“Memento mori” — Finding life in the valley of bones

During this season of Lent, many of you may still be doing your taxes, or maybe recently finished your taxes. And, we often quip that taxes — our paying what is due to Caesar — is one of the two great certainties in this life. The other, of course, is death.

For many — perhaps most — in our culture, death is a taboo subject. And, it is an ultimate end we all acknowledge is inevitable, but against which we resist and fight at all costs. 

I am going to clarify this upfront: grief over death — either our own or that of a loved one — is not a sign of weak faith. Even Jesus lamented in the Garden, and in our Gospel reading today he weeps over the death of Lazarus. Love is painful and hard, and out of love it is natural and fitting to grieve.

But, there also is another way to look at death within the context of our Christian faith — within the context of the Risen Lord, and what that tells us about who we are. We began this Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday with these words: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” We are reminded of this at the beginning of our journey not to prepare for death, but to focus the living of our lives on the eternal life that comes with Easter.

Plato, in his “Phaedo,” tells us all of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” In other words, all of philosophy has to do with how we relate our lives to the inevitability of our deaths. Much the same — if not far more — can be said of theology. 

In his rule for monasteries, St. Benedict admonished his monks to “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.” 

That order sounds harsh, even abusive, to today’s sensibilities. But, Benedict’s rule, and the early Christian views of death, aren’t about denying life. They are about living life, paradoxically, both as if death were imminent, and as if there were no death at all.

We live every day knowing our bodies will die, as if they might die tomorrow — they may die today! — all while striving to preserve our souls, which will never die. 

Living for the sake of our souls does not mean we neglect our bodies, or that we shouldn’t strive to preserve them as long as possible. We need our bodies to do the work God has for us in this world. 

But, it does mean we shouldn’t define ourselves by our bodies. Our bodies are tools — implements — God has given us to do work. And, when we’re done with that work, God permits us to lay down those tools, and take rest in Him.

Father Mark Lee Thamert, OSB, a Benedictine monk and priest at Saint John’s Abbey, in Collegeville, Minn., outlined this for his brother monks in a letter to them in 2017.

At the time, Thamert had been battling prostate cancer for a number of years. Finally, his oncology team conceded — the fight was done. Knowing he had but a few weeks left, he shared with them this story from the desert fathers:

News spread that an elder father lay dying in the desert of Skete. The brothers came, stood around his deathbed, clothed him and began to cry. But he opened his eyes and laughed. And he laughed again, and then again. The surprised brothers asked him, ‘Tell us, Abba, why do you laugh while we cry?’ He spoke, ‘I laughed at first because you fear death. Then I laughed because you are not ready. A third time I laughed because I am going from hard work to enter my rest – and you are crying about that!’ He then closed his eyes and died.

The dying monk knew three crucial truths we must embrace — that we get to embrace! — as Christians: we need not fear death, because the life of the soul is eternal; to be ready to live, we must be ready to die; and our true reward of rest in Christ comes at the end of our worldly work.

Embracing these truths, as Fr. Thamert did, we see death not as a scary specter, but as a reminder of our eternal life, and a reminder to live each day of this life to its fullest in service to God and our neighbor. 

Fr. Thamert shared this comfort with his brothers, and with us:

I believe that Benedict and the monks who lived in the centuries before him knew that keeping death in mind daily would paradoxically help monks and all fellow humans live richer lives now. Looking at this process in a simple, head-on way can release the hidden anxieties and help us to surrender to the mystery that Christ has promised us. It is a time to feel deep gratitude for the life we have been given, for the friends and family we love and who extend their love so freely.

Fr. Thamert died not long after he penned those words to his brothers, on April 29, 2017. He died assured that our meaning, who we truly are, is not defined by our bodies.

Our reading today from the prophet Ezekiel affirms this.

The prophet stands in a great field of dry bones. God tells the prophet to prophesy to the bones, and the bones begin to reassemble. But, they are still just bones. Then sinew and muscle are added. Still just bones, sinew and muscle. Flesh and skin are added. Still, they are just lifeless organic matter — less alive than trees and grass.

Finally, God tells the prophet, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 

Ezekiel “prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

It is only when we take on the breath of God — the Holy Spirit — that our bodies are truly alive. When we cut ourselves off from that breath of life, we find ourselves, like the people of Israel in Ezekiel, crying out, “‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” 

St. Paul reinforces this in today’s reading from Romans 8: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

When we live focused on the flesh, we live cut off from our true being, in the Spirit. Thus, we can be quite dead while we are alive. But, if we live in the Spirit, we cannot die, even when our bodies do die.

So, let us live in the spirit of the old Latin saying, “Memento mori” — remember your death. Our own death is not something that should scare us. And we keep it before us not to live in fear. Rather, we keep it before us that we may live each day to its fullest, in service to God and neighbor, and in a healthy joy in this Creation God has given us. We should live each day as if it is our last, celebrating the fact that, in Christ, there is no end to our true life.

Lord Christ, you call us to take up our cross and follow you. We know that, no matter how long or short our journey with that cross, it ends at Golgotha — where we die to ourselves, to unhealthy attachment to our bodies and possessions, to our greed, our selfish natures, and ultimately, die to fear of death itself. Help us to lay down our lives each day, that we may rise up in the true life you have given us, and use the days we have to build your Kingdom. Amen.

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