gifts so richly bestowed by the great Mother/Father Creator. I feel we have lost that sense of wonder and awe, that sense of deep thanksgiving for the blessings we daily receive from life. With our accumulated knowledge of things seen and unseen it seems that we will never be able to comprehend fully the great mysteries of life and death in such confined intellects and psyches because of our limited earth-consciousness.
If death could speak I believe it would say:
‘Here I am,
Open heart of death
Forever present in life.
Open to me
By letting go of every breath
So that life can breathe you freely.’