With glistening eyes, Lily told us this story: A friend’s mother, still lucid but dying, summoned her dear ones to share her last days with her and with one another. I know neither daughter nor mother but found myself close to tears, choked up and unable to speak. The same was true for others who listened to Lily tell her story. There is something about the word ‘summoned,’ something about being summoned that is immensely evocative.
I picture an elderly woman with clear and commanding eyes and a strong, almost stern, expression on her face. She’s resting in a large bed, covered very neatly with sheets and blankets. She tells us that her time has come, that life has been filled with struggles and joy, with beauty and terror—just like this exact moment. And she accepts this moment. She accepts the finality. She wants us to accept it too because, in its acceptance is the secret to a good life.
Of course, I have extrapolated this scene, constructing it in my own image and according to my own desires. It’s an effort to explain to myself—and to you—what made Jenny’s story so powerful.
But my response may, in large part, be the simple awe that the word to “summon” evokes. The dictionary tells us that it means to “authoritatively or urgently call on (someone) to be present.” To me, it has a biblical and mythic feel to it. Moses summons the Israelites when he descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Jesus summons his disciples at key moments. In Islam, the “Da’wah” of Mohammed literally means issuing a summons or making an invitation. In every case, a summons brings you into the presence of someone or some thing that is sacred and that speaks directly to the core of your being.
When God calls Moses, Moses answers: “I am here.” He’s not talking about mere physical presence; not even normal attentiveness. Moses signals that he is entirely present, with all of his senses. Every fiber of his being is prepared to receive the word of God. Here, then, is one of the keys to understanding a summons. It isn’t just the august quality of the summoner. It is, equally, the quality of our response. Our response creates or fortifies a relationship, like no other in its intensity. The connection is profound.
In all of the Western and Middle Eastern traditions, the connection is first initiated by a prophet, then built into a covenant between the prophet and his followers. In its simplest sense, a covenant is an agreement among people. But it isn’t the same as a contract, a quid pro quo among people that says “I’ll do this if you do that,” and can be severed at each person’s will. It is stronger because it involves a third party — shared principles, or revered witnesses, and, in some cases, God. Leader and followers are bonded together to serve, not only themselves but a higher purpose.
And it involves what Jews, the “people of the covenant,” call chesed, or loving kindness, which means that all transactions among the covenanted people must be infused with this spirit.
Among the most distinctive qualities of the covenantal relationship is that it is freely chosen. Yes, there is compliance. Lily’s friend complies with her mother’s powerful summons. There is even submission. We submit to the will of the summoner. So, too, will the people of Israel, Jesus’ disciples, and Mohammed’s followers. This speaks to a powerful human urge, not often articulated in contemporary society, to submit to someone or something that is more knowing and more powerful. There is relief. Ah, we don’t have to struggle. We don’t have to find our own way, at least not alone. And there is an almost luxuriant pleasure in the surrender.
Yet, the compliance takes on its special meaning because it is chosen. We are not required to surrender. We can take another path. But we don’t. We choose to submit to the will of another. And the act of choosing is exhilarating. We want to leap and yell and laugh with the freedom of the moment.
For some of us, joining these two ideas, freedom and submission, seems confusing. But living this paradox is at the heart of most religious practice.
So far, I’ve been talking about the person who responds to the call, but what about the person who summons others. It may be the image of Lily’s friend’s mother summoned her flock that first drew me into this subject, but what does she feel and what might I feel in those final moments?
There she was, in her last moments, not even a religious person, not a person who believed in the afterlife. In the spirit of dust-to-dust, she is about to disappear. And, at that moment, she chooses to summon family and friends. She is powerful enough to do so. She believes in herself enough to do so. Imagine: even as she departs, there is efficacy and dignity and the freedom to choose her way to die.
When my day comes, I want to be like this woman. I want to be lucid and I want to love and be loved by family and friends right up to the end. But there’s more. I want to believe that I can summon them to my bedside, not to offer last words of wisdom, but to be with them: to laugh and cry together and to hold one another. For me, that is a breathtaking image, as vivid and poignant as any afterlife could offer.