Birth-Like Death: A Thank You to Phyllis Tickle
There is something about life that brings us back to death. There is something about death that brings us back to life. And it is, quite possibly, the reality that they are not all too different.
When the intellectually infamous, philosophically articulate Christian author Phyllis Tickle came through our city two years ago to speak at the local liberal arts college, she was brought on a time-filler tour of our intern house where young adults come to live temporarily and experience Christian intentional community. To have her walk through our halls was a humbling opportunity indeed.
She was brilliant and gracious, like a woman in her 80s with the energy of a 35 year old and the wisdom of many centuries all packaged into one. She chuckled as she moved to various parts of the property, sharing stories and concepts of the different communities she’d visited and asking questions about life-together here in our neighborhood.
She spoke that night, with the same assurance in which she writes, about how the church is not dying but is changing. Her researched and convicted words about Christ’s Body weaved in and out of her birds-eye view on Christianity and the very intimate motivation for what we are to do now—for what we are already doing. She was funny and spry, reminding a room full of church elders and laypeople that she is currently at the age where she can say whatever she wants so why hold back. And it was beautifully charged with hope and perspective. Undeniably charged with those things.
I met Phyllis Tickle just this once on her short visit to Shreveport, LA, but I cried in deep, grateful grief as I read the news that she now faces the road of Stage IV Lung Cancer, predicted to only have a few more months to live. “What a gift we have been given by her life,”is all I can repeat.
News of her recent diagnoses has spread throughout the religious and writing worlds (where she has been at the forefront for so many years) as people have turned to hear her response to impending death. I laid awake one night this week, unable to get comfortable in these final days of my first pregnancy, and read an interview with Phyllis on religionnews.com where she so eloquently shared her perspective on this next chapter of life called dying.
But the part that caught my attention the most was her story concerning a near death experience that she had at the young age of 21 where an experimental drug, meant to lessen chances of miscarriage, had almost cost Phyllis her life. I read as she explained the (beautiful to some, eerie to me) process of hovering over her own body, of passing through a tunnel entirely covered with grass and coming into a “light”or a “peace”where she was invited to stay but chose to return.
“You’re never afraid after that,”Phyllis said in her interview.
This could have been comforting to read. Truly, this should have been comforting to read—this near-death-experience that has left someone unafraid of the unknown that proceeds the after-life. However, lying awake at 1:30am with the back pains of approaching delivery, this peace-filled perspective only gave me further fear and anxiety about what is to come once we leave this earth.
I try not to think about death or heaven or what’s next too often. If I sit with it long enough, I am faced with this reality: I know no one outside of Jesus that has ever experienced it, and that by itself can create a canyon of uncertainty and fear that I would simply rather avoid. But awake at such a late hour, and unable to move or distract much, I asked myself that night why this conveyance of Tickle’s made me so anxious. Why did that tunnel, and even that light and peace, sound daunting and sad and morbid? Why does death seem so hollow?
It did not take me long to answer. It is in fact because it seems so lonely. To me at least. It is the most unknown of journeys that one must make “by themselves,”often leaving what and who they know for much of what they don’t. It is surrounded by black cloth and tears and words like “loss”and “end.”It is often referenced as the opposite of life. And we tend to like life and a good deal of what it encompasses.
I put my phone down and rearranged our nursery two or three more times in my head in order to trick myself into going to sleep and stop thinking about mortality and sickness and heaven.
The next morning I waddled down the hall with my cereal and a couple of articles meant to educate about labor—the marathon we are expecting to kick-off any day now. I read about how our bodies more often than not simply know when it is time, and all the gears and wheels start cranking for this baby’s transition into its next stage of existence. I read how our son will begin movement and how it will come with very specific aches and require a very specific strength. “It will be like he is passing through a tunnel as he comes through the birth canal and into the light of the room,”it explained. And I stopped.
The tunnel. The light.
I thought about how this womb-life is the only reality my son has ever known. It is what is familiar, it is how he has grown, it is where he has stayed connected. And very soon he will be required to make a journey that—if he had the capacity to understand or articulate—might could seem very unsettling, frightening, and ultimately lonely. It is in fact true that no one else will be traveling this same exact path as he will at the same exact time.
I compared my fear of death to what could potentially be paralleled to an infant’s fear of life. And I asked myself what I would tell him if I could.
“You do not need to be afraid.”
“I am right here, all around you. And I love you.”
“Everyone experiences this, it is natural, and it is good.”
“You cannot understand right now, but life here is so much more than life in there.”
“You are not actually doing this alone. We have to do it together for it to work.”
“There are people who already love you, and have loved you this entire time, waiting for your arrival. And they will be there directly on the other side.”
“You’ve actually been here all along. You’ll just be able to see it and be a full part of it now.”
You’ve actually been here all along. The scriptures about new life, and torn veils, and being seated in the heavenly realms came to mind. I thought about the verses in Romans that say, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”
Peace found me in the thought of this world as a womb that leads to a next life actually more similar to birth than what we think of death. Peace found me in the thought that heaven is maybe more near than we think.
Rachel Held Evans says in her book Searching for Sunday, “Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.”
And this is good news to me. That maybe death isn’t altogether different than life. Maybe heaven is not as much distant as it is more. And certainly, it is not lonely and for that reason, does not need to be scary.
Thank you, Phyllis Tickle, for your years, your words, your bravery, your interpretations, your love for the Church. I am grateful for yet another lesson on why there is much more reason to hope than there is to fear. What a gift we’ve been given by your life, indeed.