When Term is Over
01 February 1989

Propped on his knees was a book on euthanasia. He explained to me that this was what he wanted - a quick, easy end to a long, active life.

He was a mountain of a man, already in his eighties, but strong, alert, vigorous, still able to drive a Land Rover at breakneck speed over the roughest country, active still in public affairs. Then he suffered a stroke. I saw him in bed, looking like a great oak that had battled many a storm, but now lay felled to the ground.

Propped on his knees was a book on euthanasia. He explained to me that this was what he wanted - a quick, easy end to a long, active life. As head of a big company he was used to giving orders and having them carried out. His doctors, he complained, would not listen to his requests for a mercy killing. Would I as a clergyman 'organize something'? I had to tell him that I was not God, and could not meddle in God's business of life and death.

Then followed a profound conversation that ended with a complete change of attitude in my friend. A frustrated tycoon became a humble, trusting child. We prayed together: 'Not my will but thine.' He repeated again and again: 'Thy will be done, thy will be done.' We parted with a sense of comradeship, almost of joy. He lifted his one active arm in a salute. He asked to see me again. The lines in his face had smoothed and mellowed. He was at peace.

Two hours later the phone rang in my home. It was my friend's wife. He had died quietly and easily just a few minutes before. God, who had seemed not to listen to his demands, had given him his heart's desire. I was reminded of those wonderful last lines of C S Lewis's final Narnia book, The Last Battle: 'Term is over. The holidays have begun. The dream is ended. This is the morning.'

Death, like birth, is God's gift. However clumsy or cruel the immediate circumstances may be, death is a release into a more spacious existence. We have only the barest hints about what that existence is like and even these we are completely incapable of expressing worthily. Imagine yourself a caterpillar trying to explain to fellow caterpillars what it is like to be a butterfly!

In human terms nothing could be more cruel and unjust than the death of Jesus: torture, humiliation, murder. Yet that death has proved God's best gift to mankind, treasured in every detail, wonderful or horrible, commemorated in the greatest art and music, the inspiration for countless acts of love and sacrifice. And in the days and weeks that followed that death, Jesus's friends were given signs of the victory that lay beyond.

We, of this age, are haunted by death. Our news reports often seem to be covering nothing else. We fear it, we shun it, and yet we are fascinated by it. At times our civilization seems to be driven by a kind of mad death-wish. We even inflict it on others, by our indifference if not by our active design. And yet, death still remains the great taboo. There are no technicians to equip us for the hereafter, no guidebooks for the life beyond, no experts to chart the way, no computers, no statistics. There is only one thing left to rely on. Our faith in God.

For my mountainous friend it all seemed to boil down to an act of will, 'Not my will, but thine be done. Not my will.' Jesus himself faced that decision in the Garden of Gethsemane. I picture sometimes that agony of temptation in the form of a little gate, where Jesus could have slipped out in the darkness, avoided the cross, perhaps taken up the life of a revered guru in Galilee, while evil conquered the world.

'Not my will, but thine be done.' So out of a stark surrender of will there followed the most creative act in history. What is death in the end but a complete letting go of self? The more we can practise that letting go in this life, the more joyous and creative may be that final letting go which is the key to the life beyond.

Priest, playwright and author Alan Thornhill died in December at the age of 82. The article above was first published in 1981.

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