Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dorothee Soelle on the mystery of death

A Summer Series post.

Just a little light reading these days.

Dorothee Soelle, who died four years ago, was finishing a book on death days before she died. Her widower, Fulbert Steffensky, agreed to have it published and wrote the Foreword in the U.S. edition, which came out recently from Fortress Press.

Steffensky writes:

***The book is a fragment, as any human life is a fragment. Should one publish a fragment? Our family thought about this for a long time, and one of our arguments for publishing it is that she intended to do so. ...
***There was another reason we opted to publish the text as it is. After Dorothee Soelle's death we received hundred of letters in which people wrote that it was through her influence that they had found their way to the church, remained in the church, studied theology, or found courage for a pastoral vocation. We believe these people deserve to experience the intimacy of an incommplete text and its unprotected thoughts. ...
***Whoever reads this book will sense that her hands became tired. What never became tired is her wonderful, enraged passion for life.

From Dorothee Soelle's The Mystery of Death:

***[After a passage about her mother's last days and her mother's fear of having her life extended too long through technological means.] *These are new fears that have grown out of, and are still growing along with, advances in the medical field. The terror of death has in many instances been replaced by the terror of technocracy. The old fears--of starvation, death in childbirth, premature death-- are now distant memories. But does this mean we are living free of fear? The Swedish writing Henning Mankel spends most of his life in Mozambique, Africa, and his experience with old age and death there is completely different than in Sweden. He is fifty-five, and there that means he is among the aged population. The average life expectancy in Mozambique is forty-seven. Mankell writes of a "strange European revolution in the mid-1950s that removed old age from our life experience and deleted death from our agenda. ...Instead youth, energy, health are the dominant theme. Death has been transferred to the seniors' quarters. ... When death disappeared we became poorer. European culture has been ravaged by the forces of the free market just as a forest is ravaged by clear-cutting."


***.... We have become doers and have learned to see through the laws that govern processes: to intervene, banish illness, extend life, and to be makers of our own lives and our fate.

***In this process the human capacity for pathos, our ability to experience suffering, atrophies. Accepting life, admitting our limits, considering life meaningful even in its fragmentariness and brokenness, are skills we are no longer learning. The person who has learned to live only in the action mode, who finds self-justification only by doing, cannot cope with situations in which there is nothing he or she can do anymore, when limits impose themselves on us as doers. Can a doer stand to be powerless sometimes? Can doers preserve their humanity even in life's defeats, if the meaning of their very being is defined exclusively by activity and the reproduction of life? Can they be sick or die? Or are sickness and death now only to be considered sites of dramatic absurdity, best never thought of at all, to be overlooked or denied? ...

*** Death has no place in the lansdscape of life for those who are pure doers and winners. Our cemeteries are located outside the urban centers. We live in a landscape where everyone is young and strong, rich, intelligent, and good-looking --or must appear so. The weak, the old, the dying do not count. Thus life in its waning stages has no name. It is difficult to die in this landscape of winners who manage without memory.


[In a longer passage on the early days of November when Christians remember the dead. I will come back to this next November, I am sure.] *These days in November... make me remember. They send me to the cemetery, at least inwardly. They make me aware that I am not the giver of my own life. Into the cloak of my life is woven all the affection and tenderness of the people who are no longer here and whom I remember. I do not need to reinvent life or to be the first to do everything. I also do not need to finish everything I would like to have done with my life. I can live life as a fragment, just as the lives of my dead loved ones were fragmentary. ...

***...Perhaps the coldness in our country is increasing precisely because the dead have no place anymore and we ban them from memory out of fear of our own dying. Part of being human is remembering; equally important is looking ahead to those who will come after us.... There is an unscrupulous obsession with today, with now-ness, that is connected with forgetting the dead and that creates merciless consequences for all who are yet to be born. To be without memory is to have no need of a future.

***We are no longer needed --that is the real difficulty with growing old. But this not-being-needed does not need to turn into bitterness or despair. It can also lead to a kind of freedom in which I become freer, in which I have less fear and a greater sense of humor. I do not have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. It will not come to an end when I do. I am learning to let go of power and influence. If death really is more than an avoidable breakdown, if it is our sister, as Francis of Assisi thought, born with us and accompanying us like our shadow, then accepting it creates a kind of nonviolence in our dealings with others and with creation. It is not we who guarantee our life, this wonderful, self-renewing, indomitable life that is lent to us. This is not merely a philosophical insight: it is part and parcel of the belief in another guarantor of life.


Grandmère Mimi said...

How beautiful. I want to be like her when I get old. ;o)

The technology of prolonging dying is the scariest thing for me. I have left my instructions, and I only pray that they will be respected.

The manner in which our society shoves aside the old and denies death is pathological. The alternative to getting old is, after all, an untimely death, and the death rate is,after all, 100%, however much you deny it.

Getting old has given me a greater sense of freedom and a tendency to look for the ironies and humor, even in unfortunate situations.

I'm going to make a note of this book.

johnieb said...

Grandmere says it well.

Jane R said...

:-) Thought you might appreciate it.

pj said...

I second Johnieb's emotion.

johnieb said...


Art thou copping to the approach (or encroach) of geezerhood?

Me, either. Nor do I suspect grandmere of anything more than curiosity as to what the future may yet bring.

Peace/ Hoa binh