Remember - thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return
- Ash Wednesday Liturgy
One of the tasks of an Auriga, a Roman slave of a certain status, was to ride in a military commander's chariot during a victory parade holding a laurel leaf crown over the victor's head. The slave's job included whispering “Memento Mori” that is, “remember that you are mortal” into the ear of the commander, lest the victor lose his sense of proportion while taking in the wild admiration of the cheering crowds.
“Keep death daily before your eyes,” Saint Benedict wrote in his rule for monks. Christian anchorites, hermits, and religious through the centuries took a scoop from their grave, or slept in their coffins, or sewed a few stitches on their shrouds as a material sign of this inward spiritual practice.
Why remember that you are going to die? Why make it a daily spiritual practice? Surely not to simply to put you in your place, like the Roman General. You have probably faced death more than once in your life. What did you think about? Was your encounter with death ever serious enough to change your life?
When you keep death daily before your eyes, you know what is important and what is not important. You arrange your life according to that insight, and you begin to know how to live. You practice a right kind of detachment, an appropriate letting go. But it is also an inner awakening, because to know mortality is to know yourself, and as you begin to live into that knowledge you know your continual change of heart affects not only yourself but those around you for the better.
Finally, keeping death daily before your eyes awakens the soul, because the soul responds to truth like a tender seedling responds to light and water, given the freedom from the relentless battering and suppression by the ego's false promises and lies. Imagine an over-sized puppy playing on the seedbed.
Can you love God for God alone, for no other motive but for love's sake ? (Meditation Two).
Keep death daily before your eyes to know life's value and transient beauty, to be joyful, content, and at peace. And, to grow in your compassion. Facing death may also mean praying with the dying and for the dead, perhaps praying with the dead and anticipating your own prayer beyond death as you come toward completion of the life you know (Meditation Three).
Remember, you are going to die.
I think you will find all these themes and more in the following quotes. Let the retreat be uniquely yours. You might want to keep notes. Remembering death offers you your own program of repentance. Where do you need pardon or mercy? What are your fragilities? Strengths? Where do humility and ego play mirror games in your life? If you tend to not be very self aware, just ask anybody else around you. They'll let you know, if you let them. You have just laid out your itinerary for Lent.
Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
-Leonine Sacramentary, 5th century
Meditation One (Introit) Ashes
What fire does in an instant, time is always doing to everything that lives. ... We look into an opened grave and shiver: a few bones, a handful of ash-grey dust.
Remember man that dust thou art and unto dost shalt thou return.
Ashes signify man's overthrow by time. Our own swift passage, ours and not someone else's, ours, mine. When at the beginning of Lent the priest takes the burnt residue of the green branches of the last Palm Sunday and inscribes with it on my forehead the sign of the cross, it is to remind me of my death.
Memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris.
Everything turns to ashes, everything whatsoever. This house I live in, these clothes I am wearing, my household stuff, my money, my fields, meadows, woods, the dog that follows me, my horse in his stall, this hand I am writing with, these eyes that read what I write, all the rest of my body, people I have loved, people I have hated, or been afraid of, whatever was great in my eyes upon earth, whatever small and contemptible, all without exception will fall back into dust.
-Romano Guardini 1885-1968 Sacred Signs
When compared with the stretch of time unknown to us, O king, the present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight. Man's life is similar; and of what follows it, or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.
-The Venerable Bede c.673-735 Ecclesiastical History of the English People
AS. SOONE. AS. WEE. TO. BEE. BEGVNNE: WE. DID. BEGINNE. TO. BE. VNDONE.
-English Memento Mori medal, c. 1650
If one is to enter this Divine union, all that lives in the soul must die, both little and much, small and great, and that the soul must be without desire for all this, and detached from it, even as though it existed nor for the soul, neither the soul for it.
-John of the Cross 1542-1591 The Ascent of Mount Carmel
A monk who does not think of death, and does not have it before his eyes, and does not see it as it is, and see his own life objectively in the light of death, cannot be a true monk. His penance will be unbalanced and his intentions will not be pure. His contemplation will be largely an illusion. His relations with his brother and his whole life and outlook especially in his work will be natural and vain.
-Thomas Merton Monastic Orientation Series 5, No. 23 (mimeographed) quoted from Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, OCSO
To learn how to die watch cherry blossoms, observe chrysanthemums.
-Anonymous trans. Sam Hamill The Sound of Water
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822
Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing, Nothing but bones, The sad effect of sadder groans: Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.
For we consider'd thee as at some six Or ten years hence, After the loss of life and sense, Flesh being turn'd to dust, and bones to sticks.
We lookt on this side of thee, shooting short; Where we did find The shells of fledge souls left behind, Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.
But since our Savior's death did put some blood Into thy face; Thou art grown fair and full of grace, Much in request, much sought for, as a good.
For we do now behold thee gay and glad, As at doomsday; When souls shall wear their new array, And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.
Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust Half that we have Unto an honest faithful grave; Making our pillows either down, or dust.
