Death and Deponent Verbs

Once again, life and God have usurped the post I originally planned to put up today—I’m beginning to understand what Interpreter is talking about when he says his sermons become totally different things than he had intended sometimes.

It’s been a long week, Reader, long in a way that really takes up a lot of my attention and soulpower, long in a way that keeps me always looking toward the next moment.  I dislike weeks like that.  Not that I don’t like being busy—I love being busy—but I feel like I lose who I am a little bit, like I lose my connection to living this life, to being in this body on this planet around these people.

Living your life versus really living your life has been at the back of my mind lately.  Last week, an uncle of mine lost his friend from high school, his wife’s cousin and brother-in-law, and his dog.  That’s a lot of death in a week.  And it’s easy for me to hold that at arm’s length (especially because we don’t talk that much; I found out via a conversation with people around him, not he himself), because the only one I knew was the dog, and he was getting old.

Then on Monday Interpreter was dealing with a family from our church whose son lives in a different state and had died in a motorcycle accident.  His fiancee is in another country entirely, and Interpreter was having trouble arranging the phone call to let her know, because international communication can be tricky.  And that’s awful, and he was too young (they’re always too young) and I can’t imagine how it must feel to be on the other side of the world and hear that the person you love most died, and you weren’t there.

But I didn’t know him, or her, or even that family, so I could put that at arm’s length, and sorrow for it from my nice, detached garage of emotion.

I got home Monday night and got a call from my mother that her priest, whom I’ve known for some years and who has been sick of late, passed away of organ failure.  This man I knew, this man I had watched perform Mass through what must have been excruciating pain, determined that his church should be served no matter the cost to himself.  I had sat through his homilies and torn apart his delivery in my heart—he wasn’t the best public speaker, nothing can change that, but his heart was right, I think.  I was constantly reminded, sitting through his sermons, to respect him and the people around me, even as I wanted to write all of my snarky notes on my envelope that I would keep to myself.  He never knew that I was bored or impatient, and it is mine to remember that and keep it close as I continue attending other church services.

But he was in another state, at a church I don’t attend regularly, and his funeral was something that I couldn’t attend, so I mourned for him and moved on with my busy week.

I’ve been taking Latin for an alarming number of years now.  My Latin class had a test on Thursday, covering a lot of ground, the most recent of which is deponent verbs.  The thing about Latin is that it’s a case system language—you don’t tell what a word is doing in a sentence by where it is, like in English, you tell by what endings and prefixes and infixes it has,  and it’s a bit of an overload, but there it is.  The thing about deponent verbs is that they look like passives (I was taken) but are supposed to be translated as actives (I took).  It’s rather maddening, but it’s not like you can change things—the language itself is dead, after all, for all the fact that I still have to study it.

One of the main deponent verbs is morior, mori, mortuus sum—to die.  A colleague of mine—we’ll call him Gaius, I suppose—and I were talking about how this makes sense, this deponent nature of dying.  It’s not (usually) something that you do, it’s something that’s done to you, something you don’t really control or predict—even trying to control it yourself doesn’t always work out the way you’d planned.  Yet it is something that you do, something that is part of who you are, a moment all of us must face.  I was thinking about this as I was studying for my Latin test and wondering if those Romans who were speaking this incredibly complex language knew what they were doing, knew that they were layering so many nuances of meaning into this one word, this one shared experience that even mighty Augustus couldn’t outrun.

Sorry to put a bit of a damper on your Friday morning, Reader, but these things have been happening this week.  This is about living in such a way that, as my friend Evangelist brilliantly said once, you’re not gulping huge chunks of days at a time, never pausing to see what this world is.  (An Altar in the World gets into this a lot, which I’m still reading.)  Not that everything needs to be meta, but that we recognize that being alive is a hell of a thing.


The thief {comes only} so that he can steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and have [it] abundantly.  (John 10:10, LEB)

6 thoughts on “Death and Deponent Verbs

  1. […] life as a friend and brother in faith.  We’ll call him Mr. Honest, since I already have an Evangelist in my friend group.  Anyway, Mr. Honest is a huge MacDonald fan and recommended this to […]


  2. Ron Johnson says:

    Very interesting about the deponent verbs. As you say, death happens to us, but it also happens to the survivors. As you and Sheila both said, we deal with it as well as we can, and then we move on. But what you said in this post strikes a chord with me in an unexpected way. You seemed to be saying that it’s easier to go on with life if we weren’t very close to the person who died. Ironically, I’ve been trying very hard in my history classes this semester to make historical figures “come alive” for my students, and I do it by trying to get them to care about those historical persons who died long ago. I’ve had some wonderful students this semester who have made the connection, and I’ve seen their eyes light up as they speak about historical figures in the same way we’d speak about those who are living now.

    The irony here is that we make history come alive by finding a sense of oneness with the dead — that is, by caring about them as persons. But when the people we actually know and love die, we need to distance ourselves from them somewhat in order to go on with our lives.

    Or do we? We’ve lost a lot of people at our church this past year — people we’ve loved and cared about. And we mourn for the survivors as much as or more than we mourn the dead. But it seems to me that the “abundant life” is a balance of these two: holding in tension our need to move forward while gently reaching backward in “loving memory” to those who are no longer with us, constantly bringing the past to life in order to give meaning to the present. That is what you’re doing when you so laboriously study the dead language of Latin: carrying forward in loving memory the words and thoughts of the ancient Romans so that our lives today may be enriched.


    • Ron, you are a very wise man. It’s true, when I teach the history parts of my class, I try to get my students to see the Historical Figures of Importance as people, who have their own mistakes and loves and fights and worries just like we do. And while it is, in some senses, easier to move on if we didn’t know the person, there is always a connection there to the thin places of mortality. As you said, the church has lost a lot of folks this year, most of whom I barely if at all knew, but I was still quieted by the march of the All Saints’ Service and the holes left in these people’s lives. Perhaps it was more of that mourning for the survivors, but it’s interesting that no one ignores a funeral procession and everyone is quiet in a cemetery.

      That is also a much better way to look at Latin; I will try to keep it in mind when I get my test back next week, as it’s easy to see it only as an inconvenience or an extra part of the workload rather than a link to a vibrant and breathing culture.


  3. Sheila Bigelow says:

    Our daughter was considering some of these same questions this week. A young patron, whom she had never met but for whom she had been selecting books and tapes for six months, died. She said that this is the third of “her children” to die since she began her job, and that what bothers her is that, while it makes her sad for a little while, her life goes on as usual. And so it does for all of us, to a greater or lesser extent.


    • Sheila–it’s neat that she adopts the people she’s “working” for, even if she never gets to meet them. It was weird to me for a long time that you do move on “as usual” after a while, that your life molds around the hole that person left, of whatever size, but it sort of has to be that way. When a friend of mine died this past spring I went to a memorial service for him and his sometime-girlfriend (also a friend of mine) was saying how it was the little moments of remembering where he would have been in her life that made him live still, and I rather liked that image.


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