Writing one's own deathbed prayer
October 31, 2011
It's a strange experience, writing one's own deathbed prayer.
The vidui is the confessional prayer which some recite every night before sleep, and some recite every weekday / non-festival morning during tachanun (the penitential prayers), and some recite every month during Yom Kippur Katan (the "little Day of Atonement" which precedes new moon), and some recite every year on Yom Kippur, and some recite before death. (I blogged about this, and especially about the bedtime prayer of forgiveness, earlier this fall: the vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.)
The daily variant, the Yom Kippur variant, and the deathbed variant are slightly different -- but only slightly. In each of these, we reach out to God (whatever we understand that term to mean) and we ask forgiveness for our misdeeds and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us, so that the karmic baggage of our actions won't follow us into the world to come.
There are classical texts for the deathbed vidui, and they are lovely. Here's one (from the Reform Rabbis' handbook:)
My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to and end, let me die, I pray, at peace. If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven. Protector of bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.
But nothing says that one has to use the traditional text. So as part of the Sage-ing class I'm taking (in my final months of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah / Spiritual Direction program), I've been charged with writing my own vidui. My own deathbed confession. The prayer I imagine saying to God as I prepare myself to die.
On the one hand there's something more than a little surreal about this. I don't expect death to be coming for me soon; how can I honestly write a deathbed prayer when I have no intention of dying in the next several decades at least? But on the proverbial other hand, there's no telling when death will knock on one's door. We read in the Babylonian Talmud that Rabbi Eliezer declared: "Repent one day before your death," whereupon his disciples asked: How does one know which day that is? "Exactly," answered the sage. "For that reason, we ought to live our lives each day as though it were our last."
Writing one's own vidui is a way of following Rabbi Eliezer's advice, a way of making teshuvah (repetance / returning-to-God) one day before my death. And if I do not die tomorrow, as I sincerely hope not to do, then tomorrow I will be tasked with making teshuvah again. And again. And again. Preparing for dying in this way, I think, is really a way of choosing how to live.
So I've drafted my vidui. Per my teachers' suggestions, I will keep it, and will aim to update it over the years as needed and as my life changes. In it, I address God in the ways which are most meaningful for me; I thank God for my life and my relationships; I ask forgiveness for the places where I have missed the mark, and express my intention to let go of my regrets so that they will not encumber me wherever I am going. I close by asking God to help me release this life and to help me through the contractions of the dying process, contractions which will release me into something I cannot now imagine, something none of us can know.
Writing it was a powerful experience for me. Imagining reading it at my own death, or perhaps hearing it read by a loved one if I am not able to read it myself, is equally powerful. What an amazing meditation.
This is part of what I'm finding most meaningful about the Sage-ing work I am beginning to learn to do: the way it takes the daily and weekly and monthly and annual cycles of teshuvah and stretches them to span an entire lifetime. Over the course of my whole life, what will sustain me? Where will I miss the mark? What will I need to forgive, and for what will I hope that others can forgive me? How will I want to take my leave of the life that I have known?