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TERRY GROSS, host:
Death was a central part of the definition of religion for Unitarian minister Forrest Church. He said knowing that we must die, we question what life means. Questions about life's purpose acquired a new sense of urgency when Church was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus three years ago. That was just a dress rehearsal for death. The cancer was treated, and he returned to his work.
But early last year, the cancer returned with a vengeance. Church died last Thursday at the age of 61. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with him about facing death one year ago. He had spent three decades as senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City. One of his many books was about his late father Frank Church, who was a Democratic senator from Idaho. When we spoke, he had just published a book called, "Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow."
I want to start by reading something that you say in your book that that really got to me, and this is right after you were - your thoughts about your life, and you thought imminent death, right after your first diagnosis. You write: I embraced the diagnosis and started girding myself to die. No disbelief, no anger, no bargaining. In fact, if anything, I walked around in a pink cloud for a day or two, feeling my death, getting used to it. Was my theology working, or was I simply in denial or shock? Looking back, was your theology working or were you in denial or shock?
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Reverend FORREST CHURCH (Unitarian Minister): It was working. Every minister spends a lifetime preparing for this exam. The most important work we do is done with families in bereavement. But we really don't know, having given all of this advice and held all of these hands and walked all of these journeys through the valley, how we ourselves are going to respond. And it was a great relief to me that I was able to embrace my death. I sensed that if you've made peace with your life, you can make peace with your death. But if you haven't, it's much more difficult.
The difference - all of us have ongoing business when we're given a terminal diagnosis. But the question is, do we have unfinished business? And I discovered I really didn't have any unfinished business, and that allowed me to be present for whatever was going to come. I didn't have to find myself bathing in regret or filled with anxious anticipation. I just sort of entered the zone, and I've been there for sometime.
GROSS: Okay. So, on the one hand, you feel like you reached acceptance of your death right after your diagnosis, and you kind of entered the zone.
Rev. CHURCH: Yeah.
GROSS: But at the same time, you write in your book, your wife, who…
Rev. CHURCH: Right.
GROSS: …who was on the way to a trip to India when you were diagnosed, when she came home, she kind of knocked you out of that and said…
Rev. CHURCH: That's right. Well…
GROSS: Don't be so accepting of this.
Rev. CHURCH: She pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that this death was not mine alone. It was fine for me to splash around in the waters of acceptance and to say that I had no unfinished business, but there are lot of other people around me who had unfinished business, I mean, my children, my four children, my wife. And that shifted my - it sort of knocked the air out of my presumption and allowed me to focus on their needs and concerns, as opposed to sort of taking too great a pleasure in my own spiritual satisfaction.
GROSS: You know, you write in your book, you know, again, about how you don't believe in an interventionist God, and you say, once you start praying to God to cure your cancer or asking God why he didn't answer you prayers, the questions never stop. And then you refer to, like, a bishop who said his faith was shaken by the tsunami.
Rev. CHURCH: Yes.
GROSS: And then you say, you don't like it when people say about a tragedy or about, you know, an illness or death, well, God has his reasons. It's just part of God's plan.
Rev. CHURCH: This is God's plan.
GROSS: What do you object to about that? Why isn't that the…
Rev. CHURCH: Well, I can see how it can give comfort. But God doesn't throw a three-year-old child out of a third story window or allow a drunken driver to kill a family crossing the street. This is not part of God's plan. These are the accidents of life and death. And if God, for instance, is responsible for a tsunami that obliterates the lives of a hundred thousand people and leaves their families in tatters, then God's a bastard.
I cannot believe in such a God. For me, God is the life force, that which is greater than all and yet present in each. But God is not micromanaging this world, that that is a presumption that we are naturally drawn to because of our sense of centrality and self-importance, but there are 1,500 stars for every living human being. And the God that I believe in is an absolute, magnificent mystery.
GROSS: Was there a period where you thought that if you weren't right with the diagnosis, if you couldn't handle the pain or the recovery or the fear of death, the approach of death, that you would have been proven to be a fraud? Because here you've been, you know, making death a central part…
Rev. CHURCH: There's…
GROSS: …of your vision of religion.
Rev. CHURCH: There's no question about that…
Rev. CHURCH: …there's no question about that, and that's why I was so relieved. And I tested my own acceptance because I was afraid that I could fool myself. I would so need to do well. I need to ace the death exam, having made death such a pivot of my own theology. Otherwise, there would have been a kind of - most deeply felt, I think, by me - a sense that I have been a snake oil salesman of some sort.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Unitarian Minister Forrest Church recorded one year ago. He died of cancer last Thursday at the age of 61. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: We're listening back to an interview recorded one year ago with Unitarian Minister Forrest Church when he knew he was dying of cancer. Church died last Thursday at the age of 61.
