Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

March 17, 2015

The great English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, once took the side of William Dodd, a clergyman who was convicted, and ultimately executed, for a loan scam.  Johnson actually ghost-wrote an essay for the accused, but the quality of the writing was so superior to that of anything that Dodd had ever published that Johnson was quickly identified as the real author.  For a time, however, Johnson disclaimed his role in the matter, and when told that Dodd couldn’t possibly have written anything so eloquent, he replied: “Why should you think so?  Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”[1]

I have never spent a fortnight on death row, anticipating my death.  But I have had two very close brushes with death, and I can tell you that staring afterward at what might have been the scenes of fatality also had the effect of “concentrating my mind.”

The first occasion took place in early June 1972, when I participated in a five-week backpacking trip in Wyoming.  During the expedition, we were taught a wide array of mountain-climbing and wilderness survival skills.  At one point our group came to a cascading river, about fifty feet wide, and swollen by the spring snowmelt into a raging torrent.  The river tumbled down a long, steep slope to a meadow some five hundred yards below.  The lead tour guide announced that to cross the river, we would need to construct a Tyrolean traverse.  This is a method used by mountaineers for safely transporting people and equipment over rivers, ravines and chasms by means of a zip line.[2]

One of the younger guides was the first to cross the river.  He was double-belayed, and managed, with considerable difficulty, but with great dexterity and determination, to reach the other side of the river.  He used the belaying ropes to erect the zip line, and signaled that he was ready for the first person to hook onto the line and make the traverse.  The lead guide looked at me and said: “We always send the heaviest person in the group first in order to stretch the line as much as possible.  You’ll get soaked, but everybody else will stay dry.”  So I took out a carabiner, clipped it onto the rope, leaned back, and began pulling myself, hand over hand, across the river.  I did stretch the rope, and my butt came within a few inches of the water’s surface, but I reached the other side without incident and without getting the ducking I had expected.

I unhooked the carabiner from the line and promptly dropped it.  I reached over to pick it up and accidentally kicked it right into the raging stream.  I knelt down to fish it out and fell head first into the water.  Now I was in real trouble.  If I hadn’t somehow righted myself and grabbed a protruding tree root, I would have been swept away.  Luckily, the guide grabbed my other hand and pulled me ashore.  But he had twenty other people to get across the river, and so, after giving me a wry grin, he turned back to the business at hand.

I stood there for some minutes, stock still, dripping wet, shivering from cold and fear, and staring down at that icy, foaming stream.  I remember the violent spray, the jagged boulders, and the long, steep drop.  I remember wondering what it might have been like to feel my bones splintering against the rocks, to feel my lungs filling with water, to realize that my life was over – and then to undergo oblivion, and whatever comes beyond oblivion.

I had never felt so alive.

My second close call occurred six years later in the autumn of 1978, a few months after I took my first pastoral appointment in southern Wisconsin.  I had lived my whole life in the suburbs back East, and assumed that wherever a street intersects with an active railroad track, there are crossing gates, flashing lights and warning bells to alert drivers to oncoming trains.  But now I was living in a rural area, where such precautions aren’t felt to be needed.  Country folks are closely attuned to their environment.  They keep their eyes open and their ears peeled for danger.  I wasn’t smart enough yet to live safely in their world.

One night I was teaching a confirmation class at one of my churches.  The topic was death and resurrection, and one of the high-schoolers remarked, “When your number is up, you just go.”  That seemed too fatalistic, and I made some pious remark about God’s providential care.  After class, I climbed in my car and set out on the twenty mile drive for home.  My route took me through the unincorporated village of Hanover.  I had driven that route dozens of times by then, and knew that I’d be crossing two railroad lines tracks just north of town.

These were completely different lines, one coming from the southwest, the other from the northwest.  They intersected each other just east of town.  But the country road on which I was driving crossed both lines before they crossed each other.  You’d rumble across the first, and then immediately rumble across the second.  Both intersections were brightly illuminated by arc lights.  But there were no crossing gates, no flashing lights, no warning bells, so I blithely assumed that neither track was in use.

That night I crossed the first track, as usual, and came to the second.  I saw what I thought was the arc light and kept my foot on the gas pedal.  But what I thought was the arc light was really the headlamp of a freight train on its way to Chicago.  The nose of the locomotive struck my Chevy right behind my left rear wheel.  If I’d been going a little faster, I might have escaped the collision altogether; a little slower, and I’d have been a stain on the road.  My car fish-tailed and came to a stop nose down in a ditch.  There was a nasty gash in the fender, but amazingly, the car was drivable.  I was badly shaken up, but not hurt.

Once again, I remember standing there, trembling, staring at the sight of my car in the ditch, so tiny beside that immense freight train, which had come to a stop after the collision.  I remember the engineer telling me he was sure I’d been killed, and the police offer telling me I was a damned fool.

I had never felt so alive – except once.  My number wasn’t up – not yet.

Many spiritual writers over the centuries have emphasized the importance of meditating daily on one’s own death.  Nowadays, that practice seems unduly morbid, and we are told instead to “celebrate life.”  Yes, but to celebrate life rightly we must meditate on death regularly.  Otherwise we tend to take its fragility and preciousness for granted. The practice of memento mori – or at least an occasional brush with death – can “wonderfully concentrate the mind” and remind us to live our life fully, and live it well.

Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Ps. 90:12 NIV).

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[1] See James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (orig. pub. 1791; reprint ed. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), p. 349 (entry for September 19, 1777). For a summary of the Dodd affair, see “This Day in Quotes: September 19, 2014,” http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2009/09/hanging-it-concentrates-mind.html.

[2] For details, see Chockstone, “Tyrolean Traverse,” http://www.chockstone.org/techtips/traverse.htm.

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