To Earn Death
Mary Cantwell, writing in the New York Times about Jean Rhys (called some years ago “the best living English novelist”), quotes Rhys: “If I stop writing, my life will have been an abject failure . . . I will not have earned death.” Cantwell goes on to comment:
To earn death. The command staggers. For Jean Rhys it meant wringing from herself all she had to say. One hopes for her sake she died written out. But the rest of us? One seldom has the chance to earn death. That is the tragedy of dying young: one goes with so much juice left. Better to die a husk.
To earn one’s death. I think of it as a kind of parlor game. How, I shall ask my friends, would you like to earn your deaths? The question is strangely liberating, impl does action, energy, choice. In fact, it has an unex American ring: death as First Prize. I like it. It mak nights less frightening.
I do not know what your particular gifts are, but I pray that you leave this life with them all used up. There is in Cantwell’s comment an echo of Paul’s summation of his life. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown . . . “(2 Timothy 4:7). Feeling as Paul felt does make the night less frightening.
There is, however, another strand of religiosity that demands the subjection of one’s talents to mission. Some people speak of it as evangelism. Others talk of subjugating the flesh in a variety of ways from celibacy to spending a substantial amount of time in worship and prayer in varied private and public contexts. In such a system the Christ who came to give life, to enrich our existence in this world and beyond, comes to be seen as denying many of life’s greatest joys: the joys of artistic expression, of talent well used, and a world enriched by our having shared our gifts. It is no wonder that some who see this side of Christianity decide that they will have no part of it.
But the notion of reflecting God’s image once more into the world – the image of the generous, loving creator, filling his world with beauty, order, freedom, and glory – must go wider than community-creation on the one hand and evangelism on the other. The “royal” vocation of Jesus’s followers must give rise to the hard-won virtues of seeking, generating, and sustaining justice and beauty in a world where both have been at a discount for too long.
What we need are those who know that the highest expression of one’s faith comes when one does well what he or she is called to do. The Christian physician who heals because he or she has been healed; the Christian writer who writes because he or she has a glimpse of the human condition and can speak of it; the teacher who understanding ignorance brings knowledge and wisdom to our children; the Christian musician who plays because he or she knows music transcends the babble of our language; the Christian scientist who knows that the expansion of our knowledge cannot impinge upon the realm of the divine, the coal miner who simply has a daughter.
Not all have been called to proclaim the Word from the pulpit. Those who preach, it has been said, should do so only because they cannot do anything else. This truth cuts both ways.