On the first day of Lent, as ashes are being rubbed on my forehead, I’m traditionally reminded that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. These words come straight from the mouth of God to Adam after he and Eve sinned, lost the grace that they were born with, and introduced death into the world (Gen. 3:19). Why does the Church remind me, especially during this penitential season, of my mortality? After all, in these modern and medically advanced times, death is a subject I’d rather not think about. Yet, I wouldn’t have needed a Savior if death wasn’t already a part of my fallen nature.
Every day, bishops, priests, deacons, and all consecrated religious are required by the Church to pray the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day to always keep their lives centered in prayer. Many lay people do as well. The final Hour or Office of the day (Night Prayer or Compline) is designed to be prayed right before an individual goes to sleep. It has the same theme every day. Just before I put my head on the pillow and close my eyes, the Church wants me to remember that I will die someday. While sleeping, I become oblivious to the world around me. Sleep is like a dress rehearsal for death. I expect to wake up in the morning, but a day will come when I won’t wake up. Am I prepared for that? Does it guide how I live my life?
For centuries, many saints kept a human skull in their bedroom. You will often see one on the desk of a holy person in famous works of art (they are available today made of plastic from Amazon). The reason is the same. Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means ‘remember that you will die.’ The inevitability of death is not supposed to be macabre, scary, or depressing. Rather, meditating on it a little each day serves as a healthy reminder that THIS is not my home and I shouldn’t live like I’m going to be here forever. Life is short, even if I’m fortunate enough to make it to my 100th birthday.
When we regularly reflect on our eventual death, our priorities (hopefully) change. This happens a lot when people receive a scary diagnosis from their doctor, but I shouldn’t wait for a heart attack or cancer diagnosis to reflect on these things. How is my relationship with God right now? Am I prepared to meet Him face to face? As Catholics, we are taught about the 4 Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. If I’m not spiritually prepared for it, death can seem very scary.
In Rome there is a Capuchin Crypt, built between 1626 and 1631, which comprises several tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins). It is open to the public and contains the skeletal remains of about 3,700 bodies believed to all be Capuchin friars who died between 1500 and 1870. The bones of these deceased men line the walls like works of art and symbols. I have been there and it’s one of the most startling and memorable things that you will see in the Eternal City. In one of the chapels are these words:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”
Memento mori. Spend a little time this Lent reflecting on your death. I hope it doesn’t happen for a long time, but it’s a beneficial activity as we journey through the spiritual life together. Consider getting the Divine Office app on your phone to pray Night Prayer as you prepare to go to sleep each evening. It only takes about ten minutes to do and you will see the references to death in the psalms that are chosen and in the Canticle of Simeon who was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he got to see the long-awaited Messiah. The app is much easier to use than the books and is also a lot cheaper.
And if you want some additional help with all of this, a young Daughter of St. Paul, Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP has written some best selling devotional books on memento mori. The ancient tradition of remembering death has changed her life and led her to a greater union with God. The publisher is Pauline Books & Media, the publishing arm of her religious community.
As Lent drags on, I find myself looking forward to its end. However, there’s no Easter without first going through the events of Good Friday. If our desire is to follow in the footsteps of our Lord and be raised to eternal life with Him, we must follow Him all the way to Golgotha and through the door of death to get to the other side of the veil (our true home). Our entire life on Earth – how we love God and our neighbors – should be a preparation for that day. St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death because he died with Jesus and Mary by his side. If we have a close relationship with all three members of the Holy Family, our death will be a happy one as well.
Let me conclude with an important point given the times in which we live. Memento mori is not meant to encourage an unhealthy fixation on death. Recent studies have shown a rise, especially among young people, of suicidal thoughts and attempts. There are many reasons why this is happening and it’s all very unfortunate. Memento mori is supposed to be a healthy reminder that life on Earth is not forever and to encourage us to keep that in mind. To live a truly loving and selfless life rather than one that is focused on self and the acquisition of worldly things like wealth, honor, power, and pleasure. It’s designed to orient us away from those things and more toward our Lord so that we will be prepared to meet Him whenever He calls us from this world. We achieve the goals of memento mori in a healthy and constructive way when we live a full and active life in service to God, our family, and our neighbors.
Leonard (Lee) Moraglio