By Rhody Mastin
Led by Debra Walters, a spiritual director and hospice chaplain, “Living Boldly, Dying Well” asked us to consider how individual, corporate, and systemic beliefs contribute to our ability to live and die without fear. And more specifically, she prompted us to consider: Where is God in the midst of the wonderful and the wicked? How does our faith operate when fear is validated, and visa versa?
While we might intellectually know that God is with us and proclaim that it is well with our souls, we are not always well-equipped to do the emotional work of grief and lament. When we cannot adequately establish congruency between our internal and external lives in times of deep pain, we fail to allow our faith to inform our wellness. Instead, we fray and compartmentalize, which is the pretext for fear.
Fear, Walters argues, destabilizes our spiritual centers. It preoccupies us with pain, which thwarts our ability to live into the Greek understanding of boldness, parresia: freedom, confidence, and “leaving a witness that… deserves to be remembered.” In some sense, living boldly prefigures the extent to which we can die well. And dying well, Walters implies, requires empowerment stemming from emotional, physical, financial, and social preparation.
The conversation emphasized the necessity of forgiveness as a prerequisite for both living and dying—indeed, the act of forgiveness might even grant us permission to die. Assuming the reality of pain in our lives and deaths, forgiveness of self and other is not only kindness, but necessity and faith.
Throughout the conversation my thoughts turned to the writings of Flannery O’Connor and her theology of grace. In all of O’Connor’s writings, pain is a tightly choreographed and pedagogically performed endeavor. It is not senseless or meaningless in her plotlines. It is not random. And it might even be beautiful in its spectacle to the extent that it teaches us about the quality of grace.
To be clear, as one must be when talking about O’Connor, when O’Connor uses pain as a metaphor for grace, she is not making a statement about the content of grace. Grace is not painful. But, she wishes to say, grace, like pain, is shocking, life-altering, absurd, intimate, and undeserved.
How we process pain—how we work it out for ourselves and in our churches—will determine how we understand grace in death and what it means to die well. But, I believe that, like O’Connor teaches us, pain might also teach us about grace. If we do not let fear consume our person—if we don’t put on a mask when we’re scared, as Walters said—pain has the powerful potential to bring us together and teach us about who God is: One who is with us, with us, with us, like our heartbeat and beyond our heartbeat. That is the grace of the living and the dying.
Rhody Mastin is a third-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, she is a labor and postpartum doula in Durham, North Carolina and a CBF Leadership Scholar. She currently works for Emmaus Way.