O Herr, gieb jedem seinen Tod.
Das Sterben, das aus jenem Leben geht,
darin er Liebe hatte, Sinn und Not.
Denn wir sind nur die Schale und das Blatt.
Der große Tod, den jeder in sich hat,
das ist die Frucht, um die sich alles dreht.1
You will forgive me that I quote again the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I find his works – both the language and the ideas – most inspiring, and he commented in a most lyrical way on the dramatic aspects of human life: birth and death, solitude, love, fear and man’s relation to God. Death as the ultimate finality of life, showing the absurdity of human vanity, balanced by Rilke’s assumption that life is marked by love, sense and distress (!) – Rilke approaches the one great paradox of life: If death is the finality of life, how can it be possible to give life a meaning? And why would love under these circumstances be so important? And why could distress not be absent from life?
Faith and love
The answer for Rilke is obvious: the experience of God’s direct presence, the love of one’s next are the meaning of life and distress is a reminder that salvation cannot be obtained in this world. Rilke was raised in a Catholic tradition and the mysteries surrounding Christianism are the subject not of a few poems but of several books of poems. He was deeply sceptical of the notion of faith, he rejected the clerical institutions and Jesus’ supposed role as an intermediary between God and believers. But the relationship between God and mankind obsessed him nevertheless. Tomorrow, Catholics all over the world will celebrate All Souls’ Day and remember those who passed away. Death – what did it mean to them? The end of love? The end of a meaningful life? The end of distress? The end of a journey leading to God and salvation?
Genocide in Turkey
The Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (born in 1939) wrote in 2011 a Requiem for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and string orchestra. It is an extraordinary work reconciling “the sound and sensibility of his country’s traditions with […] Western traditions, the combination of ancient Armenian religious and secular music with the Latin Requiem text” it says in the liner notes of a beautiful recording by the Munich Chamber Orchestra and the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin. Mansurian wrote it to commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey between 1915 and 1917.
The Requiem invites to meditation. What does death mean to me? It leads me once more to something troubling: my longtime inability to mourn. For many years I had the feeling that I could not mourn and it made me feel guilty. Did I have no empathy at all? Did the death of friends or relatives leave me totally cold? A hard question to ask oneself. It took several decades until I felt the urge to mourn. Before I could learn to mourn I had to learn to love.
© Charles Thibo
1O Lord, give everybody his death.
A death, that stems from a life
that was filled with love, meaning and distress.
We are nothing more but the core and leaf.
That big death, that everybody carries inside himself,
is the fruit, around which everything orbits.