Some things I have learned #29, Part 1

Subtitle: Or, at the least, I think I believe

Sub-subtitle: Or, at the most, I believe I know

On dying and hope…


The days of our life are seventy years or perhaps eighty, if we are strong – Psalm 90.10

To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living – Herman Melville (1819-1891)

In a bit more than a year, I shall reach that societally-noteworthy age of seventy; that moment one becomes wise (or, at least, one knows more how to pretend to be wise!).

In my continuing learning about life, it seems to me that dying is not limited to the end of earthly existence. Truly, dying begins when living begins. Everything and everyone born into life in this world comes stamped with an expiration (though, most often, unknown) date.

Moreover, the state of dying can be situated in whatever circumstance or condition that makes for suffering and loss; whether of the flesh or of the spirit:

Physical ailment or heartfelt disappointment…

The death of a loved one or dying aspirations…

The infirmities of age or the insecurities of youth…

Personal tragedy or the tribulation of peoples elsewhere and everywhere…

Whatever challenges our security, deflates our self-esteem, shatters our confidence, assails our vigor, assaults our joy, or rudely announces our mortality is an instrument of death.

These moments, these kinds of experiences are what the theologian Karl Rahner called “dying by installments” – that is, bit by bit, until that moment of the inexorable end of life.

A critical issue, literally, a matter of life-and-death, is how we respond to these inescapable elements of our existence:

We can protest, crying out in anger…

We can despair, in stoic, silent resignation…

We can cling cynically to all that has not been taken from us. Yet…

We can accept, even with uneasy ambivalence, the assaults and insults of mortality. And, in that acceptance, we can perceive within these moments and experiences a possibility of resurrection to new life.

By new life, I do not mean a better life of blissful forgetfulness of all past pain, an end to all threat of harm or loss, and the fulfillment of all dreams. This would be great, but, given my sense of human history and my intuition about human nature, impossible.

By new life, I mean a fuller life of growth in our grasp of the meaning (the sense of things) and the mystery (the nonsense of things; literally, that which is beyond the reach of our reason to comprehend) of ourselves and of existence itself.

More to come…

© 2021 PRA

Endnote: “dying by installments” from The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality, in the chapter, Following the Crucified, page 170 (1982), by Karl Rahner (1904-1984).

2 thoughts on “Some things I have learned #29, Part 1

  1. Paul,

    You had me at “Dying by Installments” … little by little until our body actually dies. Such an amazing way to look at it… Like chapters in a book almost… you finish a chapter and go on to the next one.

    I’m more than open to new life. I embody and embrace it. Like you and Pontheolla did years ago opening Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, I’m about to embark on the 2nd or 3rd chapter of my life when I strive to focus on just my dementia and caregiving work for the rest of my working life. I believe this will be my Fuller life, into my calling as we’ve discussed before. So I believe I’m living a fuller life by installments too!



  2. “…I’m living a fuller life by installments too!” Amen to this! So wonderful a way to perceive and to think about our lives and our living with their inevitable stages from birth to death.

    I digress. On occasion, as I’ve pondered Rahner’s observation, I’ve considered that when one is born, there is a continuous cycle of cellular growth and regeneration, that is, up to a given and certain point for each individual when that growth and regeneration slows and subsides, and then the inexorable “slide” (I can’t conjure a better image for what I conceive) downward toward death. As such, the physical aspect of “dying by installments” (notwithstanding the other examples I proposed) is forestalled for a time.

    Now, coming back to you and your formulation, yes, I love “living a fuller life by installments”! I must think about this, too.



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