Death is an uncomfortable truth. Despite the comfort of our Catholic belief in the soul’s immortality, the thought of leaving this life is an alarming one. The society that we are a part of exerts an influence over the way we live our lives. We live in a culture that emphasizes the physical over the spiritual and the temporal over the eternal. One has only to look at the grasping attempts to extend human life and the rising prevalence of euthanasia to see that modern man’s relationship with death is far from healthy. On the one hand, death is seen as something that must be avoided at all costs, while on the other, society tries to control the time and manner of our passing from this life. Death is a great mystery to the culture in which we live, and the fear of the unknown is powerful. For many, the easiest way to deal with this fear is to simply ignore it.
The coronavirus pandemic has served as an interesting illustration of this. Over the past several months we’ve been forced to grapple, perhaps for the first time, with the realization that we are dust, and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). In saying this, I do not intend to dismiss the pain that the pandemic has caused but, rather, to make the observation that our culture has forgotten how to respond to the harsh reality of death.
Perhaps it may be helpful in this day and age to examine the principle of Memento Mori, a Latin phrase meaning “remember your death.” This concept originated with Socrates and the ancient Stoics, later being adopted by the Christian tradition which recognized the value of bearing in mind one’s own mortality. The human skull is a recurring motif in many artistic depictions of saints and martyrs in order to communicate this very principle.
In his book The Imitation of Christ, Thomas Kempis reflects, “Blessed is he who keeps the moment of death ever before his eyes and prepares for it every day.” Later, he elaborates: “In the morning consider that you may not live till evening, and when evening comes do not dare to promise yourself the dawn. Be always ready, therefore, and so live that death will never take you unprepared.” Far from being a macabre fascination, the practice of remembering one’s mortality is important for directing our days toward the glory of God. We are not destined to remain on this earth forever; through Christ, we have received the hope of spending eternity with him in Heaven. This world is beautiful, but in the end, it is not our true home. We are pilgrims on a journey, traveling toward a promised land of eternal joy.
By worrying, we cannot add a single moment to our lives (Luke 12:25), so let the acknowledgment of mortality set us free to live life to the full. When we remember our deaths let us not be petrified by fear, but rather see the recognition as an invitation to laugh more heartily, give with greater generosity and love a little more deeply.
Aidan Jones is a parishioner of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior.