Helping us find the words
Review of "Awakened by Death" by Christiana Peterson.
Sometimes books appear when they are needed, and the timing of Christiana Peterson’s new book is particularly apt. With the world living through a global pandemic and the realities of mortality prominent in new and frightening ways, Awakened by Death: Life-giving Lessons from the Mystics offers to accompany us as we look our fears of death squarely in the face.
Blending personal memoir, historical storytelling and theological consideration, Peterson’s new book follows in the footsteps of her debut, Mystics and Misfits, sharing a faith-filled perspective that is gentle, informative, and wise.
From Medieval fears of hell through Enlightenment fears of oblivion, Victorian spiritualist confusions and contemporary abstractions and alienations, Peterson chronicles the changing ways in which Western societies have been both grief-challenged and blessed by insight. She looks at church teachings, writings, history, art, and cultural practice throughout the ages and explores what the Western world is talking about when talking about death.
The mystics, both ancient and more contemporary, give Peterson permission to “lean into” death. She finds that it is not morbid or unhealthy to consider our mortal nature and that to do so can enable us to live fuller, more faithful lives. She emphasizes that Death is not an anomaly nor a failure, but the conclusion of every life, and she shows us how the mystics, by concentrating on humility and the possibilities of individual openness to God, give us language to speak about grief and loss, and courage to turn to God in faith.
Early on in the book, Peterson quotes Howard Thurman saying that as every human is “involved in the endless cycle of birth, of living and dying,” we are all therefore qualified to interpret the experience. Because we will all die, we can talk about death. But this can doesn’t mean we easily do. Often we dodge the issue. In these difficult pandemic days, this has become apparent as questions of privilege and responsibility have often clouded our conversations about fear. Peterson suggests that we need to be willing to look if we are to find wisdom. She is generous in exploring her own personal fears of death alongside a wider examination of these fears in our culture.
The heart of the book is her moving telling of her own father’s death and the story of how her understanding of his dying and her family’s grieving is changing over time. She suggests that our relationship with death is a journey just as life is a journey, and she prompts us to consider what a “good death” might look like.
“A good death doesn’t just happen. It accompanies a certain type of life.” Peterson suggests that contemplation of death may be a spiritual practice connected with ideas of forgiving, self-denial, letting go, and, ultimately, of the deepest kind of hope. Peterson confesses her strong need to be reminded that death itself has been transformed through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Christian contemplation of death as a spiritual practice does not mean to wallow in darkness, but rather, to confront death’s sadness, to recognize that it is not final, and to remember the promises and experiences of resurrection in our faith story and in our own lives.
I can imagine this book being studied and discussed in congregational contexts and feel it would open all manner of useful and engaging conversations among friends.
In one chapter, Peterson describes an evening when she and her husband invited another couple over for dinner to create an intentional opportunity to talk about death. The idea originally came from a 2013 graduate class at the University of Washington called “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.” Since then, the teachers of the course have expanded and shared the idea, birthing a Death Dinner movement with the straightforward aim of getting people to talk openly about their ideas, fears, hopes and plans. Peterson’s book acts as an extension of this aim and perhaps a resource for those wishing to be able to speak more deeply and clearly about death.
Awakened by Death opens hard conversations, providing us with companionship and an informed cultural roadmap through a difficult topic.