And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men left for their own country by another road.
— Matthew 2:12 (NRSV)
The past two evenings, in late afternoon naps, I have received warnings in my dreams of my death. The second one was five minutes ago.
In the first, I was in a hospital, about to undergo one of those death by injection treatments which hospice nurses use on some people with terminal illness. (My mother died that way at home.) They administer painkillers, supposedly at a physician’s direction. I received mine, but I talked all the way through it, including afterward, which made me want to know why I wasn’t dead yet. Then the nurse left and closed a big old heavy wooden door – to shut death in with me, I guess; to make sure I couldn’t escape. Finally I asked, “Does this mean I’m going to keel over?” She paused, then cracked open a wooden vertical slot half an inch, and answered, “Yes.”
So I climbed back onto the gurney, made the sign of the Cross quite profoundly – and woke up.
A few minutes ago, I dreamed I was riding in a car with several middle-aged women as we headed to a political meeting; something to do with a fight over development in Clifton, a Cincinnati neighborhood where I once lived. I could picture the street in the business district they were all concerned about; they were fighting this development, and about to meet with a heavyweight donor in the northeastern suburbs. Then we’d all have lunch at a restaurant, and when the drama started we were already discussing how we would pay our collective food bill; a woman we picked up along the way would get the tab, then we’d all reimburse her. We were headed up north along the interstate – maybe from I-75 to the Norwood Lateral – when we rounded a curve and plunged into deep water that was flooding the roadway. I saw it coming, but the driver plowed through it, and in seconds we were all right. Then we rounded another curve with a much deeper wall of water, deep enough that no one would ever attempt to drive through it. At the crucial moment she glanced away to her left, and the car not only plunged in, it rapidly filled with water.
No one spoke. I could tell we would drown, and I headed my nose to the roof of the car. I clawed at it, managed to rip through the (old-fashioned) cloth, filled myself with oxygen and started giving directions, “Get your noses above water, there’s a little space here.” I tried the door, we were able to clamber out (which was odd, since I was sitting in the middle, and logically the door wouldn’t have opened so easily). I made it to the dry left side of the road, the driver somehow was able to drive a few feet ahead and park on the median, and when she got out she said, “I didn’t see it coming.”
Well, I did. That’s what dreams are for.
My spiritual director Marcia recently did an experimental painting, “Wake up to your dreams. They are unopened letters from God.” She’d gotten spiritually blocked about even trying this thing that wanted to come out of her, which I accidentally discovered while we had an e-mail discussion about an earlier work of hers, a pastel drawing of a young woman, which I own and she wanted to borrow back for an upcoming gallery event. She made arrangements to pick it up on a certain day, I took it down from my wall and Windexed the glass so it would be clean for her, and took it downstairs so she wouldn’t have to wait while I retrieved it. The day came and went and she never picked it up.
A couple of weeks later I wrote to her again, asking about it. And I somehow intuited her fear, though she hadn’t mentioned it. So I encouraged her in that e-mail, as best I could in my ignorance, that whatever was going on with her she should paint through it. “Just try, even if it turns out ugly or shameful or scandalous or wrong.” I didn’t know what I was saying, and yet I wrote this with confidence to her. She is quite a spiritual director, who has shared many things with me as I have with her, and the one thing I knew was that if my advice was off-base, she’d be strong enough to ignore it.
Two weeks later she finished the painting, took a picture of it, and sent me the photo by e-mail. Here it is.
It’s a self-portrait, but I’m not going to discuss it as art so I don’t intrude on her privacy. It was the title that got to me; such a clear expression of her insights. I thought it might even be helpful to my Daily Office congregation, so I posted it shortly thereafter for Morning Prayer.
No one commented on it, but its message stayed with me.
I can’t say, like the driver of the car, that I didn’t see it coming. My dreams, two afternoons in a row, told me death is coming.
Maybe I have a chance to repent and radically change my ways (I’m an alcoholic, sometimes in recovery and sometimes not, and I smoke). But I’m not entirely concerned with that right now. I am not for the most part horribly frightened of death. I hope when it comes it’s not painful, but my number one concern is my spiritual response to it. My first dream, in the hospital with the old heavy door, satisfies me; what to do when our death is at hand is to make the sign of the Cross. We don’t even have to say anything, for God will know. (It’s funny that in that moment of great physical weakness, I imagined my hand traveling all the way from my forehead to my waist, then one shoulder to the other. Liturgically impeccable, a death seen only in the movies.)
