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‘Dancing to my Death’ reviewed in Accord

‘Dancing to my Death’ reviewed in Accord

The final words of a man of great courage 

By Marian Tolley

I don’t know of any modern book that has such an impact. 

What he has to say, the result of his recognition of the seriousness of his situation, the experience of the pain and humiliating inelegance of his condition – these led him to acceptance that recovery was not going to happen and death was the likely end. Although most of us know this, we think of it in some distant time and it isn’t part of our daily concern. So what he has to say is a shock, so raw and honest and brave, and hilarious in unexpected places, so disregarding of the reluctance to speak about death that we’re used to. The most moving aspect of what he writes is the way in which the honest detail of his suffering is described as he makes clear how often his faith is tested to the limits. Yet he is able to muster the strength and clarity needed to interpret his experience and reinforce his reliance on God. It is totally revealing, utterly heroic, and painfully honest. It is shorn completely of any showmanship but not of his humour. 

And he makes some extremely important points so baldly that they cannot be missed – we cannot hide from them. To give one example from the many that he covers: he insists on the link ‘between our inner and outer lives: our personal spirituality and our involvement in the corporal works of mercy; our intimate relationship with the incarnate Holy Spirit and the energy of that relationship in establishing some kind of lasting peace – in a micro and macro focus on community reconciliation and the renewal of the world.’ He calls attention to ‘the inevitable journey of inward and outward transformation: the simultaneous, continuing transformation of the inward hearts of people liberated by God’s astonishing grace through suffering and the outward transformation of social and economic structures in the light of God’s justice.’ And from his sick bed, as he recognises he is unlikely to recover, he wonders if he still has time to answer the call of our Saviour ‘to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world. [p 91-92] 

I do so hope that he is now aware that he has more than answered that call with this brave, raw and honest book. It cannot be read quickly – one chapter at a time and often reading it more than once is necessary to register the truth he shares. 

In his own words 

‘My bigger, deeper wider meditative prayer tries to recover my belief that we are eternally connected to the source of life in such a way that nothing, absolutely nothing, can ever sever it – not bad health or imminent death, not betrayal by someone, indeed not even our own destructive acts and sins. Nothing can change God’s unconditional love for us.’ From ‘Reasons for hanging in there’, ch 35, p 93.

‘I realise how riddled with base motives are my most externally religious moments and spiritual exercises. Pope Francis so often refers to the idols of his heart, the hidden temptations that are invisible even to himself.’ From ch 36 

After quoting Auden and Santorelli who dealt with this same situation, Daniel warns that we cannot escape such an experience, that we cannot become a person of depth or wisdom without a searing shock, a stripping humiliation, a death of all that is false in us. And he asks if it is possible to be ready for this to happen, or is the suddenness the shocking part and indispensable? ‘The only journey worth taking is the one towards utter authenticity, brave honesty and utter integrity. And on arrival, God is found too. It is a moment of the fullest self- discovery, the moment we were created for.’

He mixes honesty, humour and pain as he writes: ‘Remember I’m writing what is happening in my deepest heart, far removed from any contrived happy ending. I wonder if Jesus on the cross knew somehow that it would all turn out fine and dandy at the end? I very much hope not. Otherwise I’m finished.’ 

 

And his humour doesn’t fail him even in his illness –

Waking up this morning, I smile. 


Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.


I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.


‘This morning I can only say, wryly, to the holy man “Good luck with that!”

Quoting Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. 

 

Almost every page of this indispensable book contains an insight essential to understanding what our existence has been about and what we have been created for. For me, it is a life changer in a direction that all of his life and work have been pointing. And as he stands at the threshold of another life, he leaves us this searingly honest meditation so that we can be better prepared. What a gift! 

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