In the Shadow of Death

You're probably familiar with Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd".  It's one of the most commonly quoted psalms for Catholic and Protestants alike - I probably know the King James version as well as my preferred Douay-Rheims translation.  One of my favorite hymns, and the one I plan to walk down the aisle to whenever I am married, is "The King of Love", which paraphrases the words of Psalm 23.

There is one phrase that never quite rang true to me, until this week:
For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me.
In the King James translation, that's even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

And in "The King of Love", the verse runs
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill With thee, dear Lord, beside me,Thy rod and staff my comfort still,Thy cross before to guide me.
The shadow of death...what on earth does that mean?  On one level, it means that human mortality is as close to us as our own shadow.  The inevitability of our deaths walks with us constantly, whether or not we acknowledge its presence - and most of the time, we ignore it as much as we ignore our own body's shadow.

On another level, when someone close to you is nearing that valley, death hangs like a black shade over every part of your life.  Every bright memory of that person brings with it the sharp outline of sadness as you face the heartbreak.  (PSA: excessive crying will burst blood vessels in your eyes, and is incredibly dehydrating.)

Yet I believe the Scriptures use the word "shadow" very deliberately.  What is a shadow?  It is a darkness cast when a solid object blocks the light.  It cannot exist without the light, although the light can exist without it.  A shadow is not itself a source of darkness, nor is it a solid blackness; it is limited in its shape, and it disappears when the light surrounds the object.

After delving a little deeper, this beautiful analogy of "the shadow of death" ought to bring some small measure of comfort.  We suffer death so that we might pass through the "solid object" of this physical world, and enter into eternal joy.  It is a passageway to what lays beyond.  In the end, even our bodies will join us in the light of Heaven, and the shadow of death will fade and be no more.

And Christ Himself has conquered death; it can never again be merely the "undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns".  Death can only be a shadow, for the light of hope and faith is too bright for it to be a greater threat.  Past the shadow is the best of undiscovered countries: "a place of refreshment, light and peace".

Best of all, we have a companion in this valley of shadow, the Shepherd of love walks beside us.  As I've been going through this past week, and looking ahead at the weeks to come, I realize just how much consolation my faith offers me in a time of trial.  I can't imagine how I could cope with the two-dimensional outlook of the atheist, which sees the end of life as the end of all; or the cyclical merry-go-round of the reincarnationist, which can offer only the amnesia of former lives.  I'd rather look to the goodness, truth and beauty of a future beyond.

Please pray for the repose of the soul of my grandmother, Ruth Willen, and for my family.