by Lucy Screechfield McIver
Published as Pendle Hill Pamphlet #340 in 1998 (posted here by permission of the publisher, Pendle Hill.)
There are many to acknowledge in bringing this essay to life. Some are living, some have died. But without the fullness of each one’s faith this pamphlet would not have come to be.
I want particularly to thank my partner, Karen Lundblad, along with Mary Morrison and Marge Abbott, as well as the publication committee and staff of Pendle Hill for their spiritual support and editorial guidance. In the final analysis of this writing it is clear that God is the author of this essay, bringing the message that death is the birthing of our spirit, the final fruit of our faith.
Suffering (sculpture by Lucy McIver): Inspired by early Friends’ gathered experience of witnessing and supporting the one who was dying.
For each one of us there are moments when we are pulled out of everyday life into an awareness of a larger realm. Such small ecstasies are intimations of something vast at the core of life. Perhaps a profound piece of music carries us away or a work of art, or the bloom of a flower. In these moments, as we embrace life’s fullness and look into that indescribable largeness, an inner assurance emerges within as a promise that life is much more than the time-limited boundaries of our earthly self.
I experience one of these illuminating moments in the spring when I hear the song of a wood thrush. This small brown bird with its white spotted breast sings a flute-like song. The notes of its liquid melody rise and fall, circling around other sounds, floating on the breeze to pierce my heart. As often as I have listened to the song of this bird I have rarely seen it. I have stood in the presence of its song and my eyes have been unable to find on which twig or limb it may be sitting. And it is usually one of the first birds to provide musical accompaniment for the sun’s rising each spring morning. It has called me out of deep sleep and promised that the day is offering new life for me to live.
I speak of this small ecstasy as a way to describe how the presence of Divine Light has entered into my experience of witnessing death. Just as I have stood before the hidden bird, looking around twigs and leaves for its appearance, I have inwardly listened around the words and feelings of those who are dying finding the work of God echoing in my heart and I have intuitively come to know that death is spiritual birth, the completion of God’s work upon us.
Such an awareness began several years ago when I had the privilege of being among the circle of Friends who supported two Quaker elders in their time of dying. But the fullness of this understanding did not mature until recently when I was given the gift of participating in the home-birth of my granddaughter. Both the outward as well as the inward experience of these events has created within me a sense of life’s wholeness. As I witnessed, in one instance the first breath and in another the last, I inwardly knew that birth and death were not only transitions defining our physical life, but were also sacred moments which were somehow connected into a larger order of reality.
What set these particular events apart from everyday life was that those involved were held together by an intentional attitude of being open to God’s work. Advance preparations were made in legal matters; family and spiritual community bonds were strengthened through discussion and prayer. As the time approached, in both the birthing and the dying, all who gathered were held in a feeling of expectant waiting with reverence for something much larger than our individual selves.
I found these events to be some of the most significant moments of my life. In that waiting, my faith deepened. Time seemed to stop. Inwardly I felt seeded in God’s presence as my awareness of a Divine process bloomed. The people in the circles of these events supported one another, living out of that expanded awareness of God. And we came together in our grief and joy in that intimacy, finding a common ground in the sharing of our emotions. In the fullness of these extensive moments I began to ask myself the following questions:
- Could birth and death be the same experience?
- Can death be a time of living more completely?
- How did the faith of early Friends guide them in
the experience of living into death?
These questions form the primary framework for this essay which I have approached through reading, contemplation, and prayer. It is my hope that this work will guide us in finding that which inwardly shapes not only our living but also brings life to our dying.
Could Birth & Death Be the Same Experience?
As we were born, so we will die-this is life’s cycle. To speak fully of death, then, it is necessary to focus on the whole scheme of life; to explore how birth and death not only define life but interact with the larger continuum of life. To understand that wholeness we must address the assumption that both birth and death are life’s metaphysical moments, the definitive transitions between temporal life and the eternal.
At this time in our broader Western culture we have learned to see birth and death as opposites and some do not acknowledge that life could be any larger than time between these two events. We fear the place after death. We forget to ask what was before birth. And failing to approach those unknowns, we generally limit our perceptions of how full and powerful life can be. Our awareness can be expanded, however, as we worshipfully gather with others in these sacred events.
In my experiences of witnessing birth and death I have felt a hallowed presence that I can only describe as God’s Largeness. These have been numinous moments in which I have inwardly come to know, beyond words, the paradox that birth is death, and that death is birth. An inner sense proclaims that at our birth we become a single manifestation of Divine Largeness receiving the breath of God in our physical life. Conversely at the death of our physical body, as we return our breath to God, the individual soul is reunited with the Divine. In such a definition death is not death, but rather a spiritual birth in which the work of God reverses the order of conception and, once again, connects the individual to the whole of eternity. And the larger cycle of life continues.
This intuitive understanding is beyond scientific investigation. It is, rather, an act of faith which we can experientially know as we witness birth and death from that inner awareness. This became profoundly clear to me at the birth of my granddaughter. In the early morning hours, before the onset of my daughter’s labor, I awakened with a strong intuitive sense that God’s work was being unveiled into the life essence of her child. Searching for the words to express this reality, a poem came to me as I lit a candle:
Journal entry—February 2, 1997—
There is only… one moment,
one moment between life and death;
only one moment between stillness… and
that continual movement of breath.
So I listen… in that moment.
And I hear one small voice… “it is time.”
A paradox—time in the timeless stillness,
a cleft in eternity when life begins.
