“If possible, let us constantly remember death, for from this remembrance is born the exclusion of all cares and vanities, the guarding of the mind and constant prayer, non-attachment to the body and hatred of sin. To tell the truth, practically every living and active virtue arises from it. Therefore, if possible, let this remembrance be as continuous as breathing.”
– Hesychius of Jerusalem
Insofar as possible, I strive every day to remember my death.
I cannot trace the genesis of the habit, but I do remember that the practice was strongly confirmed during the eight days I spent at Clearcreek Monastery – the traditional Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma – two years ago.
I spent those days doing an abbreviated Ignatian retreat, which is composed of a series of hour-long meditations on various subjects. The genius and the distinguishing characteristic of Igantian meditation is the way it engages all of the senses – sight, sense, smell, etc – in addition to the intellect. The meditations on death, which come near the beginning of the retreat, are no different.
In these the retreatant is asked to imagine all the details of the day of his death – from the glow of the lamp beside his bed, to the tears of his family members and friends gathered beside him, to the rattle in his lungs as the moment of his earthly demise approaches. Then there are the events the follow his death: the preparation of his corpse, the rites of his burial, and the long months and years that succeed the conclusion of his life, during which the world goes on as it did before, heedless of his death, and the memory of his life fades, even amongst those who loved him the most.
I found these meditations powerful and profitable, and have continued the practice known in the Christian tradition as memento mori beyond my too-short eight-day retreat.
Often, I admit, a day, or several days, will go by when I will forget to remember my death, and many days I will not remember to think of it until the last moments of the day, with my head on my pillow as I drift off to sleep. And yet, this procrastination is not altogether bad, for the last moments of consciousness before sleep are some of the best for remembering our mortality. Sleep has a close cousinship with death, and it is much easier to imagine that we will never again open our eyes as the mind slips into the warm darkness of sleep than when we are fully awake in the glare of midday, and full of energy and grand schemes for the future.
There is something literally breathtaking about thinking on one’s death: that one might cease to be, at least in this world, which is the only world we have ever known. Sometimes when I ponder this mysterious subject it seems as if a great, yawning chasm opens up beneath me and I am left hanging in midair with nothing solid to grasp onto. Indeed, to think on death is to plunge into the very heart of the mystery of life.
That everything we know, we will no longer experience; that everything we have loved, we will no longer possess; that those we have known will carry on living as before, and, except for a very few, forgetting us as fast as we have forgotten those who have gone before us. These are strange thoughts, and they perplex the mind. And long after we have left the vaulted chamber of meditation, the remembrance of death still lingers in our consciousness, like a faint odor of incense clinging stubbornly to the fabric of our thoughts.
To some this seems disturbingly morbid: ‘Why think of Death while you are yet alive?’ they say. ‘Let death alone today, for there will be time enough for Him tomorrow.’ And yet the wisest have always praised the practice of remembering death, and for good reason.
Death is said to be the great equalizer, for it comes for rich and poor, famous and unknown alike. None escape its grasp. But it is more than the great equalizer: it is also the great perspective maker. Practically speaking, perspective is the primary good that remembering death offers to him who wishes to live well.
Consider the three advantages of memento mori, as outlined by Hesychius of Jerusalem in the quote above:
“The exclusion of all cares and vanities.” Every day we allow ourselves to be disturbed by myriad trivialities, some of which are so inconsequential that seen under the lens of death they actually become laughable. That argument with your boss, your worries about making the next car payment, your annoyance at your child for some small fault, that disagreement with your spouse over his or her bad habit – what does it all mean, when one day we will die? We are only given so much life, and will we then throw it away in anxiety, bitterness, anger and regret? This, in fact, is the primary response to those who accuse those who practice memento mori of being “morbid.” Nothing could be further from the truth: for the remembrance of death allows us to be strangely carefree, laughing at the passing trials of this world as a sort of joke. Perspective.
Even the more difficult trials of life are rendered more manageable than otherwise, seen through the lens of memento mori, especially if our memory of death is bolstered by the hope of a heaven to come. Certainly something as evil as the grievous illness of a loved one may not ever seem laughable, but when we remember that this life is only the shadow of what is to come, we are given the stoicism to endure patiently evils that might otherwise have broken us: for we see that in the grand scheme of things, this illness is but a fleeting trial, a shadowy evil, and it will soon vanish, to be replaced with an infinitely greater good.
“The guarding of the mind and constant prayer.” – Anyone who in any way practices prayer will find that the memory of death is an instant reminder to pray – indeed, is practically a form of prayer in itself. The mind flies effortlessly from the remembrance of death, to the remembrance of our sins, to beseeching forgiveness for those sins, to the awareness of God and his mercy. Like an arrow loosed from the bow, the mind animated by faith that has been set upon the topic of death inevitably hits the target – God. But more than this, the memory of death is also a stark reminder that prayer is the most important thing we should be doing, and that most of the things that we spend our day doing are not ultimately meaningful, unless they are done in the light of prayer. So it is that he who remembers death finds himself more and more inclined to pray, as being the most important work of his life. Perspective.
“Non-attachment to the body and hatred of sin” – That sinful pleasure that seems so alluring one minute, turns to ashes in one’s mouth the very next, when remembering that one day we will die. Some of this may be explained by fear, by the awareness that we will be called to account for our sins in the judgment following our death. And yet, fear of God is only the beginning of the spiritual life, and not the end. No, it is not simply the awareness that one will be judged that gives pause to the man who is tempted to sin but who then remembers death: it is also that sin is suddenly stripped of its alluring disguise and exposed as the pathetic, ugly and cowering thing that it is.
The prayerful man knows that he is called to nothing less than an ecstatic and infinitely fulfilling union with God through a perfect union of Love, and that all of his actions in his life, and everything he thinks and does, are to be oriented towards this goal – and will he then throw this away for a miserable flirtation with always unsatisfying sin? Compared to burning love, compared to the Beatific Vision, what is this yearning for revenge against the acquaintance who slandered us, what is this fascination with the fantasy and unreality of pornography, what is this hankering to be “known” for some accomplishment that is ultimately meaningless, what is this desire to ride roughshod over others to increase our wealth? Compared to what we are called to do and to be, they are nothing.
The spiritual man who remembers death snaps his fingers at sin. Perspective.