MEMENTO MORI – REMEMBER DEATH
All Saints. All Souls. The Day of the Dead. Samhain. This is a time not only to remember all the faithful departed, but to remember and face, like on Ash Wednesday, our own mortality. In our culture, we don’t like to talk about this inevitability, but our faith calls us to remember even Sister Death, as Saint Francis wrote in his poetry. In The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the 6th century, Saint Benedict writes amongst his many directives, “Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.” Or as it has also been rendered more poetically, “Every day keep death before your eyes.” We stand in our culture in fear of death, avoiding the necessary conversations about death, approaching those final months often unprepared spiritually to face that passage of death. Life has many surprises and transitions—the surprise loss of a job, an injury, meeting someone new, and unexpected tragedies like the many who lost their homes and everything they owned in the Oakland fires. We cannot prepare for these unexpected life changes, but the inevitability of death should be no surprise. The timing, the circumstances, yes these may be unexpected, but the fact we will meet death is something we can and for which we ought to prepare.
Today at coffee hour, I will lead the room in a workshop or roundtable to talk about planning our funeral and end of life wishes, to explore expressing in our wills the legacy we wish to leave behind in how our resources are distributed, and to discuss our questions, feelings, fears, and thoughts on death. This roundtable time will be preceded by some instruction on creating Milagritos, or artistic metal icons to remember our loved ones. I believe this will be an important and sacred space for us to explore together Sister Death, and to begin to prepare ourselves in small ways for making our acquaintance with her.
The ambivalent feelings we have about death are not bad. Death is unlike anything else in our journey. Everything we know is tied to life and then comes this mysterious event that appears to bring it all to an end. But as we heard in the Book of Wisdom:
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
We hold this truth alongside our ambivalence. In fact, the Gospel lesson we heard today attest that as he approached Lazarus’ tomb, even Jesus wept. And the lesson continues, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” It’s important not to ignore those feelings, but to honor them, feel them, name them, and journey through them. How is it that Saint Francis can speak of something so terrifying as Sister Death? Why is it that St. Benedict calls us daily to remember death? Kahlil Gibran is a poet and author who spent a great deal of his life contemplating the mysteries of life and death. I want to share with you from the book The Prophet, his chapter entitled On Death:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
Today we remember all the faithful departed: our loved ones whose photos we have placed on the high altar, the holy apostles, all the martyrs and confessors who through the ages have given their lives in service of the faith and all those whose faith was known to God alone. And today, we remember Sister Death, keeping death before our eyes, so we might become well acquainted before the day she comes to bring us home. Mark Twain once wrote, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” Perhaps this is the wisdom at the heart of Saint Benedicts counsel. What would it be to live each day as our last? To every time we approach the Lord’s Prayer or any prayer, to pray it as if it may be the last time. To share a dinner with a friend, with every friend, conscious that it may be our last time with them on this side of the veil of death. I think this would transform how we relate to one another, and how we live and move in the world.
I leave with you two words: Memento mori. This is Latin for remember death. This was the salutation used by the Hermits of St. Paul of France and this can be for us a mantra, a phrase to remind us of our place in the cosmic journey. Remember death, that we might fully live.