Some days, life is simply an embarrassment of riches. Yesterday was one such day. The fact that it was nearly 60 degrees and I was out and about without a coat from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. had a lot to do with it! Many things conspired to make it so. Certainly one big ingredient was the rich discussion over dinner and later at a panel discussion sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Inter-Faith Dialogue. Last evening was the culmination of four monthly gatherings of a discussion group reading Religious Understandings of a Good Death in Hospice Palliative Care, edited by Harold Coward and Kelli I. Stajduhar.
Now, WAIT! … hold on before you dismiss the topic as depressing! What made the evening so inspiring was the convergence of a shared conviction that a “good death” is the culmination of living well. Another contributing factor was the extraordinary array of panelists representing Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim perspectives. They were graciously facilitated by Rabbi David Wirtschafter, the Jay Phillips Center’s visiting scholar in Jewish Studies. It really was quite an enjoyable, hope-filled evening.
Prior to the program, I was privileged to sit at dinner with Owais Bayunus, past president of the Islamic Center of Minnesota and current director of its interfaith activities. He convincingly described how the Five Pillars of Islam – declaration of faith, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage – dispose one throughout life to die well. When the inevitability of death comes we are better prepared.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, nationally esteemed leader of the Jewish healing movement and in the field of Jewish spiritual direction related a wonderful story from the Talmud. When asked by students how to have a good death, the rabbi simply explained: “Repent the day before you die!” After disappointment and incredulity, the students finally understood the rabbi’s simple teaching: living as well as you can every day is the same as preparing for death.
Joen Snyder O’Neal is an ordained Zen priest who received dharma transmission from Katagiri Roshi in 1989. She was my personal favorite for the translucent manner with which she manifested the blessings of more than 40 years of Buddhist practice. Joen recounted childhood truths garnered from her father’s patient instruction on the right technique for diving into – passing through – waves on the Delaware shore. She referenced Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching about the inimitable “personality” of each wave that purposefully rises in all its uniqueness only to subside in reluctant but honest acknowledgment that it too is only one manifestation of the more expansive and enduring water.
Joan Olson, board-certified chaplain at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and certified spiritual director represented the affiliation of the Christian majority in the room. Her compassionate presence, considerable experience and obvious love for her Catholic roots warmly complemented the wisdom of the other presenters.
My own experience with death teaches that medical condition, age, time to prepare for “the inevitable,” many factors contribute to a “good death.” Some deaths are simply easier and more peaceful; some can be excruciating and prolonged. One thing I know for certain – each and everyone deserves to be treated with love, dignity, compassion and respect. Something I observed during my 12-month chaplain residency was affirmed by the panelists – more often than not, it is the nurse and immediate health care providers, not the priests or pastors, who most consistently “minister” God to the dying and bereft in our health care settings. Again, it takes a village!
Yesterday was a spectacular day of rich blessing and easy gratitude – a very good preparation for dying “in the state of grace.”