I don’t talk about death a whole lot. None of us do. And yet it’s always with us.
My wife and I started watching a new TV show recently and more than 1,000 people die in the first episode and another dies in the episode we watched last night. I turned on an audiobook today and someone is shot dead. In our fiction, we tell death stories frequently.
Death is like a blurry background to our lives — always there but rarely in focus. That is, until it crashes into us and makes a topsy-turvy out of our lives.
I’ve watched one of my sisters die, smashed into head-on by a drunk teen. That experience of death was like when I was a kid at the beach and I got pummeled by an unexpected wave. It plowed me underwater and I was so disoriented I tried to swim down instead of up. Noise and darkness and chaos filled my senses.
As I watch my 90-year-old Dad and 86-year-old Mom, I know that death is coming, but I still see so much life that mortality’s shadow seems thin, even as it hangs over them. We talk about it sometimes but not a lot. It seems like an important conversation to have, and yet there’s so much living yet to do that we can’t seem to give it the attention it probably deserves.
There have been a bunch of celebrity deaths this year (as there are every year), and as I’ve written elsewhere, I believe they are helpful to us, because they they give us an opportunity to learn how to mourn. Celebrities are fake friends, people we make an emotional attachment to who have no such attachment with us. When they die, some of the joy they brought us through their art or sport or whatever goes out of our world and we grieve the loss. Among all of the drawbacks of celebrity culture, that is one of its true gifts. Grief training.
But of the artists who’ve died this year, it is Leonard Cohen’s death on Nov. 7 that means the most to me. The meaning arises not just from the impact his songs have had on me, but from the way he died. Cohen knew he was dying. He was ready for it. He talked about it. He even sang about it on the album You Want it Darker, which was released barely a week before his death.
In the opening title track, Cohen sings a simple refrain in his bottomless baritone, “Hineni. I’m ready, my Lord.”
Hineni is a Hebrew word found throughout the Scriptures. Its a simple statement of presence. Here I am. Look, I’m right here. I’m present to you. It’s me. Hineni is the most basic prayer we have in biblical spirituality. God makes himself present to us and we respond as naked souls, present to God in return. Hineni.
Much of this life is a game of hide and seek. We hide our true selves from one another. We hide from God. We even hide from ourselves.
As theologian Julie Canlis points out, God’s first question in the Bible is: Where are you? It’s a gracious question, because it draws from their hiding the shame-ridden Adam and Eve, making an opportunity for restored relationship. And God has been asking the same question ever since. Where are you? I’m present to you. Will you be present to me? Come out of your fortress of solitude and let’s be face-to-face with one another. Let’s be friends. Friends live hineni with each other.
In his dying, Leonard Cohen shows me how to live. His “Hineni. I’m ready, my Lord” has a sense of finality to it. “I’m here. I’m ready to die. Come and get me.”
But there’s more to that line than that. There’s no resignation in it. There’s no “I’m done. Let’s get this over with.” No. It’s more like my wife coming down the stairs after getting dressed up for an adventurous evening. “Here I am. I’m ready.”
The same words that Cohen says at the end of his life are words he’s offering to us to speak every day throughout our lives.
Be present. To God. To others. To this world. To yourself.
Be ready. Ready to live. Ready to die. Ready to dive into whatever adventure or mystery God and this grand world have ahead.
Live hineni and be ready for what happens next.