During the past several months, I have have gotten hooked on the soundtrack to the newest Broadway hit musical, Hamilton. Historically meticulous and set to a hip-hop score, it chronicles the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s lesser-known Founding Fathers.
In a brilliant stylistic choice, the play is narrated by the antagonist Aaron Burr (who, to most Americans, was known exclusively for killing our first Treasury Secretary in a duel). In Burr’s defining song, “Wait for It,” he sings:
“Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes”
Each time I hear this song, these words ring out to me, resonating with bitter truth and returning my thoughts to the question I’ve had in the aftermath of my precious mother’s death two years ago. “How in the WORLD,” I would ask myself, my husband, my father, in exasperation, “is MOM dead and this person or that person is alive? How is it that she – who fought for her life in quiet bravery, who brought light into the lives of so many, who loved to live – is dead, when others who do not appreciate life, who mistreat life, who are seemingly trying to throw their lives away, survive?”
Every once in a while, these thoughts still make me a little indignant. To call it “unfair” sounds petulant, childish. But that’s how I felt.
The simple and obvious truth for me now is, actually, that everyone dies. This is not profound, I know, but it is powerful. And it feels important to me to acknowledge it every once in a while. Equally true is that everyone grieves. I was reminded of this truth recently, when for the second time in less than a month, I made paximadia for a colleague who had lost a father. It was so comforting that the tradition of the Church had given me a means through which I could express my heartache for them. How beautiful it was that I could call on something meaningful to say – “May his memory be eternal!” – when words are so hard to come by. The Church has these traditions there, waiting for us, when we need them. I continue to grieve for my mother, but in doing so, I have been prepared to be a comfort for friends who inevitably will lose their loved ones, too. Even in her death, my mother continues to give and teach.
The way we choose to live our lives is our choice; death is not. It is waiting for us, all of us, in God’s mysterious time. Some people live years after their cancer prognoses are predicted; others’ lives are so fleeting that we are left with nothing but breathless disbelief.
We cannot live in fear of the inevitable, but it is only natural that we ask the obvious questions: Why did that plane crash and not mine? Why did my friend’s precious newborn baby girl die and her twin brother lived? Will I live to meet my own grandchildren? Like other questions of life and death, we Orthodox find answers in the mystery of God. We do not know, but He does.
This is something – and something major – which we are comfortable not knowing, not having the answers to. I studied journalism and now teach high school; this concept of “not knowing” is something I have been trained to reject and teach others not to accept. This works for me in the worldly issues of politics and academics, but human certitude is vapid in the face of God. We must live in the world without being of the world.
I remember my hometown priest’s response to a question my sister asked after my mother’s death. Honestly, I don’t remember the question itself. But I remember the conclusion of his answer: “I could be wrong. God is a mystery.” That the Church is at ease with the Mystery of Jesus Christ is incredibly powerful, offering a place of refuge where there are no clear answers – in those shades of grey that envelope life and death.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Faith takes the place of that which escapes our knowledge.” Death may be an inevitable mystery, but it is not to be feared. Our faith gives us a reason to keep living joyfully. In Lin Manuel Miranda’s song, Aaron Burr’s signature piece, the contemplation continues:
“And we keep loving anyway
We laugh and we cry and we break
And we make our mistakes”
The bitterness I sometimes feel about my mom’s death is overwhelmed by the love she gave my siblings and me and the love she continues to bring when we remember her and tell her charming stories to others. In her absence, we continue to live our imperfect lives. In God’s mysterious truth, we will be reunited. And we wait for it.
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