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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

Monday, April 1, 2024: It seems we only know what life is when we know what death is.


Monday, April 1, 2024: It seems we only know what life is when we know what death is.

A Universal Pattern: A reflection by Richard Rohr


Christianity—as well as Buddhism, other religions, and nature-based systems—suggests that the pattern of transformation, the pattern that connects, the life that Reality offers us is not death avoided, but always death transformed. In other words, the only trustworthy pattern of spiritual transformation is death and resurrection.

Christians learn to submit to trials because Jesus told us that we must “carry the cross” with him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27). Buddhists do it because the Buddha very directly said that “life is suffering.” Buddhism teaches us how to skillfully discern the source of suffering, detach from our expectations and resentments, and let go of illusion.


Death and life are two sides of the same coin; we cannot have one without the other. Each time we choose to surrender, each time we trust the dying, our faith is led to a deeper level, and we discover a Larger Self underneath.

We decide not to push to the front of the line, and something much better happens in the back of the line. We let go of narcissistic anger, and we find that we start feeling much happier. We surrender our need to control our partner, and finally the relationship blossoms. Yet each time it is a choice—and each time it is a kind of dying. It seems we only know what life is when we know what death is.


The mystics and great saints were those who had learned to trust and allow this pattern, and often said in effect, “What did I ever lose by dying?” Or try Paul’s famous one-liner: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Now even scientific studies reveal the same universal pattern. Things change and grow by dying to their present state, but each time it is a risk. We always wonder, “Will it work this time?” So many academic disciplines are coming together, each in its own way, to say there’s a constant movement of loss and renewal at work in this world at every level.

It seems to be the pattern of all growth and evolution. To be alive means to surrender to this inevitable flow. It’s the same pattern in every atom, every human relationship, and in every galaxy. Indigenous peoples, Hindu gurus, Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus all saw it clearly in human history and named it as a kind of “necessary dying.”


If this pattern is true, it has been true all the time and everywhere. Such seeing did not just start two thousand years ago. All of us have to learn to let go of something smaller so something bigger can happen. But that’s not a religion—it’s highly visible truth. It is the Way Reality Works.

Richard Rohr identifies death and resurrection as the universal pattern of Reality:

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