Sometime in late summer I started waking up in the middle of the night. Beneath the swirling thoughts about all the recent changes in my life–getting married, moving, starting work as a parish priest–my belly felt like a bundle of bricks. I was fulfilling a vision of my life that I had imagined seven years earlier with the help of a minister who used a Buddhist life planning curriculum. I had met the goals, but was also lugging heavy doubts that I had missed the mark: “What about the call to religious life and the years spent living in monasteries and meditation centers?” There were also bricks made of the sounds of gunshots from a neighbor’s outdoor shooting range and the memory of a parishioner telling me that in the lead-up to the election his department store was selling more ammunition than ever. For the sake of his conscience, he explained, “I had to quit.”
When someone mentioned to me this fall the Christian practice of memento mori —Latin for “remember you must die”—I wondered, “Could the Christian tradition of meditating on my death help me find my way again? Could it keep me grounded in God’s will for our future when the future of our nation seems so foreboding?”
The meditative exercise of imagining your death spans traditions, but the Christian practice has its roots in scripture and Roman culture. The Psalms point to the value of the practice (“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart”), as do the familiar words from Genesis spoken on Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). Seneca, the Roman philosopher and contemporary of Jesus implored his students to keep their death in mind. Over time the spiritual wisdom of memento mori spread to religious orders and beyond. The Rule of Saint Benedict points to the practice (“Keep death daily before your eyes”). Following the plague in the late medieval period, skulls, bones, and tombs became popular symbols in painting, jewelry, and architecture. Protestant writers recommended the practice, including the Anglican Jeremy Taylor in Holy Living and Holy Dying.
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP—in her recent books about memento mori, and on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube —offers specific steps while also cautioning readers not to worry about doing them precisely. Drawing on smells, sounds, feelings, and sensations the practitioner moves through five steps. Step 1: Become Aware of God’s Presence. Step 2: Ask for the Holy Spirit’s Guidance. Step 3: Review the Day. Step 4: Remember Your Death. Step 5: Look Toward Tomorrow. Sister Theresa Aletheia elaborates on each step, estimating that the practice takes about ten minutes for beginners. She recommends not just doing the exercise routinely, but also trying it when making decisions, commending it as a “powerful way to grow in holiness.”
The Rule of Saint Benedict points to the practice: “Keep death daily before your eyes.”
I tried the practice regularly for over a month, usually in the mornings after a time of quiet meditation and devotional prayer. Even over such a short time, I noticed the impact of the practice. When imagining my death, I saw myself lying on my bed under a wooden crucifix which I had slept under when I was single. After getting married, I had feared that my wife, raised as a Southern Baptist, would reject the idea of a crucifix in our bedroom. Instead, I hung it in a back room behind a dresser. The meditation helped me muster the courage to ask her about hanging the crucifix in our bedroom. She said “yes” and offered to hang it in an even more prominent spot: above the kitchen fireplace.
Perhaps as important as any life change, my understanding of the memento mori practice changed. In an email exchange with Sister Theresa Aletheia she pointed to three aspects of the Christian practice which I hadn’t encountered in other traditions. First, she encouraged me not just to imagine a peaceful death. She wrote, “I would recommend imagining yourself dying in other ways. This might sound morbid, but when I do this it’s a reminder that I might not have a peaceful death on a soft bed surrounded by loved ones. I might die a sudden death and we need to prepare for that as well.” I started to meditate on dying in a car accident or being kidnapped and killed by vigilantes.
Second, remember that death doesn’t just happen at the end of life. Sister Theresa Aletheia explained to me, “[There is] a misunderstanding of death, a belief that death is just at the end of life. But Saint Augustine wrote, ‘One begins to die as soon as one begins to live.’… Meditating on death is about asking Jesus what he is doing in those little deaths, too.” Her teaching and the practice created questions in me I hadn’t been asking: “What is dying in me? What dreams, plans, abilities, and relationships do I need to grieve?”
Remember that death doesn’t just happen at the end of life.
Third, Sister Theresa Aletheia advised me to remember that as Christians, death is not the end of our life. She made this point as she explained the value of a skull as an icon. “A skull helps us to think of our own death—our own skull even—and it is a jolting reminder that as humans we tend toward death. And that death would be the end for us had Christ not died on the Cross and saved us from the death of sin.” She recommended that meditating on one’s own death should be done in conjunction with meditating on Christ’s death. I expanded my memento mori practice to include meditating on the crucifix. It also made me aware how I need to clarify my theology and imagination around the afterlife. How do I picture life after death, or “life after life after death” as N.T. Wright describes Christians’ future in the new creation?
I caution anyone considering the practice, particularly if they’re already struggling with isolation or depression. I experienced anxiety as I contemplated my death and things left undone. I’m grateful to have people in my life who could help me acknowledge and identify the holy actions linked to those feelings. The support of a community is key for the sake of consistency. As with any Lenten discipline or New Year’s resolution, I found it hard to sustain the new habit. Regarding the actual method, I discovered that I had to write down details—sights, sounds, smells, people present, dialogue—to fully engage my imagination enough to arrive somewhere new in my mind. I also recorded myself reading the directions and recommend experimenting with the steps in a guided audio form.
Despite the cautions, I recommend the practice. Memento mori can help those, like me, who are carrying doubts about missing the mark in life’s decisions. One morning after meditating on my death I heard a voice speak: “Who says you are lost?” I realized that I wasn’t lost, just impatient. Even with the new awareness, I continued to wake up with the bundle of bricks in my belly. The memory of the gunshots and the ammunition remained. But when I sat beneath the crucifix over the fireplace, the weight of all the fears felt less like a problem and more like an offering.
Memento mori can help those, like me, who are carrying doubts about missing the mark in life’s decisions.