“No sooner do we begin to live in this dying body than we begin to to move ceaselessly toward death” (St. Augustine, City of God).
Death has always been part of life and thus it is no surprise that people have wrestled with how our death should influence our life for centuries. Plato, in Phaedo, basically says that all philosophy is about death. Christians have long considered their death in a tradition known as memento mori, “Remember Your Death.” This idea grew especially strong in medieval times and you see the appearance of many skulls in paintings of saints and other notable figures as they tried to keep their death in front of them.
While this sounds morbid, it is not in the least (well, maybe a little). The reason you remember your death is to focus on how you live your life. And, for the Christian, that death is not an end but a beginning. “I am not dying; I am entering life” says St. Therese of Lisieux. As we enter Holy Week we come to the most challenging and celebratory time of our faith in a matter of days. Jesus enters Jerusalem today with people cheering his arrival only to be crucified as a criminal on Friday. Then, on Easter Sunday, death is rewritten with the his resurrection.
“The Christian faith is centered on how Jesus’ death has transformed our own. Thinking of death helps us to fully realize all that Jesus is and all that he has done for us. By remembering our death, we reject a superficial understanding of Jesus and enter into ‘the inscrutable riches of Christ’ (Eph. 3:8). However, if we choose to avoid death, we avoid Jesus” (pp. 142-43).
This thinking is from an excellent book by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble called Remember Your Death: Memento Mori. It has been my Lenten devotional this year (and will be in future years as well) and it has offered me comfort in my own dealings with death and grief.
Although death entered and left my life over the years, it became a constant presence when my little boy, Oliver, was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma in 2010. He was four years old and given a 50% chance of survival. Now, my family lived with death daily. When he died in 2013, death was joined by grief. Sister Theresa keeps a ceramic skull on her desk as a reminder of death, but a picture of Oliver can suffice for me.
In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, more people are facing the prospect of death. Not just those who are dying, but those of us living who wonder if this deadly virus will take us as well. The practice of memento mori encourages us to face what so many seek to avoid. Our time in this world is limited and our time of death is not known to us. We think we live like our life could end at any time, but most of us do not.
I used to teach a first-year writing class to college students and sometimes we read Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. There is a scene in there where Zorba comes across an old man planting an olive tree, which can take nearly 65 years to bear fruit. He asks the old man why he is planting an olive tree and the old man answers “I live like I’ll live forever.” Zorba retorts the he “lives like I’m going to die tomorrow.” When I asked my students how they lived they always sided with Zorba, which prompted me to ask why there were sitting in my class. If I was going to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t even be teaching it!
In other words, we like to think we live ready to die, but few of us do. It is not even practical. I still go to work to earn money and make long range plans. Zorba took the idea to mean he should simply take full enjoyment from each day regardless of the costs, while the old man was not facing the death that he edges closer to each day. Memento mori encourages us to remember our death in a way that addresses how we spend our days. We still live our lives, but we do that knowing that death can come at any time. For a Christian, that means we need to live each day as we believe Christ would have us live it.
“Remembering one’s death is an absolutely essential aspect of the Christian life not only because it helps us to live well but also because it helps us to remember what Christ has done for us. Jesus trampled death!” (p. 4). Part of this remembering is a call to us to live a life free from sin. We will, of course, fail, but we can aim toward holiness and seek forgiveness as we fall short. It is a call away from the idea of “I still have time to straighten my life out” because it reminds us we may not.
However, reducing the practice of memento mori to just needing to live a good life all the time makes it sound like a divine sledgehammer is hovering over us. More importantly, as Sister Theresa continually notes, memento mori reminds us of Christ’s defeat of death and the promise of our faith.
As a person grieving the loss of an innocent little boy, memento mori does not take away my grief. Grief is very self-focused since I don’t think Oliver is suffering at all. I’m suffering because he is no longer physically with me, because I cannot hug him or hear him say he loves me. But memento mori does remind me of a truth I already know, and that is Christ has defeated death and promises a life beyond this existence.
This does not mean I remember my death like I should and that I don’t try to extend my life as long as I can. Even the disciples ran from Jesus when he is taken into custody for fear of their lives. After he dies they return to fishing, forgetting the promises he made. But when they finally comprehend the meaning of the resurrection, their lives change forever. As should ours. The practice of memento mori can help us live better lives today while continually being reminded of the power of God over death.
As you might note in Sister Theresa’s picture above, she is rather young (and I’m getting old, I know). She actually belongs to a group of sisters who use social media to share their faith. You can learn more about memento mori at her website, Pursued by Truth. She also has great Instagram and Twitter accounts you should follow. Although I only read the book this year, she does offer an entire Lenten package which in addition to the book includes a journal with prompts, prayer book, and, of course, two memento mori decals! Maybe I’ll get that for next year.