A mother, a grandmother, a midwife, we all know
in that moment… in that stillness…
an angel has blown Divine Breath
into the little one.
The child… totally dependent,
unknowing of self,
coming out of its remembrance
of God’s eternal order,
utters its first cry as its soul enters its being…
riding on the angel’s breath.
At this birth all who witnessed were reverently joined in the fresh beauty of newness. Commonly bound by this physical life we shared a glimpse of once-known eternal vastness in that awe- filled moment. Thus we were gathered together in Divine Largeness with the cry of the baby’s first breath.
From this sacred experience I could deepen, in faith, my understanding that death is also a spiritual birth. The process of dying is similar to the labor of birth which frees our physical body that we might re-enter into that primordial indescribable place—the Spring of all creation. The death of my mentor and friend, Teresina Havens, strongly witnessed this joyful faith. Being eighty-four years old and diagnosed with congestive heart failure, she knew her time for dying was at hand. She prepared for death with great anticipation. Shortly before her transition she dreamed that while studying at school the intercom announced—”Teresina Havens was graduating.” With joy and a sense of release she planned her rites of passage, calling close friends and family together to celebrate her birth into largeness.
Teresina lived her dying labor with joy. She surrendered her self-will to a sense of fullness and believed fully that as her physical body diminished an inner part of her would join a Divine order. It was a faith in the wholeness of life and death. She had found the promise of this in the dying words of a seventeenth-century Friend, Richard Hubberthorne, and requested that this ministry be read as a statement of her faith during her rites of passage:
This night or to-morrow night
I shall depart hence….
Do not seek to hold me,
for it is too strait for me;
and out of this straitness I must go, for I am wound into largeness….
– Ernest Taylor, Richard Hubberthorne: Soldier and Preacher, (died 1653), Friends Ancient and Modern, #16; Friends Tract Association, New York, 1911, p. 3.
The Journey (sculpture by Lucy McIver): Inspired by Richard Hubberthorne’s words, “I am wound into Largeness.”
The dying testimony of these two Friends is timeless and through their ministry we come to know that birth and death share the experience of living. It is only in metaphor that we can begin to articulate how the sameness of birth and death is manifested in life. Visualize God’s eternal order as a spiral, as a whirlwind which holds us in its momentum. Birth and death are the moments when our spirit is flung from or pulled back into that large continuum. This spiral is absolute, gathering up all souls into its center, connecting all events of life in its force. When we stand in the awesome power of God’s largeness and experience the spiral, we inwardly feel that we are the manifestation of that largeness.
The inward knowing of this is affirmed many times in the words of Friends. It does not matter if the ministry comes from the seventeenth century or the twentieth. Their words are like a mirror reflecting their faith that death is their re-entry into that timeless continuum. Robert Jeckel’s (1667) words clearly speak of this knowing in his experience in dying:
No Separation like unto this,
Soul separated from the Body,
the Spirit returning to God that gave it,
and the Body to the Earth from whence it came:
Great has the Loving Kindness of the Lord been unto me….
– Dying words of Robert Jeckel of New-Castle upon Tine, died May 2, 1667, as recorded in John Tomkins & John Field, Eds., Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, p. 59.
And like an echo from that ministry a twentieth-century Friend, Elizabeth Gray Vining, writes this prayer in an expression of her faith as she faces her seventieth birthday:
Infuse me with Thy spirit so that it is Thee I turn to, not the old ropes of habit and thought. Make me poised and ready when the intimation comes to go forward eagerly and joyously into the new phase of life that we call death…. Give me joy in awaiting the great change that comes after this life of many changes, grant that self be merged in Thy self as a candle’s wavering light is caught up into the sun.
– Elizabeth Gray Vining, Facing One’s Own Death, spoken essay recorded by E.G.Vining for the Committee on Worship & Ministry of Philadelphia YM, 1979.
As we listen to these Friends’ words, we hear in their testimony that birth and death are not opposites, but, rather, part of the same source witnessing that if we inwardly know this life as a singular reflection of God, we come to know death as returning into eternity. Dying, then, is not falling off into nothingness, or, worse yet, a failure to live. Rather, it is a beginning, another birth, a return to Largeness. And in our lives we can know this spiritual birth as we daily live our faith. We find it in numinous moments when we experientially know God’s Grace within. And these moments can guide us as we live into death. As Raylton wrote (1716) in his essay offered as a guide to living the Quaker faith.
Blessed, therefore, are they who are sincerely concerned
to know the new Birth, which is to be born from above, that they may inherit the Kingdom of Heaven….
– F. Raylton, Piety Promoted: A Collection of dying saysings of many of the people callec Quakers, 1716, p.xxiii, from the “Preface to the Reader”
Can Death Be a Time of Living More Completely?
“To know the new birth” implies that we must consciously live as we are dying. That is, as we are living, we must turn around and look into the timeless eyes of death; to see in that gaze a friend and guide who will lead us into the Light. The words from a hymn of consolation come to mind:
Still, still with thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than the daylight,
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with thee.
So shall it be at last, in that bright morning,
When the soul waketh, and life’s shadows flee;
Oh, in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with thee.
– “Still, still with Thee,” verses from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s poem “Resting in God,” inspired by Psalm 139:18, from Worship in Song, A Friends Hymnal, Friends General Conference, Philadelphia, Pa., 1996, #33
Consciously turning to face death we come to know that life’s natural flow is the eternal creative process. In moments of great joy, in the glow of sunrise, or the song of a bird, we glimpse God’s largeness and forget our singular selves. In those brief times, we are lifted into the mystery.
