Flickering and mingling in ocean-scented wax was the familiar anxiety of anticipation. Fear and hope colluded together as I’d heard before in hushed tones and outbursts of giggles and tears. The pauses in action, the waiting, the boredom all well acquainted landmarks on a path I didn’t know I’d walked before.
It turns out birthing and dying are different colored veils of the same thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend both of these liminal events, to be invited into the spaces of beloved friends as they brought their babies into the world and to be present with the one who brought me in – the one who with-ed me during my own labors – as she left it.
And both veils cover the same threshold.
I haven’t been to every kind of delivery or every kind of death. I haven’t been in a hospital for either. I haven’t been in a back alley for either. But actually, I don’t think there is variety in kind. There’s a difference in setting, there’s a difference in how its honored by the people around it, there’s certainly a difference in its subjective significance (if you compare your cat to my child or your dead lizard to my dead mom, I am not going to be able to say anything nice or helpful to you), but birth and death in any place, under any circumstances, with any joy or loss attached to them are all, objectively, substantial.
They all have weight; they all have equal weight regardless of the value we put upon them. Because we don’t impart value or worth or meaning. God does. The universe, Source, the divine, Creator, whatever. We get our import by virtue of our existence; it’s baked into this cake, inseparable from the joys and pains and ego-trips and stubbed toes also baked in (it’s a complicated recipe).
So at my mother’s bedside, when I lit candles and turned on her favorite songs I couldn’t help but remember when she did the same for me and our fresh little newcomer. She stayed long with me to wait for delivery and we held hands to savor the days before with long walks and flower-planting and organizing kitchen drawers. We stayed up late to look at the moon and ate terrible food to pass time. She made cookies late at night before my son came and she read scripture while I suffered labor (which I cursed in my mind because theoretical scripture-reading is much sweeter than during-contraction scripture reading). We laughed at the absurdity of how far “past due” I was and she held my tears when I felt weary of the wait. We took slow steps through the passage leading us and our descendant from there to here, passed the threshold in earnest confidence on shaky legs.
Neither of us could have known we were preparing to walk her home.
Because we lit the candles and played the songs. I stayed long to wait for her to be delivered and held her hand to savor the days and weeks before as Mother and Daughter and as friends. We watched stupid shows and shopped for cute new clothes she would only get to wear for a few weeks tops. We got her favorite pizza when she wanted it. The kids made her pictures and her friends brought flowers and we put her favorite kinds of plants on the porch outside her window, decorated the wall she faced with photos of the people she loved most. We ate a mermaid cake her friend had special-ordered the week she died. We laughed at the absurdity of how long she had to wait and caught her tears when she got weary. We took slow steps through the passage leading us and her from here to there, passed the threshold with surprising gratitude on tired feet.
While waiting for my children to be born or my mother to die, priorities shifted. Bills still needed paying and teeth still needed brushing and laundry will never be done, but the amount of energy and anxiety I allotted to the rest of my life was drastically altered by the confrontation. Because I knew that the moment would be a moment in which – if only for one fleeting second – I’d see God.
Birth and death – however they happen – pull us into confrontation with the Otherness we spend much of our time ignoring.
You see this when the doctor pauses after trying – and failing – to save a life. He declares with sobriety the “time of death” and slowly pulls his mask down, no longer needed to prevent infection. He takes the fingers of the gloves he hastily applied in anxious hope and tugs them off deliberately. The veil has fallen and if only for the briefest moment, he must confront the passage. He sees God.
Or when the midwife who watches babies born with mundane regularity is moved to reverence at the time of arrival, holds her breath in the silence before first cry, and celebrates with ardent thanks the confirmation of the passage. She sees God.
Richard Rohr says “Seeing and recognizing are not the same thing… The sacramental principle is this: Begin with a concrete moment of encounter, based in this physical world, and the soul universalizes from there, so that what is true here becomes true everywhere else too.”
Birth and death are rather extreme veils to fall – the velvet, gold trimmed kind, perhaps. But because of them I suspect that there are veils all around. And if those can be ignored – if the devastating miracle of birth or death could possibly be ignored and unseen and less-than-honored (which they are), than I can only assume there are a million veil-liftings we never let ourselves attend.
And this seeing God? That’s sabbath. That’s shalom. That’s rest. That’s where our souls are meant to be, the place they long to find as they bear up their arms to protect themselves from the anxieties of living. We are assaulted with every type of sorrow, afflicted with violence and pain as we walk around the earth and something in us knows that this isn’t it, that we’re meant for something far less tragic. We know shalom exists, we just don’t always know where to find it.
Now there are different kinds of passing. When my kids were born – all four of them – I met the divine in their curled up arms and the smell of their skin. It was heavy and palpable: the presence of Other, sabbath, rest. So I expected – with all the similarities in the lead up – to meet it again when my mom passed.
Not in any notable way. It was the opposite of new life. It felt void. I felt alone. When you pass that threshold via birth it climaxes at the event; when you approach it via death, it seems, the actual event is the end of the glory.
But I saw God. In the candles and the music and the dark humor and the bible passages that seemed better in theory. I saw God in the unspeakable exhaustion of myself and my family as we tried to do what we felt utterly unqualified to do. In the white board where we tracked her meds and the songs we sang at her bedside. I saw God in the tears and felt God’s hand when I held my mother’s and she squeezed back.
When Jewish communities observe the sabbath – every week – they greet each other, “shabbat shalom” – peaceful rest. They speak over one another the hope and blessing of veil removal. Shabbot (sabbath) is when we lay down our swords. Shalom is an ideal; a peace hard-won, a full peace, a whole peace, a truly reconciled world peace. A peace that is very easy to miss in any given moment. So on Friday evenings people around the world insist on living into it regardless of how far away it looks. And this is meant to help them find shalom on Monday and Wednesday and when their in-laws visit unexpectedly and the dryer breaks and the pantry has mice and the bill is too high and the schedules conflict and the child gets sick and the parent is dying. Shabbat shalom under all of it.
Perhaps the veils are only there because we set them up. That we can’t see God not an act of divine hide-and-seek, but a result of our attempts at safety or comfort or whatever we thought we ought to hide from – pick a thing, the world is full. And perhaps the gift of sabbath, of “seeing God” is that we can see God more if we want to. Maybe the brilliance of an unadulterated moment of awareness – when a friend speaks exactly the right words, when you see a sunset that stuns you, flickering reminders during death of birth – is meant to shine through every veil we’ve put up and our ability to see it is held back only by how much we care to tack the sheets back on.
And it may be that the same euphoric beauty I beheld at the births of my children is still covering them as they grow; holiness dripping off of them and infecting everything around. And perhaps the depth of sorrow I experienced as my mother succumbed to death is married to the joy I felt in our close relation; both of which are always with me even when I don’t choose to access them.
Maybe I’m surrounded by sacrament which can, if I let it, lead me to a rest under all the unrest.
As a side note, there is a Christian tradition of “passing the peace” which is, I’m sure, full of meaning I’m not even aware of. But the Jewish “shabbat shalom” is not merely said, it’s embodied, regularly and communally. There is an expectation between those that say it that they are orienting their lives to put into practice the peaceful rest they’re talking about.