When you were young, you romanticized death. You write that a lot of your heroes…
Rev. CHURCH: Yes.
GROSS: …are writers and poets who died young.
Rev. CHURCH: Who died young. Yeah.
GROSS: You even told your friend when you were 19 that you were confident you weren't going to live past the age of 25.
Rev. CHURCH: Past 25. Yes.
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GROSS: And then…
Rev. CHURCH: That basically set me free from many, many responsibilities that I otherwise might have had to take on my shoulder.
GROSS: Like what?
Rev. CHURCH: Well, if I was going to die young, I simply - my obligation was simply to live absolutely fully, pull out all the stops and not worry too much about, you know, minor things like careers and families and all of that. It was a very romantic notion that in some ways was dispensed with, was ended by the death of my closest friend whom I'd actually boasted that I was going to die by 25, giving a kind of glamour or romance to my life that it might otherwise not have had. He died at 19 of pneumonia when he was skiing.
And all of a sudden, death became real. It was no longer the exquisite angel of romantic poetry that was going to embrace you on the ship's deck. It was a hard, real reality that demanded a response.
GROSS: So, what was the difference between you before and after your friend's death? You said before - it sounds like it was very liberating just to think about dying young because it was…
Rev. CHURCH: It was completely liberating…
Rev. CHURCH: …because as I said, it removed responsibilities.
GROSS: Yeah. Everybody's got their way - or a lot of people have their way when they're young of finding a way to…
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Rev. CHURCH: Exactly.
GROSS: …to try to be free as you can in that moment.
Rev. CHURCH: It was also an act of self-importance. I mean, I couldn't imagine outstripping my famous father and, you know, the only thing that I could do that would be dramatic would be to die young that would take no particular effort on my part.
GROSS: Oh, interesting. And then you wouldn't even have to worry about measuring up to him or anything. Yeah.
Rev. CHURCH: I wouldn't have to compete, because I'd have live up to him if I'd compete with him. I am sure that was part of it.
GROSS: Now, something else you write about in the book is that, for a while, you drank.
Rev. CHURCH: Yes. I self-medicated.
GROSS: Yeah. And I think, you know, anyone would wonder about a minister who drank, if you were in a good enough place spiritually to lead a congregation, then why would you need to self-medicate?
Rev. CHURCH: Well, it obviously was - there was a something - there was a demonic dimension to it. It was, in some ways, a God substitute. It was, in some ways, driven by fear. It was not anything that anyone noticed, I - other than myself and my wife. It was something that bothered me a great deal and had taken possession of a part of my soul. There's no question that that I was beguiled by and distracted by the lure of the bottle.
And it wasn't until - I mean, I spent - I had so many attempts to stop, often successful enough to let me believe that I wasn't dependent. But it wasn't until 2000, when my wife basically told me that I could be her roommate or her partner, but she was not going to have someone who is not fully present at home, that I stopped drinking. And I haven't had a drink since. It's been a marvelous second life. I didn't change any of my views, by the way, Terry. It's - what I thought before, I now felt. My theology was now felt at a very deep level. My fear was gone. It's all been gravy since then.
GROSS: I want to get back to mortality. How much time, would you say, in your typical day, you spend thinking about death?
Rev. CHURCH: At this point, Terry, I probably spend almost no time thinking about death. For the first time in my life, I'm living completely in the present. I have - as I said about a terminal illness where you have time - in a sense, it allows you to sort of co-script your final act. To be able to write love and death was to be able to put a coda on my life. I've been able to conclude my active life, as opposed to it just ending.
I'm not yet at the point of being on my deathbed. So I'm in sort of an in-between place. Each day is - I read. I chat with my friends who are ever-more attentive. We take our friends for granted, as well. And when there is a short amount of time, they come out of the woodwork - old, old, old friends - and we spend lots of time together. And I'm just in the present.
When the time comes, when I am closer to my deathbed or on it, I'm certain that I'll begin probably even fearing to some degree, the passage. But there's not fear in my mind now and there's no preoccupation by death. It doesn't - I don't push my nose up against that dark pane in my window. I stand back and let the light shine on me.
GROSS: Forrest Church, recorded one year ago. He died of cancer Thursday at the age of 61. He spent nearly three decades as the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City.
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