"Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your "Yes" be yes and your "No" be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation." James 5:12




"For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you... was not 'Yes and No'; but was always 'Yes.'"
2 Corinthians 1:19



"Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No;' anything more than this comes from the evil one..."
Matthew 5:37




"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do..."
Romans 7:15-19



"Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses..." Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, p. 52



"Anger: Wherever the patient looks at this time, he will find grievances... He will raise his voice, he will make demands, he will complain and ask to be given attention... 'I am a live, don't forget that...'"
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, p. 65



"Bargaining: We are all familiar with this reaction when we observe our children first demanding, then asking for a favor. They may not accept our 'No'... They may be angry and stamp their foot... But they will have second thoughts... and will tell us, 'If I am very good all week and wash the dishes every evening, then will you let me go?" Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, p. 52



"When the depression is a tool to prepare for impending loss of all the love objects, the patient should not be encouraged to look at the sunny side of things, as this would mean he should not contemplate his impending death." Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, p. 99




"[A patient] will have been able to express his previous feelings, his envy for the living and the healthy, his anger at those who do not have to face their end so soon. He will have mourned the impending loss of so many meaningful people and places, and he will contemplate his coming end with a certain degree of quiet expectation..."
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, p. 123-124.



"I think there are many reasons for this flight away from facing death calmly One of the morst important facts is that dying nowadays is more gruesome in many ways, namely, more lonely, mechanical, and dehumanized... Dying becomes lonely and impersonal because the patient is taken out of his familiar environment and rushed to an emergency room... When a person is severely ill, he is often treated like a person with no right to an opinion..." Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, p. 21-23.

An Existential Approach to Liturgy

Part VI: The Way of the Paschal Mystery -
Concerning Death and Dying

A. Towards a Contemplative Liturgical Spirituality II:

1. Summary: Human nature and Liturgical prayer:
- a. Liturgical prayer:
So far our investigation has yielded the following characteristics of "those who gather to celebrate:" Liturgical prayer draws the members of a local congregation in the Sacrifice of Praise and the Paschal Mystery. They are oriented by the liturgy to pour out themselves completely in the love and praise of God and in the love and service of the neighbor.

In this way, the congregational stance in prayer conforms more and more to that of Christ, who continually pours himself out toward the Father and on our behalf. Therefore, liturgical prayer and worship call the members of a congregation to a profound "dying to self."

- b. Human nature:
Herein lies the rub: we humans resist this sort of "dying to self." So, since the liturgy forms the basis of this existential sort of encounter between the Body of Christ in the world and the Triune God, a Contemplative Liturgical Spirituality needs to account for those aspects of human nature that resist such an encounter as much as it accounts for those that welcome the encounter. Otherwise, the only stance we are left with is hypocrisy, a stance based on pretense.

Whether we understand human nature's resistance to "life and death matters" in terms of the psychological analysis of Ernest Becker - the denial of death - or in terms of the spiritual approach of Thomas Keating - the rule of the false self - we discover an image of the Body of Christ involved in a "life and death" kind of tug-of-war. We all are called to "lose one's life in order to gain one's life" in the very prayer of the liturgy, yet often enough we avoid and resist such a death, such a letting go.

- c. Conscious participation:
One conclusion is inevitable: that if we are going to enter into a conscious participation in worship, we need to be able to balance our awareness of our worship of God with a consciousness - at one and the same time - of our acceptance and resistance of this encounter. But, why? Why bring up all that "stuff?" Because the path to a more profound engagement with the Sacrifice of Praise and the Paschal Mystery goes through our resistance. Or, as Keating put it, our road to deification goes through the healing of our false self.

Inasmuch as our description of the person and community at worship is accurate, a most basic question must be addressed: How? How do we move along this path of resistance to conformity to Christ?

- d. Two forms of prayer:
- - i. Apophatic prayer:

Thomas Keating offers an apophatic answer in Centering Prayer. That is, he counsels the person in contemplation to let go of images and feelings that do not lead directly to resting in God's presence. Apophatic prayer is an ancient and venerable kind of prayer recommended by monks worldwide, from Buddhists to the Desert Fathers and Mothers to Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. It renounces images and feelings in order to finally come to rest in the presence of God.

