A book review: As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning

As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning (c. 2002). The Rev. Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), a Roman Catholic priest and well- known American cleric, lived—and almost died—in Manhattan after a missed diagnosis resulted in two problematic surgeries. His reflection, written after his near-death experience, includes 7 “meditations.”

Okay: published over twenty years ago, it’s an older book but one that’s worth a second look. Neuhaus’ reflections augur food for thought for death, one’s own or for someone else. His insights portend questions which may involve, “What do we know and how?”

Neuhaus draws on his own experience of coming close to dying—and realizing that he was on the brink. And yes! He had a mysterious visit by three beings at the doorway of his hospital room and a voice delivered a quizzical message. Some might find such a visit conclusive of something; Neuhaus also puzzled over what the visit was meant to convey and seriously reviews what the incident may or may not mean.

His writing is seasoned not only with the academics associated with death and dying but more so with his own pastoral experience at the bedside of dying patients in his ministry in NYC hospitals for the poor.

Spoiler alert: Neuhaus—ever the scholar, writer, and editor—often requires a second reading for clarity. The patient reader is rewarded with a nugget of clarity in the swirl of the waters of philosophy and the sages who have written on the subject through the ages.

The biblical accounts of the incarnation and the resurrection are foundational in his understanding of what death means and how we meet it. He does not, however, minimize other opinions, both philosophical and/or theological. We may still have questions—what’s it like to die, who’s in control, and what to expect after death. What about the soul? And what about the body? Neuhaus doesn’t dodge what we or others ask and gives more than we imagine possible. In the end, Neuhaus’ story of hope—and the certainty that comes with it—is compelling.

For those who care, the book carries the nihil obstat and imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church.

The following are very brief summations of the major themes in each of the 7 meditations. As meditations, they are far ranging and not always with the usual bullet points for clarity!

I. This relatively short and simple chapter (meditation) draws on one’s own understanding of death: We all die. It’s inevitable. Intuitively we know it. But really?

II. Living while we die and the different approaches to understanding our own death—and the death of others—as we expect and await the inevitable.

III. Death is not a problem to be solved nor a sequence to be mastered. “Where there is nothing more to be done, being there is all.” (p. 60) “Time is not unlike a sacrament… capable of bearing the absolute.” (p. 65) “It is true in every present moment: you have all the time there is.” (p. 66) And then there is the soul. Neuhaus trots out the theories, doctrines and dogma, the poetic musings, the thinking of the philosophers before returning to basic Christian beliefs centering on the resurrection, but not before allowing that others have different views which leave open questions.

IV. Death becomes personal as Neuhaus tells of his own experience, being convinced that he was dying with the realization that his body mattered (no pun intended).

V. This meditation recounts the strange visit one night to Neuhaus’ hospital room by a presence who voiced an ominous message to the very sick pastor. The message to Neuhaus: “Everything is ready now.”

VI. His meditation summarizes well Neuhaus’ pondering of the soul and its relationship to the body: “Faith in search of understanding was not yet satisfied, but neither was it disappointed.” To arrive at this point, Neuhaus plumbed the well-known biblical texts that speak of the connection of Christ to the believer, and the believer to Christ. Christian readers will applaud his quote of John 14:1-6, Romans 6:8-11, Galatians 2:19- 21, and 1 Corinthians 15, all well known for the inclusiveness of one’s body into the life of Christ. No surprise here that these passages are at the core of God’s relationship–through Christ–to one’s body and soul—and for Neuhaus, and Christendom—central to one’s baptism.

VII. Neuhaus reminisces about his own recovery and what it means to be ill—and dying—and whether or not one can ever claim control over one’s own body, one’s fate, and the timing. Interestingly, he concludes that women are probably better at accepting the unknown than men, because women have lived with the unknowns of life and birth by their very existence as one who through new lives are born. Neuhaus admits that he had no particular fear of death bit rather an indifference. Neuhaus ends on a positive note, recalling the mysterious voice in his hospital room, “Everything is now ready.”

Tom Decker served his first troop assignment as a chaplain in the South Dakota Army National Guard’s 730 th Medical Company (Clr) (-) from 1971-75. (The “-“ indicated that the company was split between two locations, one in “West River” Winner and the “East River” location in Vermillion. In 1975, he entered active duty and served in two Army hospitals as well as four of the low-numbered infantry divisions. He retired to Southern California in 2002. He and his wife live in an assisted living facility in Chula Vista, CA.