The Abrahamic religions have a common belief that we are all made in the image and likeness of God with depths that even we cannot plumb. Eastern religions stress the interrelatedness of all living and sentient beings and our connectedness to the natural world. I like Joanna Macy’s idea that because of evolution each of us (in the form of our DNA) reaches back to the very moment when life and DNA itself began and has journeyed through time to be given form and substance at this point in history. We are not just any old person, we are indeed precious beings, called forth from the beginning of time, with a particular life to lead and contribution to make.
One of the things that makes life precious is that someday it will end. It’s a gift that is passing with each precious moment. In another of her poems, ‘Welcoming Death’ Mary Oliver says that when death comes ‘like an iceberg between the shoulder blades’ she wants ‘to step through the door full of curiosity’. She wants to say that all of her life she ‘was a bride married to amazement’, a bridegroom taking the world into her arms. ‘I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world’. What wonderful images! What an image of a life fully lived, of someone that has embraced life, that has truly entered into it and matured within it. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Whatever life’s about it’s not about ease or comfort, nor I think about happiness or wealth. Of course we want people, particularly, those we love to be happy and the Dalai Lama often says that the goal and purpose of life is happiness. People search for it in many ways and are disappointed if they don’t achieve it. Some have unrealistic expectations and think it should come easily, while others are prepared to work for it.
Somehow this notion of happiness being the purpose of life doesn’t fill me with the same excitement or cause my spirit to rise in the way Mary Oliver’s poetry does. Embracing life in its fullness means, I think, embracing the negative as well as the positive. It’s facing up to the fact that life can be difficult, chaotic, a struggle at times. Suffering is part and parcel of what it is to be alive and none of us can escape it. About 50 years ago Margaret Craven wrote a book called “I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ and I’ve never forgotten what I think is its profound lesson. The story is about a young priest who has a terminal illness and his bishop knows that there is an immaturity in him and doesn’t want him to die without having experienced life. He sends him to a remote Indian village in the Pacific Northwest, the hardest parish of his diocese. Here the young curate is able to enter into the hopes and fears, the sufferings and joys of the tribe. Here he learns the complexities of what it is to be human and to live in relationship and community. Here he has his prejudices and stereotypes challenged. It’s only when he took the sufferings of the community to his heart that he becomes part of them. It’s only when he embraced the fullness of their life, good and bad that he was able to be other than a visitor. And it’s only then that he is ready to pass through the open door that leads beyond life when at last he heard the owl call his name.
So what is the purpose of life - to seek for happiness outside ourselves? Surely this is an unrealistic goal. Is it not to know what it is to love and be loved, to recognise the dark and light that there is in all life, to understand that suffering and struggle can be the means of growth and maturity, to remember that things constantly change, that all things pass and to let that happen? Is it not to contribute what we can to the future of our planet and community by living well. I once had a friend who, when she was facing death, said she was glad to die because life had been such a struggle for her. This always struck me as rather sad. Yes there are difficult times but for me life is much more of an adventure, an appreciation of that wild and precious life that has taken me along paths undreamed of and into lands hitherto unknown.