Such consciousness can become a new paradigm for living. That is, if we experience our daily small losses as opportunities to let go of self-will, to accept our human frailty, we inwardly grow to live in God’s fullness. These are not easy moments, however. We often find such surrenders painful, so much so, that we try to avoid facing these humiliating experiences. The paradox is that as we try to avoid our humanity, the more we shove it down, the stronger it becomes. Our defenses build to preserve our individuality and we vainly hold on to a narcissistic self-worth which turns us away, once again, from God.
But to live our dying we must also live our humbleness before God. We must labor with the pain that we feel in the dissolution of self. This pain comes, whether it be of our projected self- image, or the big letting go of our physical being at death. Surrender is the essential process of living fully before God. It is our earthly work, the preparation which needs to be done in order to re-enter into God’s vastness. That is the central nature of living into death.
Let us examine this paradigm of faith in the example of three Quakers’ dying. Their ministry, even though separated in time by three hundred years, can be mirrors for our own journey. Listen to the voices of Elizabeth Braithwait (1684) and Edward Burrough (1662), along with a twentieth-century Friend, Joseph Havens (1994).
First, Elizabeth Braithwait, a young woman of seventeen, was arrested for giving public testimony of her faith. It was not an uncommon practice for the warden of the prison to release young people to their families for a time. But with integrity of spirit, Elizabeth asked to return to prison, testifying that she had spoken clearly of her faith and wanted to be with other Friends who suffered the same consequences. This was no small request as prisons of the seventeenth century were filthy places. Many people were crowded together in small cells, and Friends were incarcerated along with felons. Disease spread rapidly and many died. Elizabeth, therefore, knew the risk she was taking but believed in being a loyal witness of her faith.
Indeed, upon her return to prison, she was taken ill. When her mother and sister came to care for her in the sickness, Elizabeth was asked why she was so willing to die?
Ho! said she,
I have seen glorious sights of Good things.
Her mother queried, what things? At which she replied:
…they are so excellent and glorious, that they are not utterable; and now I have nothing but love and good will to all:
But more especially she was glad in the love and unity that she felt with Friends;
with whom I have been often refreshed in our
with the refreshment that comes from the
presence of the Lord….
Dear mother, do not weep, but resign me freely up into the hands of the Lord..,for I am well.
And to her sister, she said,
Come, sister, lie down by me,
do not sorrow for me, I am well, content to live or die,
for I am well.
For God hath blessed them (referring to other Friends)
and will bless me,
and his blessing rests upon me.
A little time later her speech failed, and she would lift up her hands, to affectionately take Friends’ hands. In that way, she quietly died.
– Dying testimony of Elizabeth Braithwait, 1684, from a tract, intended to be used to inspire the children to live a faithful, pious life, printed by John Bringhurst at the Sign of the Book and Three Black Birds in Leaden-Hall-Mutton-Market, London, 1684.
Another Friend, Edward Burrough, suffered a similar fate as he worshipped. He was taken from a Meeting by soldiers and committed to Newgate prison, not for evil doing, but for testifying as he worshipped with Friends. There he lay in prison with more than sixty other Quakers who had been arrested on the same account. Like Elizabeth Braithwait, when Edward Burrough was taken ill in prison, he was prepared to live his dying as testimony to his beliefs:
…His sickness increasing upon him daily though in much Patience he was carried through all; in Prayer often both day and night, saying….
I have had a Testimony of the Lord’s Love to me from my Youth,
and my heart hath been given up to do his will;
I have preached the Gospel freely in this city,
and have given up my life for the Gospel’s sake.
He spoke to God, saying. . . .
Lord rip open my heart,
and see if it be not Right before thee….
There lies no iniquity at my door;
the Presence of the Lord is with me,
and his Life I feel Justifies me.
Then he prayed for his prosecutors and asked for forgiveness for those who imprisoned him. He spoke to Friends who were about him, reminding them….
….to live in Love and Peace, and to love one another….
And in the morning before he departed this life, being basensible of his death, he prayed….
Thou hast loved me when I was in the Womb,
and I have loved thee from my cradle,
and from my youth unto this day…
And to those around him he said….
Now my soul and spirit is centered in its own being,
and this form of person, must return from
whence it was taken.
– Dying testimony of Edward Burroughs, from Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1662, pp. 29-32
The Opening (sculpture by Lucy McIver): Early Friends, in their living faith, turned suffering around and found spiritual opening towards God.
Such forthright acceptance of one’s losses as the path towards God is foreign to many twentieth-century attitudes. Our fear of death causes us to deny its presence. Have we lost the belief that giving self-will over to God is the way to receive God’s loving arms in passing from temporal to eternal life? We say that we are intellectual, physical, and spiritual beings-that we have mind, body, and spirit-but, have we forgotten how to live consciously? Do we balance all sides of ourselves?
Our materialistic culture places an emphasis on our physical and intellectual selves. Our values reflect the importance of seeking comfort in our lives, of stressing outward appearances, our career and social status. This shift of emphasis on the physical and intellectual has given over the control and monitor- ing of the natural process of birth and death to medical practice. Thus we find little assurance in life’s natural course and seek to prolong life at all costs. Medical doctors are seen as authorities over life’s processes. And as we place our faith in a scientific rational framework, we are separated from our own innate ability to experience life’s regenerative powers. Some see death as failure, the opposite of life.
