Conversation with Death

I’m at our annual gathering, Dragonfest, a five-day festival in the supremely beautiful Rocky Mountains. This is my first visit to the new festival site, and the land is gorgeous. We all miss the big lake, of course, and the dramatic swoop of the slope up to the shattered ridge we call “the dragon.” Here the land is more rolling and spotted with meadows of brilliant wildflowers. They had eleven hours of rain on Tuesday, the day before we arrived, and several hours on Wednesday, which turned all the roads into a slick, muddy mess. But the rain slacked off, and this Saturday morning dawned clear and cool.

I’ve had a fascist plant in my heel for a few weeks, Mussolini I think. (The doctor actually called it plantar fasciitis, but it feels more like Mussolini.) Whatever I call it, walking has been painful. So I sat this morning in a canvas chair under a sun awning performing a “blank page meditation” — notebook in my lap, pen alertly poised to write witty and significant words, eyes distantly unfocused as I mulled the vast silences of a completely empty head.

Then Death walked by and stopped to chat.

His given name is Michael, and he’s a gentle man with a sweet energy and a broad, engaging smile. I’ve known him for several years. In his day job, he’s a guy just like anyone else: owned a scrap and salvage operation before he sold it, and got crunched in the Great Recession of 2008 like everyone. We talked for a while about what we’ve been doing lately — his personal downsizing process, my unpaid furlough from work.

Then the conversation turned to last night’s Drawing Down, where he channeled Hades, Lord of the Underworld.

We do the Drawing Down rite every year at Dragonfest. It’s a little different from the Wiccan rite of the same name: it’s rooted in that tradition, but adapted to a group of hundreds. Roughly a half-dozen to a dozen priests and priestesses serve as channels for a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. Everyone else — the questioners — meditate in a waiting area, and “walkers” escort them, one at a time, to the channels where they can ask questions or have a conversation with a manifestation of the divine.

Channeling itself is a fascinating phenomenon. Some channels lose conscious awareness entirely during the experience: Edgar Cayce, the “sleeping prophet,” was one of the most well-known channels of this sort. Others retain consciousness, but view their words and actions from the back of the bus, so to speak, while the deity they channel drives the bus. Still others, like Michael, experience it more as an intimate “being with,” where they are aware of and pass along what they know the deity would have said had they been driving the bus, along with cryptic bits of information that are meaningless to the channel, but meaningful to the questioner.

Sacred theater plays a role, too, in preparing both the channel and the questioners. Michael set up in a small, circular grove of living trees that contained substantial deadfall. It was a long walk from the gathering area, mostly uphill. Downhill might have been better symbolism, but an uphill hike requires a certain determination: a long and difficult walk in the evening darkness that passes through the circle of life and into the realm of death, to speak with the Lord of the Dead.

This morning I could still hear an echo of Hades in Michael’s voice as he spoke of the experience: a quiet authority that ran deeper than Michael’s normal tone.

He said that the most common recurring theme — both last night and through all the centuries of man — is regret. Dreams abandoned. Things never attempted. Misdeeds unrectified. The message from Hades to all of these people is the same: You don’t need to make peace with me. You need to make peace with yourself. If you have regrets now, while you still live, then stop regretting and start living your life. Make use of the time you have.

The other recurring theme is fear of death. Hades’ response: Every person comes to me. I am patient. I am in no hurry to ‘collect’ anyone. Each person finds their way to me at the appropriate time, and then I help them move into what comes after. It is not something to be afraid of.

There is a universe of wisdom in these two, short, matter-of-fact statements.

Make use of the time you have. Good advice, almost trivially obvious. Yet deathbed regrets are so common. Even if it is trivially obvious advice, it seems we still need to be reminded.

Every person comes to me. The inevitability of death is something most people don’t appreciate, and our culture spends tremendous effort and expense in denying it. In our majority religions, we hear such things as “victory over death,” as though there is some conflict and it is somehow possible to win. But it isn’t a conflict in the first place. Life isn’t life without death, just as there can be no light without darkness. Death is what makes life precious and worth living.

Yesterday evening I had been discussing the Drawing Down with my wife, and apart from the fact that Mussolini would have made it difficult for me to participate, my only question for the gods this year was, “What is the point of you?” It wasn’t meant impertinently — in past months I’ve been pondering if there is any relevance left to religions and gods. The outrageous statements made by the religious, and the ways in which these bizarre beliefs warp individual lives and our entire culture, usually at great cost and to great pain, has made me wonder if we would all be better off without any gods.

This conversation answered my question with remarkable parsimony. I don’t know what the gods are — disembodied blobs of mystic energy floating through the universe just beyond the perception of our microscopes and telescopes, or perhaps just a shared fantasy based on the way our brains are built — but whatever they are, they can offer simple, matter-of-fact conversation with some of the deepest issues we face as living creatures and as human beings.