A few weeks ago my grandson, Connor, who is five, begged to see the exhumed skeleton of a young girl “Jane” in a museum at the Jamestown Plantation in Virginia. He was equal parts entranced and terrified when he came face to face with her skull. His response is one I believe most of us have, at some level. Intrigued. Compelled to look and wonder. And then, if you are five – nightmares!
So why is this young girl hugging a skull in such an intimate way? Particularly in a museum set in a hospital built in the early middle ages? What could this almost tender encounter convey?
In medieval times, it seems, the skull was seen as much a symbol for repentance as for death. Death, they had learned during the time of the plague, could snatch away whole villages in short order, with little warning. Best to contemplate death by making sure one’s soul was in good shape. If one wanted to leave this world “right with God” one had better attend to one’s soul. And the way that happened, in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, was to repent. To make things right as one went along in life.’
In a hospital such as St. John’s the subject of this photograph would be appropriate. Few entered and lived, their understanding of medicine being so primitive. Mostly they cared for the soul, as the caretakers were nuns and they had very rudimentary training and understanding. They knew more of the soul than they did of the body.
Today we have that idea turned on end. We care for the body and too often leave the soul to languish. Look at how she embraces the skull. How many of us embrace repentance with such tender care? In her time death could come and snatch her with no warning. She assumes such a thing and prepares by being her best self while alive, accutely aware of the fragility of life.
Our souls need care. They need feeding. They need both passion and compassion. Love and delight. For me, I embrace the skull not because I fear death or believe in a hell I’ll spend eternity in if I haven’t repented. I embrace it as a recognition of living fully, of being a part of a beloved community that both nurtures me and allows me to be a nurturing part. It’s understanding that the best part of preparing for death is living life to the fullest. Death, as illustrated in this painting, is a constant companion, requiring tender care and attention.
My answer to five-year-old Connor’s nightmare was that I believe Jane would be so sad to know he was afraid of her skull. That she was a helper in her community, somebody who cared for others, and that she would want him to think well of her. To appreciate her. (I didn’t, thankfully, explain that her community, ravaged by starvation, cannibalized her after he death. Just a tad too much information for my creative, inquisitive, and much too impressionable lad).
So, today, as I sit here in the Centrum in Brugge, Belgium, I feed my soul. I speak to strangers. I listen to the bells ringing in the square. I hear a dozen different languages and gaze out at buildings built in the middle ages. I wonder at all the souls that have passed through here over the centuries and rejoice that I can add even a faint echo of my own to the mix. I feed death by living fully.