The prevalence of these cultural attitudes became clear to me as I witnessed the dying of my friend, Joseph Havens. Joe died two years after the death of his wife, Teresina. He suffered with Parkinson’s Disease which was rapidly progressing in his body. He tried to find ministry in his diminishments by sharing his days with others who also suffered in their aging. While in the nursing home, two months prior to his death, Joe would attempt discussions with other residents around verses from scripture. Most of these people, however, could not engage in conversation. Then he tried pushing their wheelchairs up and down the hall to provide them with some companionship and entertainment. His compassion came from common fellowship in such long and uneventful days.
Even so the advancing Parkinson’s quickly took this ministry away from Joe and he was left facing years of sitting alone, unable to give or receive from others. He inwardly knew the purpose of his life was complete. With family and Friends, in a clearness committee, Joe began to speak of self-starvation. At first those of us in that circle were horrified at the thought. This opposed all our cultural values of hanging onto life, as we knew it. And too, if Joe had had a choice, life would have continued forever, for he so loved beauty in both people and nature. But Joe spoke out of his conviction that his work was done. He was ready to face the final spiritual challenge—death.
Joe participated in his dying by focusing on the pain of his own hunger and finding it connected with global hunger. In this spiritual practice he came to feel inwardly that his suffering somehow lessened the pain of others who had no food. For those of us supporting Joe, as well as others who came to visit, we saw the wasting of his body. We, too, were reminded of the reality of hunger and came to feel the suffering of many.
During those days Joe would ask us to take this mindfulness into our lives, to shape our living so as not to contribute to, or increase global poverty. He talked of his concern for countries that could not share in our wealth and materialistic lifestyle. Through his dying testimony we came to know that our consumerist culture was the foundation of world-wide poverty.
But Joe was no more a pious leader than the early Friends who died in prison. Rather, he was a man living his faith. The foundation of his actions came from a strong inner conviction that he was imperfect; facing those weaknesses he believed was a necessary process as he was dying. Giving up food symbolically represented, to Joe, letting go of life’s pleasures. So strong was his love of living that surrendering to death could not have been done without strong inner faith. And as he faced his fears, his anger, and his guilt, he (and we) found opportunities to heal and grow in laboring his spiritual birth.
All who knew and lived with Joe in the time of his dying were affected by his witness. Our vicarious suffering became a paradigm of healing. We grew inwardly as we faced our weak- ness and surrendered to the larger forces of pain. It was in those moments of humility that we came to know God’s presence among us.
One of those moments came to me as I shared in Joe’s dying. In the early days of his fast we were able to take him on short walks. It was fall and the trees were in full color. Joe and I would watch the leaves float to the ground, somehow knowing their falling was speaking directly to us. I wrote in my journal, September 14, 1994:
Is my life, my surrender, any more important than that of the autumn leaf falling in all its color to the ground? No, I realize. The leaf and I, even though different, are just the same. Each one is manifesting God’s work without any value judgment in God’s realm. It is just the work that must be done.
Supplication (sculpture by Lucy McIver)
Inspired by early Friends seeking a relationship with God’s Light through the acceptance of their human weakness
It is out of such moments of surrender that I have come to define living into death as an inner labor which lets go of self will into a larger acceptance of divine creation. In those moments, when this realization blooms, grief and powerlessness flood our perception of self. Our earthly attachments become vanity. We come to know them as shortcomings that separate us from God. It is from this lowly condition that an awareness of God’s Love connects us to the fullness of creation. It is a liminal state, neither in this life nor the next; a state where, as we live our dying, we come to know with inner authority the mysteries of creation with a sense of peace and completion.
If we can daily face loss as the growing edge in living, we begin to understand that all these small surrenders are a rehearsal for the physical death that each of us must ultimately face. And that physical death will become easier if we consciously accept all of life’s small deaths, repeatedly practicing letting go of our self-will. Therefore, to practice the labor of dying as growth. towards new horizons, we must live in harmony with the eternal creative process. Ruth Fawell, a British Friend of this century, calls this
Life lived in loving absorption in what is beyond ourselves, for we are not only material creatures, but have a sense of the beyond that we recognize. . . . we have to nourish this sense of eternal values all our lives by a daily renewed act of thankful love, and a clear obedience to those insights which we are continually being given.
– Ruth M. Fawell, Death Is a Horizon, Friends Service Committee, London, p.6
In such moments when the boundaries of our conscious self break down, when we face our inner fears encountered in that process, we grow and gain a heightened awareness which be- comes interwoven with that larger order of life. Our relationship to God is heightened. When we can let go of self, surrendering to the larger wholeness, we may glimpse the loving grace of God.
James Nayler truly opened into that moment of knowing as he spoke but hours before his death:
There is a Spirit, which I feel, that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong; but delights to endure all things, in hopes to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltations and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it can be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; and takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth, but through sufferings for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth; who through death obtained this resurrection, and eternal holy life.
– The Dying Testimony of James Nayler, John Bellows, Steam Press, Glouester, 1660. [Ed. note: Kenneth Boulding wrote There Is a Spirit, 26 sonnets based on Nayler’s dying testimony during the early days of World War II.]
Nayler’s dying testimony brings us the assurance that God is perfect love. And that through the surrender of all temporal attachments we find the path of dying to be that of birthing— the climax of earthly life, an epiphany, a critical peak that carries the soul into eternity shedding the unneeded skins of time and earthly understandings. Is this not the final fruit of life, a journey into union with God?
How did the faith of early Friends guide them in the experience of living into death?
