Religion Magazine

Life and Death

By Nicholas Baines

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Recently my daughter gave birth eleven weeks prematurely. Both mom and baby are doing well. Then, last Sunday afternoon my mother died at 90, with all five of her children around the bed in the home she had lived in since getting married in 1955.

I had just returned from meetings in Estonia, where locals spoke about the threat from Russia and their perceptions of the invasion of Ukraine. For me, there was the whole of life, contracted to a birth, a death, and everything uncertain in between.

The evening of my mum’s death I was surprised to recall a Bill Viola video installation at Tate Modern when I was living in London. Created in 1992, it was called Nantes Triptych. The screen on the left recorded the last thirty minutes of a woman in labor. The screen on the right displayed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life; the screen in the middle showed a humanoid form swimming through the mysterious course of life, accompanied by sounds of the two women labouring towards a beginning and an ending.

The installation was intended to be lived with for thirty minutes. While I was in there I was the only person who stood from beginning to end as people walked in and out. I have often wondered what that was about. Was it, for example, that we are bad at contemplating the pains of birth and death? Or that the life in-between is complicated enough without having to think about it’s meaning? Or something else?

I was once asked, in the wake of some violent global tragedy, what happens when we die. I helpfully said, “I don’t care.” She responded: “Given your job, (I was Bishop of Croydon at the time) don’t you think you should?” Well, I think now as I did then that we need to keep it simple. So, I said that Christian hope is rooted in the person of the God who raised Christ from the dead – not in some formula for working out what happens next. But, death – not a vague ‘passing’ – is not to be avoided as if it marks the end of everything. The first truth of human existence, made in the image of God, is that we shall die. How we get there matters.

My mother did not rage against the dying of the light, but, rather, saw it as a welcome next step on the journey. She went gently into that good night and confidently.


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