Last night just before I went to bed for the last time, I had a heart-to-heart with God about this. I asked him or her to make provision for my prayer site’s succession; it will need someone to outlive me. It is too big, after 2.5 million hits and another million e-mails to subscribers, and too successful simply to die with me. We are doing too well right now, with a pending grant application for $50,000 to church headquarters in New York, and brand new live webcasts five mornings a week. The technology is very exciting; a few people are trying it. We can see each other by webcam, hear each other by VoIP, and their computer screens (iPad or phone) display what’s on my screen: the website with its liturgy, art and videos. When I hit Play on the videos, everyone sees and hears them simultaneously. It really is like being in church together, though we’re physically located throughout the country.
None of my competitors even attempts such a thing – and indeed, one basis of our grant app is that we offer live curated services twice a day. (I’m the “curator,” because the term sounds grandiose enough to impress New York.) The two or three competing sites (why anyone would compete over this work is beyond me) are simply databases, where the user clicks enough times to put together the elements they want. No art – Fr. Richard Helmer recently trumpeted that he’s now added some, nine years after my innovation – and certainly no videos.
The pride I take in my site is the making of community; this is what online church should be, not praying to a database. If we do get selected for the grant, I’ve got another trick up my sleeve to grow this community. Don’t know whether it will work, but we’re big enough to try.
We get more visitors per year than the National Cathedral in Washington. They’re going to start charging tourists $10 a head, to raise $3 million for their overhead; with 50 grand I can take care of our techno expansion, pay myself a salary – which is key to my succession plan, because another minister will want that paying job – and start up a Spanish language version in cooperation with Padré Mickey.
Best $50,000 New York will ever spend, or so I hope. I prayed to God last night, “Give me that succession and I can go in peace.”
S/he gave me a loving response this morning, enveloping me in warmth, her favorite way, because I can receive it and know it’s her. She probably waited until this morning because I was headed straight to bed after our talk.
Then to have this death-by-drowning dream a few minutes ago, well – my fingers drum on the desktop – I clearly will have to completely change my ways. That’s what “repentance” means, an up-and-down transformation. Quit the behavior, no more self-destructiveness. Booze and smoking kill. That’s actually how my mother died; she smoked until she got lung cancer, and eventually drowned in the fluid that filled her lungs. I guess the morphine shots were a blessing – though the hospice agency was really dishonest about it. Nurse-assisted homicide takes place all over the country, and though that sounds shocking, people who’ve been there all know it.
Repentance is difficult, and for most people it’s very gradual, though fundamentalists would have you believe they’re all “born again” in a flash. This 180-degree turn is something they tell each other about constantly and take pride in, though they cloak that pride in describing how wicked they once were. (We’re supposed to think they’re not anymore!) It makes them feel better about themselves. And I don’t know that it doesn’t happen, so while I gladly satirize them, I don’t judge a one of them. May it all be just as they claim.
For 99% of Episcopalians it doesn’t work that way. We seldom have the same depravities they describe, and we seldom go through such a quick turnaround. I’m 62, and I’ve been working at social justice (while smoking and drinking, quitting and going back to it) all my life. They never get to that part, so fuck ’em. They deserve Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard and Fox News.
I don’t drink 24/7/365 anymore, but I do jump on and off the wagon, and lately I’ve been off in left field for two weeks.
So I just poured out my last vodka, to make sure I don’t go through withdrawal. I’ve been tapering again, and I’m pretty sure I’m physically in the clear; withdrawal is life-threatening. (If I should die tomorrow, notify Maria L. Evans of the Diocese of Missouri at once. The site will belong to her until she makes other arrangements. This is my legal wish.) Alcohol is the more immediately dangerous substance for me, and since New York is taking its own sweet time to decide our application, maybe I’ll stay sober long enough to keep the site going awhile.
My strategy to quit smoking is a week or so away: never buy menthol cigarettes again. (Europe’s about to ban them, and they’re right.) The “regular flavor” tastes so damn nasty I won’t want to keep smoking. I’ll set a quit date, taper down and be done with this stuff. If I still can’t manage it I’ll seek every kind of medical help there is. I can’t afford cigarettes, physically, spiritually or financially. If I have to take a prescription drug instead, I’ll buy it until I find one that works.
As you have decided by now, my story does not offer immense moral uplift with a pop soundtrack; only honesty amidst struggle and dream warnings. (Masturbation doesn’t kill anybody, or I’d have been dead at 16. Apparently my fantasies will continue until five minutes before I croak.) I thank God for my dreams.
Marcia, I opened the letters.
Otherwise I’m quite content with my spiritual life. The site is going great guns, and yesterday’s big sign of the Cross ending leaves me at peace. I’m thankful for the Spirit’s embrace this morning; God hasn’t left me, no matter how much danger I put myself in. Even today’s nap had me making my way to the grass, not perishing in the water.
Otherwise, here’s hoping I can consolidate my afternoon naps and my nighttime sleeping. I’m a plenty dramatic fella, but I’d rather not go through this three afternoons in a row.++
owner and founder, dailyoffice.org
November 29, 2013