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Center for Action and Contemplation
Wisdom in Times of Crisis
Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Dying Before We Die

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Dying Before We Die
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault addresses a fear that motivates all of us on some level—the fear of death. It is a matter of true wisdom to know how to face death wisely and courageously, which is why every religion and culture since the beginning of time has tried to “make sense” of it in some way. From her home off the coast of Maine, Cynthia shares these words, which come from the very heart of the Christian tradition.

What is the wisdom that matters now? For me, it’s the Paschal Mystery [the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ]. . . . Simply, the one who would save his life or her life will lose it and the one who’s willing to lose it, will save it. In all great religious traditions, this is the eye of the needle. Everything that’s good, everything that’s abiding, everything that’s worthy, everything that’s generative about a human being arises on the other side of our fear of death. . . . The whole tradition we’ve had of “dying before you die” sounds like martyrdom from the outside, but what you really discover is, it’s the gateway to freedom.

Jesus within our own Christian path not only tried to point toward what this new life is, but he also took us there and left us with the promise that he carries this, that he takes it on. Any one of us who summons the great courage within us to gird up our loins and die before we die are not left unaccompanied. It’s on the other edge of that that we’re really set free to courage, to compassion, and to generosity—this is where the Paschal Mystery begins to come in.

The values that are called the fruits of the Spirit by St. Paul—gentleness and peace and forbearance, compassion, love, joy—these are alchemical products that grow on the other side of the human being not afraid to die. We can find and collectively draw on those wonderful gifts. But it requires the personal willingness (as the old monks in the desert said), to “sit in your cell and ponder the hour of your death” until you’ve really worked through your system what this promise means: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” [Romans 14:8]. . . . With that, having moved from something nice you recite on Sundays to something you know in the marrow of your bones, then you walk into the planet as a vessel of love and nothing can touch you.

To the extent that we live our life from the heart now with utter integrity, death proves to be no interruption to identity. . . . Who we are is held in the love of God from before time; and as we lean into that now in life and taste it, we’ll be prepared to really see death as the fullness of being and not as the lessening of it.

From Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Gateway to Freedom,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (May 4, 2020), YouTube video,; and

“Death Is the Fullness of Being,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (May 6, 2020), YouTube video,

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
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