- - ii. Cataphatic prayer:
Another form of prayer, called cataphatic, honors and reverences images and feelings and goes through them to God. This form of prayer also has an ancient and well-attested history in the world of religions. Any sort of prayer that highlights the mediation of creation can be called cataphatic. So, praying before icons or images of saints; the mediation of sacraments and sacramentals; prayer out in creation - all these are cataphatic forms of prayer. The liturgy with its prayers, ritual gestures, and ritual symbols is a very important prayer of this type.

- - iii. A "Cataphatic Way: "So, since cataphatic prayer relies upon the mediating power of created things, one might wonder whether there is an analogous way of dealing with images and feelings. So, instead of "letting them go," one "goes through them."

Here we propose a 'cataphatic way' of dealing with those resistances that arise in liturgical prayer as we, the Body of Christ, are called and drawn into the Sacrifice of Praise and the Paschal Mystery. This 'way' finds its basis in the early work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who studied the reactions of people who were dying. Her classic book is entitled, On Death and Dying: What the Dying have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families.*

- e. A Digression - Talking with the Dying:
Dr. Kubler-Ross was approached by four Chicago Theological Seminary students in the fall of 1965 who wanted to study death as a major "crisis in human life." Together they settled on a simple method of proceeding: they would ask terminally ill patients to report on their experience of dying. Next, they looked for patterns in the interviews - patterns in the patients and in themselves. (see On Death and Dying, p. 35)

From the many interviews she and her students made, a number of patterns began to appear. They are rather well known today and will be reviewed in just a moment. First, however, it is important to note that one of the questions which surfaced often among doctors was, "Should we tell ...." Kubler-Ross recommended revising it to, "How do I share this with my patient?" (p. 41)

This is as much an interesting question for liturgists, presiders, preachers, and the Body of Christ as it is for doctors. "How do we share this one aspect of the Sacrifice of Praise or the Paschal Mystery with our local congregations? How, in fact, do we ourselves receive the news? If Dr. Kubler-Ross and her students learned about life and death from their patients, one wonders what we in the Church can learn from us and our people who are invited, even called, to "lose our lives" by the Gospel. The question addressed here is, what is the role of grief in facing the Paschal Mystery?

B. On Death and Dying:
The following "stages" are not like developmental stages that have to be negotiated before moving to a further stage of maturity. They are not necessarily linear. Rather, they function more like an odd kind of map that tells the traveler, "If the terrain looks like this, then you are in..." The stages aid a person's discernment concerning the question, "Where am I now?"

While the following stages describe reactions of terminally ill patients, the reader is counseled to consider them in terms of the liturgy's proclamation of "life and death matters," that Christians are called to "lose our lives."

1. A First Stage -Denial and Isolation:
In response to the medical diagnosis of a terminal illness, many people respond with denial: "No, this cannot be true. Not me; not now." "Let's just not talk about it now." "I'm really OK." This is often, but not always, the first reaction to such news. It is a response of grief serves as an important facet of possibly coming to terms with such an announcement. Dr. Kubler-Ross wrote,

"Denial, at least partial denial, is used by almost all patients, not only during the first stages of illness, but also later on from time to time... These patients can consider the possibility of their own death for a while, but then have to put this consideration away in order pursue life.

"I emphasize this strongly since I regard it as a healthy way of dealing with the uncomfortable and painful situation with which some of these patients have to live for a long time. Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses...

"Denial is usually a temporary defense and will soon be replaced by partial acceptance." (p. 52-53)

Denial, then, can be of service to a person's acceptance of his / her impending death.
Isolation - distancing from others and from the threatening knowledge - also offers a respite from dread. It also can be a part of a person's path to acceptance.


2. A Second Stage -Anger:
When the question, "Why me?" arises, a person often enough experiences feelings of anger, resentment, rage, or even envy. Angry reactions seem to be rarely welcomed by the patient or by his / her family and friends. "Everything is wrong." "Nobody else understands." "No one else is bearing a burden like this." "Why are they all happy?" "It isn't fair." (see pp. 63ff)

Anger is one reaction to the realization that life as one has known it is coming to an end. It signals a deeper comprehension that those things one relied upon for identity - work, fame, looks, "things" - will be taken away. People get angry at God, at family, at friends, or at a hospital staff. Again, it is one more possible response to the announcement of death. It is a stage, or a "state," that one may leave and re-enter repeatedly.


