Why Our Saints are Losing Their Leaves

This interview of Anthony Hopkins is a haunting look at the end of life:

Florian told me when we met, “The [character’s] name is Anthony.” He said he wrote it for me. And he put my actual birth date in. There’s a scene in the office with the doctor, where she says, “Date of birth?” I say, “Friday, the thirty-first of December, 1937.” As a little bit of character, I said, “Can I add ‘Friday’? Because I know the date.” I wanted to show the doctor, “I’m in perfect control. There’s nothing wrong with me. Friday. You got a problem with that?” That is a man who is in control—but, of course, he’s not. He’s been used to control all his life. He was an engineer, an exacting profession, with two daughters. His favorite has sadly been killed in a car crash, we assume. And he’s a bit of a tyrant. He’s not a bad man, he’s just been a tough old father, impatient and irascible, and now finally he’s losing control of it all. In the last scene, he says, “I’m losing all my leaves. Everything’s falling away.” And that must be a devastating tragedy.

He talks about when his father died:

My father had a heart attack on Christmas, 1979. I was in London doing “The Elephant Man.” But he survived another year. He lingered on and he deteriorated. Round about the spring, he started losing his body. I would go to visit him in the hospital, and he was beginning to become comatose. He was becoming irascible as well, impatient—with me especially, because I was his only offspring. I used to sit with him and make him promises. You know, you make these empty promises: “When you get out of here, I’ll drive you from New York to Los Angeles.” Because he loved America; he wanted to travel. I went in there a few days later, and he had an old road map of America, and he was sitting on the side of his bed and looking at this road map. I knew he would never make it.

The morning after he died, I went in to collect his things, and I saw his bed already occupied by the next patient. I thought, That’s it. Life goes on. He’s gone. And I got his reading glasses, his pen, his map, his book, and I sat in the car and thought, God Almighty.

It immediately made me feel the same thing I felt nine years ago reading Wright Thompson’s article about Billy Varner, Bear Bryant’s long-time driver. This passage in particular:

Nobody ever has a plan. A man looks up and he’s 76 years old, with memories he can’t touch and not much else.

In an article a few weeks ago, Dr. Diane E. Meier, longtime director of Mount Sinai’s Center to Advance Palliative Care and a 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, provided great insight into this:

It’s important to disabuse you of the notion that pain is the reason people request medical aid in dying. Pain is not the reason. It is existential and spiritual.

It all reminds me of a phrase I’ll always attribute to Danny Hansard: “I’m not afraid of death. It’s the getting dead that scares me.” Clearly, though, many people are scared of both. I used to lament how tragic that was — facing death with no eternal hope. How absolutely miserable and increasingly terrifying life must be.

I have realized, though, that it’s just as common among those in the church as those outside. And that’s even more tragic. They ought to know better! I was continually frustrated by people who were ignoring so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3). The shorter the time, the greater the excitement and anticipation should be! How could they possibly be miserable??

I know why now.

People who have never experienced fullness of life aren’t likely to find it when life isn’t as pleasant anymore. When the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to their old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken their sky. When their legs start to tremble and their shoulders stoop. When their teeth stop grinding, and their eyes see dimly. When the door to life’s opportunities is closed, and the sound of work fades. They rise at the first chirping of the birds, but their sounds grow faint. They become fearful of falling and worry about danger in the streets. Their hair turns white, and they drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper. (Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes 12:1-5.)

And those who have never found fullness of life struggle to truly believe in — trust in, deep down — a brilliant eternity. If they never learned to trust God for this life, it’s unlikely they can truly trust him for the next.

Sure, a few do find it. But as Dallas Willard writes:

As things now stand we have, on the one hand, some kind of “faith in Christ” and, on the other, the life of abundance and obedience he is and offers. But we have no effective bridge from the faith to the life. Some do work it out. But when that happens it is looked upon as a fluke or an accident, not a normal and natural part of the regular good news itself.

The fact that few find a life of abundance is our fault — those of us whose jobs it was to equip them and help them grow into the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). We have been “blind guides”. We didn’t know the way to go, so we couldn’t possibly show them. And we didn’t know because nobody taught us.

Thankfully there is mercy for us, and there is still time to begin telling — with compassion — a better, truer story.

Photo by Johannes Plenio

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