I had spent many months reading Quaker journals, essays, and memorials from the seventeenth century, but had not begun to conceptualize consciously an answer to this question. As I read their writings, I could hear the passion of these Friends’ faith in their words. I felt the intensity of their lives and intuitively knew that their ministry reflected the testimony I was looking to understand. It was in a conversation with one of the elders of my meeting, however, that the woven strands of an answer consciously came to light.
This octogenarian looks forward to my visits so that he may talk about death. And I know that this is more than just discussion. He wants to enter into a conversation to seek clearness as he is facing his own death.
Throughout his adult life this Friend has chosen to live simply. For instance, he has enjoyed the freedom of riding his bicycle rather than driving his car. Now he finds himself con- fined to a wheelchair. His back and hips are chronically painful as bone deteriorates and muscles tighten. So I am not surprised when, after a brief but polite greeting, he asks me:
I think I’ve figured out the Quaker way of living; now I want to know the Quaker way of dying. Can you tell me about that? I’m ready to die.
Sensing the sincerity of my cherished friend’s question, I wanted to answer as honestly as I knew how. Centering, I thought of the dying words of early Quakers that I had been reading. As I remembered the passion of their ministry I found myself saying—”They died as they lived, practicing their faith.”
I recalled the words of John Camm, a seventeenth-century Friend, who traveled in the ministry with Richard Hubberthorne and Francis Howgill. Camm was known to have a violent cough, described as consumption. Rather than grieve for this illness he would often bring children together to praise God for his Goodness, witnessing to the gifts of accepting his diminishments as a valued, daily path. Counting his bodily weakness as happiness, he would say:
How great a Benefit do I enjoy, beyond many,
I have such a large time of Preparation for Death,
being daily dying,
that I may live forever, with my God….
My outward man daily wastes and moulders down,
and draws towards his Place and Center,
but my Inward man Revives
and Mounts upwards.
– John Camm, expressions shared during a considerable time of illness, as recorded in John Tomkins & John Fields, Eds., Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, p. 22
John Camm’s ministry is an example of how seventeenth-century Friends’ faith guided and supported their living into death. Their lives centered around seeking God’s Love believing that as each person let go of self she or he would enter into God’s abundance; that God would then be magnified through their surrender and they would find a life transformed, unified in God with all living souls.
Faith was not only practiced in times of illness and dying, but became the prevalent theme in daily preparation for death’s arrival. Advices written out of the 1756 London Yearly Meeting suggested that all earthly matters should be kept in order so that in their time of dying Friends would not be distracted from the holy work of seeking God. [Christian and Brotherly Advices given forth from time to time by the yearly meeting in London, 1756, transcribed and examined by Bery Bourne, p. 407]
Margaret Ellis witnessed to this spiritual practice in her dying ministry:
….in this my Sickness,
for had I not endeavoured
not to keep a Conscience void of Offense,
towards God and Man,
it would have been too hard a Task for me now
in this my great Weakness;
for I made it my Concern
to look over my Days-work
when Night came to lay my head upon the Pillow,
and take a view of my own Heart,
least there should be any Thing
the Lord had a Controversy with….
– Dying ministry of Margaret Ellis, died June 8, 1731, as recorded in John Bell, Ed., Piety Promoted, the seventh part, London, 1740, pp. 127-28
Thus, for seventeenth-century Friends, as the dying struggled against the pain of illness, surrendering to the natural flow of life and death, their ministry was a testimony to their humility and their love of God. Those in attendance would share in that numinous moment, praying in the silence, entering into the collective experience. This spiritual practice was traditionally honored and seen as a time of indisputable ministry by the community of family and Friends. As Hugh Barbour writes:
A devout Quaker (lived) every day as if it were the last. Death was the climax to life: the period just before the end was supposed to reveal either the righteous prevailing and triumphant, or the wicked filled with fear and repenting. The dying person, neither fully part of this world nor yet joined to the next, could speak to those around with an authority possessed by no ordinary person. An entire household gathered in the death chamber to hear the final words of exhortation. Many visitors, including young children, would gather around the dying individual who, in her closest relationship to God, would preach to them.
– Hugh Barbour and Jerry Frost, The Quakers, Friends United Press, Richmond, In., 1988, pp. 116-17
The contemporary perspective differs from that of seventeenth-century Quakers. We do not know how to speak of death, to ourselves, to each other, or to our children. Often we find our loved ones painfully alone in hospital rooms with family and friends, either resisting death’s imminence, or not knowing how to offer comfort and support.
In our twentieth-century Western culture we lack the collective foundation which prepares us for death. This attitude leaves us grieving and helpless. Our perception of life is narrowed and grief holds us in its power. We feel that our life is diminished by the absence of our loved one’s physical presence. But if death is embraced openly through the dying labor, will we not come to know that all present belong to a circle of faith woven together as we live into that common experience?
Looking to early Quakers’ expression of faith as a way to face death we find that their gathered experience was a profound indi- moment of feeling God’s work among them. Built upon individual ministry, their collective experience was strengthened as they consciously attended to a shared inner faith. Such a moment is described in the words of Mary Moss’ father who wrote to Friends following her death in 1692:
to reach to the little Seed of the Kingdom
where it did lye as buried under the Earth,
that the Power she had partaken of
to work her Redemption,
they might also come to feel
and be made sensible of what she witnessed,
of the inward Circumcision in Spirit….
And the candle
which was lighted in her
did shine forth to others;
so that it is well for them that are left behind.
