Death and Perspective

Reading Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon today, I was most touched by the portion where the clairvoyant Cassandra waxes poetic about her impending doom.  She says:

Why am I then so pitiful?  Why must I weep?

…I will go through with it.  I too will take my fate. 

I call as on the gates of death upon these gates

to pray only for this thing, that the stroke be true,

and that with no convulsion, with a rush of blood

in painless death, I may close up these eyes, and rest.  (1286-1294)


I’m not sure if such an attitude predicts Roman Stoicism or is simply fatalistic, but her frank courage in facing an imminent and ignominious death reminds me of a few of the prophets in the Book of Mormon, men who similarly looked down the barrel of immediate demise and never blinked.  Unlike Cassandra, though, their motivating characteristic is in no doubt: they trusted God implicitly and thus had no reservations about going full speed ahead on the errands to which He had appointed them.

Take three representative examples.  First, Abinadi.  As this lone, wild man confronted the court of wicked King Noah, a prisoner, surrounded by those who had chosen to hate him and set themselves against him, he withstood their taunts and tempts with nothing more than teaching and testimony.  At one point, he speaks the truth so boldly that he radiates holiness, stunning his would-be adversaries.  He remarks on this condition, their physical inability to reach out and kill him, but then says, “But I finish my message: and then it matters not whither I go, if it so be that I am saved” (Mosiah 13:9).  Before continuing his doctrinal dissertation, he then adds that what they do to him would be a type of how they themselves would die. 

Abinadi knew that he was being preserved by divine power, but he also knew that such protection was temporary, that it would only last until the mission was done.  If that had been me, I might have been tempted to draw out the lesson a little bit!  Abinadi, however, calmly and confidently finished his message, knowing full well that after he’d delivered it, the Lord would then let him suffer the death his listeners were so eager to mete out.  Did he resent that?  Was he afraid?  No.  As he’d said, being saved is all that matters. 

In the book of Alma, Alma and Amulek engage in a protracted contest of ideas with the lawyers of Ammonihah, who threaten and cajole the two missionaries with every trick they can think of, but are ultimately thwarted by the superior power of their true teaching.  The unrepentant people of the city seize Alma and Amulek and bind them, forcing them to watch the burning of those converted by their preaching, that poor minority that suffered martyrdom so soon.  Amulek is torn by compassion and wants to use the priesthood to miraculously save the women and children, but Alma must somberly hold back, saying that God has a larger purpose for this violence.  Amulek then worries that they will be the next victims of such a horrid fate. 

Alma’s reply: “Be it according to the will of the Lord.  But behold, our work is not yet finished; therefore, they burn us not” (Alma 14:13).  Alma says the same two things Abinadi said: this divine protection is temporary, pending the completion of the teaching they’ve been called to present, and it doesn’t matter if they do have to suffer torture and execution once that work is done, because the work–and the salvation connected to following the will of He who assigned that work–is the only priority in this life.

One more example: at the end of his ferociously compact, aggressive history of the tragedy of his people, the Jaredite prophet Ether concludes his book with these haunting words: “Whether the Lord will that I be translated, or that I suffer the will of the Lord in the flesh, it mattereth not, if it so be that I am saved in the kingdom of God” (Ether 15:34).  Ether may not have mentioned the power of protection granted to servants of God who are about their Master’s work, perhaps because in the aftermath of the fractured Jaredite nation’s mutually assured destruction, there was no more immediate threat to Ether’s life, but he does note that important theme upon which we’ve here been dwelling: to whatever lot each of us may have been ordained, whatever degree of suffering, loss, tragedy, or sorrow we may be required to pass through, it doesn’t change the one thing that truly matters: salvation.  We are to keep our eyes on that always, and let the rest fall where it may. 

Other examples of this attitude from the Book of Mormon may be given (it’s interesting that the very next verses after the last one cited constitute Moroni’s affirmation that regardless of the Lamanite campaign of extermination against all Christian disciples, he refuses to waver in his conviction, choosing the only other available option: perpetual wandering as a hunted refugee–Moroni 1:2-3), but the point has been made: the saints of that dispensation were unified in their understanding that worldly suffering, even death, were small things compared to what they had trained themselves by steady faith to focus their entire beings on–doing the revealed will of God and trusting in him to save them eternally.

2 comments on “Death and Perspective

  1. Then there’s the “if not” kind of faith. In Daniel 3, there’s a story about Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol/image, that Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego refuse to bow down to. Being threatened with death by burning, they proclaim that their God is strong enough to deliver them from the hands of the king.

    But if not, be it known unto thee, O King …” (verse 18) is the answer. Even if things don’t go my way, I’ll hold on to the faith I have.

    I am trying to build up the kind of faith that represents. Like Abinadi, who says, that after he has delivered his message, “it mattereth not” what happens to him. My life has taught me at least not to care for stuff like property or even health.

  2. Sorry, used a wrong expression. I meant it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m poor and sick, as long as I have peace in my heart; I don’t mean that I don’t do things in order to stay healthy or provide for my family. It’s just that they’ve not been very successful, but it doesn’t really matter.

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