3. A Third Stage -Bargaining:
Bargaining describes the attempt of the patient to enter into some sort of agreement that may postpone the inevitable happening: "Maybe God will respond to my pleas if I ask nicely." "If I do such and such..." "If I promise this and the other thing..." "If I am good from now on..." Dr. Kubler-Ross wrote,

"The bargaining is really an attempt to postpone; it has to include a prize offered 'for good behavior,' it also sets a self-imposed 'deadline'... and it includes an implicit promise that the patient will not ask for more if this one postponement is granted... Most bargains are made with God..." (p. 95)


4. A Fourth Stage -Depression / Deep Sadness:
A sense of great loss may come to replace stoicism or anger or numbness. "Depression is the preparatory grief that the terminally ill patient has to undergo in order to prepare himself for his final separation from this world." (p. 98) But, Dr. Kubler-Ross distinguished two different kinds of depression.

a. Reactive depression carries with it unrealistic shame or guilt that may be easily alleviated by addressing personal concerns or even organizational issues in a person's life. This kind deals with a past loss.

b. Preparatory depression takes into account impending losses. It is a mode the dying person employs to prepare for the impending loss of so many people and things. Dr. Kubler-Ross wrote,

"Our initial reaction to sad people is usually to try to cheer them up... We encourage them to look on the bright side of life... This is often an expression of our own needs, our own inability to tolerate a long face over any extended period of time. This can be a useful approach when dealing with the first type of depression in terminally ill patients.

"[But in the second kind of depression] The patient is in the process of losing everything and everybody he loves. If he is allowed to express his sorrow he will find a final acceptance much easier..." (p. 99, emphasis added.)

This time of deep sadness, then, indicates that the person is in the throes of encountering the depth of the loss that looms on the horizon. If the grief is not blocked by the person or others, a deeper acceptance of one's death seems possible.


5. A Fifth Stage -Acceptance:
What is acceptance? How is it different from a resignation that signifies a giving up too early? Is it reached partially at times, or by fits and starts? Acceptance seems to describe a final goal, a state of peace or pause, as much as it indicates moments along the way that point to the reality of such a goal.

Inasmuch as it is a goal, what is interesting for this discussion of a liturgical spirituality is that one gains it most often through the path of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.

"Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost void of feelings. It is as if the pain had gone, the struggle is over, and there comes a time for 'the final rest before the long journey' as one patient phrased it." (p. 124)


C. Some Final Thoughts:
Our wager here is that there exists a fair and advantageous analogy between the 'path' of the terminally ill toward some state of acceptance and the process that a member of the Body of Christ could go through to accept more fully the call to "lose one's life" inherent in liturgical prayer.

Yet, our question does differ somewhat from the one the doctor noted above. Instead of, "What do I tell my patient?" ours seems to be, "What do I do when I hear Christ's call to 'lose my life?'" For unless we preachers, presiders, liturgists, musicians, and pastors deal with our reactions to this call of Christ, our prayer, preaching, and singing will ring hollow to the people.

These reflections are offered, finally, as another diagnosis and prescription for contemporary liturgical prayer. Our diagnosis states our worship finds itself at an impasse, in one sense, due to the very nature of the Christian encounter with God!

The prayer, ritual gestures, and ritual symbols of the liturgy draw us into the Sacrifice of Praise and the Paschal Mystery - those mysteries that describe the essential meaning of our lives - and we humans resist dying. Doesn't that seem like a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object?

And so, a contemporary and contemplative liturgical spirituality needs to account for the resistance to dying, to handing oneself over in trust, in the hearts of people - our hearts! - before, during, and after worship. It is hoped that the previous presentations on Keating, Becker, and Kubler-Ross may help focus the discussion around this aspect of the experience of "those who gather to celebrate." It seems ironic, but people who attend to their resistances within liturgical prayer seem to be more present to God, themselves, and others than not.

Many questions remain to be answered; many more need to be asked.

What is the role of grief and grieving in our personal spiritual lives, in our communal lives, and in our liturgical rites?



*Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., On Death and Dying: What the Dying have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969)

Copyright © Robert F. O'Connor, S.J., 2000. All Rights Reserved.


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