– An Epistle by the way of testimony to the Friends of Manchester and
thereabouts; given forth shortly after the death of my dear daughter, Mary Moss, The Northcott Printer, London, 1692, p. 2
Early Friends came to believe that the last words of loved ones were examples of faith and piety. From the late seventeenth century into the nineteenth these final exhortations were published in a series of books called Piety Promoted: A collection of Dying sayings of many of the people called Quakers. [Ed note: You can find a complete set of these volumes in most Friends Historical Libraries.] These books, along with scripture, were used for teaching and meditation to children as well as adults. Death was regularly talked about. It was not only anticipated but revered as the pinnacle of one’s spiritual journey.
This reverence for dying as a sacred transition reflected the ethos of the seventeenth-century culture which generally recognized that death gave advanced warning of its arrival. Presentiments of death were conceived in both natural and supernatural form. Symptoms of illness were natural warnings as there was little known treatment for most diseases. Death was usually the finite result of being taken ill. Supernatural presentiments came from dreams, visions, and other mystical experiences.
The distinction, however, between natural and supernatural is our attempt to understand what seems like, in our twentieth-century culture, a lack of reality. As our perceptions have become shaped by scientific thought, we have more firmly defined the boundaries between the natural and supernatural. This has prevented us from seeing the very positive quality of the premonition of death and the way in which it (was) deeply rooted in daily life. That is, (historically) the fact that death made itself known in advance was an absolutely natural phenomenon, even when it was accompanied by wonders. [Philippe Arie’s, The Hour of our Death, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981, p. 14]
For early Quakers the inevitability of death was not denied, but directly addressed. In the manner of a clearness committee, family members or Quaker elders would ask questions to help the dying discern the clarity of their spiritual condition. Accordingly, they were encouraged to surrender and accept God’s will. Such spiritual support is apparent in William Penn’s counsel to his son, Springette, who died at age 21. Before his illness Springette had desired to travel in the ministry with his father. Penn addressed his son’s grief of letting go of this hope by saying:
My dear child, if it please the Lord to raise thee, I am satisfied it will be so; and if not, then inasmuch as it is thy fervent desire in the Lord, he will look upon thee just as if thou didst live to serve him, and thy comfort will be the same. So, either way, it will be well; for if thou shouldst not live, I do verily believe thou wilt have the recompense of thy good desires, without the temptations and troubles that would attend if long life were granted to thee.
And Springette surrendered his desire and replied to his father:
My eye looks another way, where the truest pleasure is…. All is mercy, dear father; everything is mercy.
– William Penn,The Death-bed of a young Quaker, Pierce & Parker, Boston, Mass., 1833, p. 17
In spiritual counsel and within the support of gathered worship, the pain of illness and letting go of this physical life was vicariously shared by all in attendance to the dying. The gifts of ministry would reciprocally flow to all in the death chamber. As the dying person surrendered to God’s will, he or she would ask family and friends likewise to surrender. The one who was dying would often minister to the family acknowledging their shared grief, reminding them to trust in God and accept God’s will in their dying. This was a request built upon a foundation of faith. The account of John Camm’s final moments reflects this faith in his ministry to family and friends:
And the Morning he departed this Life, he called his wife and children and family, and gave them seasonable Sinstruction to Love the Lord, and his Way, and Truth,
and to walk in the same; saying….
“His Glass was Run;
The time of his Departure was come,
he was to enter into Everlasting Ease,
Joy, and Rest….”
Charging them all to be patient and content in parting with him; and so presently fainting, passed quietly away, as into a sweet sleep, whereupon some about him did weep aloud; he was awakened out of the sleep, and desired to be helped a little upon his Bed, saying,
“My dear hearts, you have wronged me,
and disturbed me,
for I was in a sweet Rest;
you should not so passionately Sorrow for my Departure;
This House of Clay must go to its Place;
but this Soul and Spirit is to be gathered up
to the Lord, to live with him forever
where we shall meet with Everlasting Joy….
….charging everyone of them to be Content with his departure.
– John Camm, expressions shared during a considerable time of
illness, as recorded in John Tomkins & John Fields, Eds., Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, p. 24
Out of the ethos of the times, waiting for signs of death, early Quakers’ daily life was grounded in this practice of listening inwardly, continually surrendering to God’s will. Their death ministry not only reflected but magnified the daily practice of their faith. As they sought union with God through facing their own shortcomings, the experience of physical pain was much less than suffering their inward conviction of sin. In the recorded. accounts of seventeenth-century Quaker deaths, not only adults, but children exemplified this faith. Today we note that children who face death exhibit an intuitive nature about life. And in the seventeenth century, where supernatural and natural events merged more freely in daily perceptions, accounts of children’s dying are mirrors of this innate trust, as well as examples of piety.
This passion in living their faith is reflected in the final ministry of two young Friends. The first of these is a prayer of Elizabeth Furley, age thirteen, (1669). In the presence of several Friends she prayed:
Whatever is not of thyself, Lord,
purge it out of me;
yea, purge me thoroughly,
leave no Wicked Word in me.
Thrust away the Power of Darkness, Lord,
make me able to praise thee.
Let me not come into that Way
which is Evil, for if I do,
I shall dishonour thee, and thy Truth.
I hope, I shall never Rebel against thee more,
but have full Satisfaction in thee
and in thy Ways…
Wash me, O Lord thoroughly,
let not an unadvised Word
come out of my Mouth….
I feel no pain,
the Lord is good to me,
good is the Will of the Lord;
let thy Will be done
in Earth, as it is in Heaven….
