Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation
Order, Disorder, Reorder: Part Two
Order, Disorder, Reorder: Part Two

Dying as Disorder

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Order, Disorder, Reorder: Part Two

Dying as Disorder
Thursday, August 20, 2020

Dying is not extraneous to life; it is a part of the mystery, and we do not understand life until we stand under death. —Richard Rohr

There may be nothing more disordering than being diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness. It upends our lives and yet, as Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen affirms, it can also be the doorway through which we “grow up” and discover our life’s purpose and meaning. At a young age, Remen was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which affects all aspects of her life, but ultimately led her to her life’s work: helping doctors integrate their heart and soul into their clinical practices for the sake of healing their patients and themselves.

The view from the edge of life is different and often much clearer than the way most of us see things. Life-threatening illness may cause people to question what they have accepted as unchanging. Values that have been passed down in a family for generations may be recognized as inadequate; lifelong beliefs about personal capacities or what is important may prove to be mistaken. When life is stripped down to its very essentials, it is surprising how simple things become. Fewer and fewer things matter and those that matter, matter a great deal more. As a doctor to people with cancer, I have walked the beach at the edge of life picking up this wisdom like shells.

One of my patients who survived three major surgeries in five weeks described himself as “born again.” When I asked him about this, he told me that his experience had challenged all of his ideas about life. Everything he had thought true had turned out to be merely belief and had not withstood the terrible events of recent weeks. He was stripped of all that he knew and left only with the unshakeable conviction that life itself was holy. This insight in its singularity and simplicity had sustained him better than the multiple complex systems of beliefs and values that had been the foundation of his life up until this time. It upheld him like stone and upholds him still because it has been tested by fire. At the depths of the most unimaginable vulnerability he has discovered that we live not by choice but by grace. And that life itself is a blessing.

Some of those who have had a near-death experience, who have actually set foot over that edge and then returned, have had an additional insight. Their experience has revealed to them that every life serves a single purpose. We are here to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better. Despite the countless and diverse ways we live our lives, every life is a spiritual path, and all life has a spiritual agenda.

Such ideas have the power to change the way you see yourself and the world.

Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging (Riverhead Books: 2001), 325–326.

Epigraph: The Wisdom Pattern: Order–Disorder–Reorder (Franciscan Media: 2020), 70.

Image credit: Number 8, (detail), Jackson Pollock, 1949, Neurberger Museum of Art, New York, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: “Almost inevitably, our ideally ordered universe will eventually disappoint us, at least if we are honest. We will be deeply disappointed by what we were originally taught, by where our choices have led us, or by the seemingly random tragedies that take place in all our lives. It is necessary if any real growth is to occur.” —Richard Rohr
Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.