Everlasting Kindness hast thou shewn me,
and I hope I shall never forget it
cable while I am in this world.
– Dying prayer of Elizabeth Furley, John Tomkins & John Field,
Eds., Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, pp. 51-52
In the intense pain of inner conviction, as the dying turned away from earthly attachments, only God’s Love could sustain them. Seeking a closer relationship with God, as human and painful as that was, early Friends found inner peace through total surrender of self-will. The dying words of Sarah Camm, a child who died at age nine in 1682, exemplifies this struggle to surrender. [Thomas Camm, The admirable and glorious appearance of the eternal God, in his glorious power, in and through a child…., Printed by John Bringhurst at the Sign of the Book and Three Black Birds in Leaden-Hall-Mutton-Market, London, 1684] When she was “visited with sickness” she declared that she should be taken away by death, saying:
I am neither afraid nor unwilling to die, but freely am given up thereto,
in the will of God.
When she saw her family weep she counseled: “Oh! do not so, I do not so.” And she was very patient making only deep sighs. Her father asked her, if she could not pray to God for help. Her answer was, “she could” and it was her belief that the “Great God of Heaven and Earth would keep her and preserve her soul, whatever might become of her body.”
On the fifth day of her sickness she was reported as more restless of mind and spirit. But after a little time of prayer she sat upright in her bed, and with cheerfulness in her voice said:
My sins are forgiven me, and I shall have a resting place in heaven.
It was out of this moment of surrender Sarah came to know that God’s Grace gave her an assurance of life after death. Her last words were:
I shall have a resting place in heaven….
I am well, I am well.
I must go to a more fair place
than ever my eyes behold.
It will be well with me
and all that fear the Lord
for we shall have everlasting joy in heaven.
Then speaking to her father who was holding her in his arms, she said,
Oh! my dear father
thou art tender and careful over me,
and hath taken great pains with me in sickness
but it availeth not.
There is not help nor succor for me in the earth;
it is the Lord that is my health and physician,
and he will give me ease
and rest everlasting….
Farewell, farewell, unto you all, only farewell. . . .
And, continuing to pray to herself, Sarah died quietly.
Seventeenth-century Friends, as heard in Sarah Camm’s dying ministry, frequently defined life-after-death as feeling states of rest and peace found in a joyous union with God—
that when the Midnight Cry came, I might be ready to enter into the Bride-chamber, to have the Wedding Garment…. to enter into the heavenly Rest….
– Dying ministry of Margaret Ellis, Wife of Rowland Ellis of Pennsylvania, died June 8, 1731, as recorded in John Bell, Ed., Piety Promoted, the seventh part, London, 1740, pp. 127-28
It was a faith in life beyond the temporal, grounded in the individual’s relationship with God, free for individual expression from the boundaries of doctrine. Early Friends’ faith was an expression of God’s Love none less than the resurrection which they professed as their final reward. Each individual had to come to this reward in her or his own way. That journey was the crucifixion and resurrection reenacted over and again as each person faced death. Their final words were their witness to this path and were offered in testimony to the underlying truth of God’s Love. In that faith they turned suffering from feelings of loss into acceptance and joy.
Thus early Friends’ living faith lifted their time of dying into an exemplary spiritual path echoing for Quakers of the twentieth-century an uplifting promise that death is spiritual birth. The poetry of this promise is so clearly spoken in the final written ministry of William Leddra. He poignantly writes of his faith in the words of his epistle to the Society of Friends written the evening before he was hanged in Boston, 1659:
Most Dear and Inwardly Beloved,
The sweet influences of the Morning Star,
like a Flood distilling into my Innocent Habitation,
hath filled me with the Joy of the Lord,
in the Beauty of Holiness,
that my Spirit is,
as if it did not Inhabit a Tabernacle of Clay….
Oh! My Beloved,
I have waited as a Dove at the Windows of the Ark,
and I have stood still in that Watch,
which the Master (without whom I could do nothing)
did at his coming reward with Fullness of his Love,
wherein my Heart did rejoyce,
that I might in the Love and Life of God,
speak a few Words to you
sealed with the Spirit of Promise,
that the Taste thereof might be a Savour of Life
to your Life, and a Testimony in you…
– An Epistle of William Leddra, to Friends written by him from his cell in Boston prison, the day before he was put to Death, 1661. From John Tomkins & John Fields, Eds. Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, pp. 21-24
“Is there a Quaker way of dying?” This question can be answered in the affirmative if we live our faith as embodied by the founders of our Religious Society of Friends..
This is a faith built upon an acceptance of humanity as a fragile thread in a large divine tapestry which God is weaving in the expression of perfect love. To live that faith we must believe that we are essential to the texture and construction of that cloth, co-creating with God, and birthing the perfect realm of Eternal Grace. This is nothing short of a redeemed inward nature that can only be found through our cooperation, a dynamic faith, through which we voluntarily enter into the transformative energy of God. It is truly the belief that death is a spiritual birth, bridging of the temporal and the eternal, and belief that we can actively participate in that process. Thus living daily with sacred intention into our dying we can find complete and final expres- sion in God where “God’s life and our lives are bound together, as a vine with branches, as a body with members….”
– Rufus Jones, The Double Search: Studies in Atonement & Prayer, Headley Brothers, London, 1906, p. 63
This is not a seeking of perfection within self, but rather perfection in relationship with God. And it is there, like seventeenth-century Friends, that we experience the timeless- ness of resurrection, lived daily as co-creators with God. It is there that we practice dying as a living experience. If we can humbly accept our own humanity each day, then we will live our dying with each glimpse of eternity, with the promise of spiritual birth. If we accept this path, which the first Quakers so passionately walked, we will find the thought of death to be healing. Our fears of immortality will fall away, our lives will become filled with love and peace; and we will look forward to letting go, joining the natural flow of life towards Eternal Love.
- Ernest Taylor, Richard Hubberthorne: Soldier and Preacher, (died
1653), Friends Ancient and Modern, #16; Friends’ Tract Association, New York, 1911, p. 3.
- Dying words of Robert Jeckel of New-Castle upon Tine, died
May 2, 1667, as recorded in John Tomkins & John Field, Eds.; Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, p. 59.
- Vining, Elizabeth Gray, Facing One’s Own Death, spoken essay
recorded by E. G. Vining for the Committee on Worship and Ministry of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1979.
- F. Raylton, Piety Promoted, A collection of dying sayings of many
of the people called Quakers, 1716, p. xxiii, from the “Preface to the Reader.”
- “Still, still with Thee,” verses from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s poem “Resting in God,” inspired by Psalm 139:18, from Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal, Friends General Conference, Philadelphia, Pa., 1996, p. 33.
- Dying testimony of Elizabeth Braithwait, 1684, from a tract, intended to be used to inspire the children to live a faithful, pious life, printed by John Bringhurst at the Sign of the Book and Three Black Birds in Leaden-Hall-Mutton-Market, London, 1684.
- Dying testimony of Edward Burroughs, from Piety Promoted,
Dublin, 1662, pp. 29-32.
- Ruth M. Fawell, Death is a Horizon, Friends Home Service Committee, London, 1970, p. 6.
- Dying testimony of James Nayler, John Bellows, Steam Press, Gloucester, 1660.
- John Camm, expressions shared during a considerable time of
illness, as recorded in John Tomkins & John Fields, Eds., Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, p. 22.
- Christian & Brotherly Advises given forth from time to time by
the yearly meeting in London, 1756, transcribed and examined by Bery Bourne, p. 407.
- Dying ministry of Margaret Ellis, died June 8, 1731, as recorded in John Bell, Ed., Piety Promoted, the 7th part, London, 1740, pp. 127-28.
- Hugh Barbour & Jerry Frost, The Quakers, Friends United
Press, Richmond, In., 1988, pp. 116-17.
- An Epistle by the way of testimony to the Friends of Manchester and
thereabouts; given forth shortly after the death of my dear daughter, Mary Moss, The Northcott Printer, London, 1692, p. 2.
- Philippe Arie’s, The Hour of our Death, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981,
- William Penn, The Death-bed of a young Quaker, Pierce & Parker, Boston, Mass., 1833, p. 17.
- John Camm, expressions shared during a considerable time of
illness, as recorded in John Tomkins & John Fields, Eds., Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, p. 24.
- Dying prayer of Elizabeth Furley, John Tomkins & John Field,
Eds., Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, pp. 51-52.
- Thomas Camm, The admirable and glorious appearance of the eternal God, in his glorious power, in and through a child…., Printed by John Bringhurst at the Sign of the Book and Three Black Birds in Leaden-Hall-Mutton-Market, London, 1684.
- Dying ministry of Margaret Ellis, Wife of Rowland Ellis of Pennsylvania, died June 8, 1731, as recorded in John Bell, Ed., Piety Promoted, the 7th part, London, 1740, pp. 127-28.
- An Epistle of William Leddra, to Friends written by him from his cell in Boston prison, the day before he was put to Death, 1661, From John Tomkins & John Fields, Eds. Piety Promoted, Dublin, 1721, pp. 21-24.
- Rufus Jones, The Double Search: Studies in Atonement and Prayer, Headley Brothers, London, 1906, p. 63.
About the Author
In 1992, Lucy McIver answered the call to follow a spiritual path and accompanied her spiritual mentor, Teresina Havens, during the final days of her death. Two years later she became spiritual companion to Joseph Havens in his dying. The deaths of these two Friends began a restless seeking within Lucy to understand how our Quaker faith shapes not only our living but our dying. Leaving the security of job and family she came to Pendle Hill in 1995-96 as a student to find answers through writing and artistic expression. This work led her to receive the Cadbury Scholarship for 1996-97 affording her the opportunity to examine the seventeenth-century Quakers’ attitudes and experiences of death and dying. This pamphlet was one result of those two years.
Lucy returned to her home in Eugene, Oregon, after leaving Pendle Hill. As a therapist she had a private practice with a focus on spiritual nurture through artistic expression. She was joined by her partner, Karen Lundblad, and their marriage was taken under the care of Eugene Monthly Meeting where Lucy was a member. Karen brought to their partnership twenty years experience in hospice social work. Together they offered workshops called “Living our faith unto death.” This ministry was shared throughout meetings in North Pacific Yearly Meeting and Friends General Conference annual gathering guided and supported by Eugene meeting.
Permission to post this essay online was kindly provided by Pendle Hill in the hope that its message may be of service to Friends and others facing their own death and that of those they love. Physical copies of this pamphlet are available from Pendle Hill Publications.
The pamphlet cover art & clay sculptures depicted in photographs in it are by Lucy McIver.
Photos by Janice M. Dunn, Styles Photography.
Request for permission to quote or to translate should be addressed to Pendle Hill Publications, Wallingford, Pennsylvania 19086-6099.
Shareright (S) 1998 by Pendle Hill.
Library of Congress catalog card number 98-067528