-George Herbert 1593-1633
Vanitas, Pieter Claesz, 1625
Skull, guttering candle flame, letter with broken seal, quill with dried ink, open -perhaps stopped- timepiece,key, cracked walnut, plucked tulip
Lute Player, detail from La Danse aux Aveugles, France, 1466. Marginalia of poem by Pierre Michault - Dance of the Blind (Love, Fortune, Death)
Receive this cross of ash upon your brow
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands,
The very stones themselves would shout and sing,
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.
Memento Mori, or Transi, Tomb of Rene de Chalon, 1544-1557 attributed to Ligier Richier
Meditation Two (Insight) For Love's Sake Alone
Give me grace, good Lord, to make death no stranger to me. Give me, good Lord, a longing to be with thee, not for the avoiding of the calamities of this wretched world; nor so much for the avoiding of the pains of purgatory, nor of the pains of hell neither, nor so much for the attaining of the joys of heaven in respect of mine own commodity, as even for a very love to thee.
-Thomas More 1475-1535
O Lord, whatever share of this world You could give to me, Give it to your enemies: Whatever share of the next world You want to give to me - Give it to your friends. You are enough for me. ...
O my Lord, if I worship you from fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates. But if I worship you for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
Meditation Three (Integration) Solidarity With the Dead and Praying beyond the Grave
Solidarity with the Dead
True remembrance of the dead enables us to protect the deepest reality of our existence … .When we recall the dead they take us to a certain extent into their sphere, drawing us into their silence; they dispel the noisy bustle of the world and enable us to face the events of our lives with a calmness which makes it possible for us to pray. Prayer certainly requires the silence of solitude, and this is intensified rather than diminished when we withdraw slightly from the everyday world to think of the dead, anticipating our own death, as far as possible, as the release through which God is finally revealed to us.
-Karl Rahner 1904-1984 The Courage to Pray Karl Rahner and Johann B. Metz
Praying Beyond the Grave
My God, I pray that I may so know you and love you that I may rejoice in you. And if I may not do so fully in this life, let me go steadily on to the day when I come to that fullness. Let the knowledge of you increase in me here, and there let it come to its fullness. Let your love grow in me here, and there let it be fulfilled, so that here my joy may be in a great hope, and there in full reality.
-Anselm of Canterbury Proslogion Ch. 26:764-774
The Last Word
O Lord, may the end of my life be the best of it; may my closing acts be my best acts, and may the best of my days be the day which I shall meet Thee.
Memento Mori, Ivory Pendant, front and back Netherlands, c. 1500
O Lord, you have freed us from the fear of death. You have made the end of our life here into the beginning of true life for us. You give rest to our bodies for a time in sleep, and then you awaken them again with the sound of the last trumpet. Our earthly body, formed by your hands, you consign in trust to the earth, and then once more you reclaim it, transfiguring with immortality and grace whatever in us I mortal or deformed. You have opened for us the way to resurrection, and given to those that fear you the sign of the holy cross as their emblem, to destroy the enemy and to save our life. Eternal God, on you have I depended from my mother's womb, you have I loved with all the strength of my soul, to you have I dedicated my flesh and my sou from my youth until now. Set by my side an angel of light, to guide me to the place of repose, where are the waters of rest, among the holy Fathers. You have broken the fiery sword and restored to Paradise the thief who was crucified with you and implored your mercy: remember me also in your kingdom, for I too have been crucified with you … Forgive me and accept my soul into you hands, spotless and undefiled, as incense in your sight.
-Macrina the Younger c.327-79 Her deathbed prayer
Keep us, O Lord, while we tarry on this earth, in a serious seeking after thee, and in an affectionate walking with thee every day of our lives; that when thou comest, we may be found not hiding our talent, nor serving the flesh, nor yet asleep with our lamp unfurnished, but waiting and longing for our Lord, our glorious King for ever and ever.
-Richard Baxter 1615-91 adapted from The Saints' Everlasting Rest
Hail Mary, full of grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and and at the hour of our death.
Heidelburg Codex Germanicus, 15thc
A Little Fun from Karol Jackowski
Earth's crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God; and only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries. - E.B. Browning
God is subtle but not malicious. -Albert Einstein
A joyful ( ie fun ) heart is the health of the body, But a depressed (ie boring ) spirit Dries up the bones (your own and everybody else's). -Proverbs 17:22 enhanced by Karol Jackowski
Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.... -Revelation 3:16
One who knows himself is stronger in knowing than one who knows his Lord; and one who is veiled from himself is more heavily veiled than one who is veiled from his Lord. -Al-Alawiu
So there. -Karol Jackowski
Source: -Ten Fun Things To Do Before You Die by nun other than Karol A. Jackowski
A few random but not final thoughts having to do with "Keeping Death Daily Before You"
Letter D. Book of Hours, Italy, c.1480
If you tend a garden, you learn detachment, awe, engagement in the fleeting moment, to tell time by color, texture, light and shadow instead of by your clock. If you sit still, you might experience transfiguration. And you learn to be callous about death. Everything dies - either in the cycle of yearly life, or because a plant got too hot or too wet or invaded by insects or too old, or wasn't happy in its place, or because you had to kill it so that other plants could grow properly, or just for reasons you will never know.
A plant may die back, its roots dormant and then generative. Seeds fall, germinate, the husks give protection and sometimes energy to the plant, then die. Whatever dies gives back its nutrition and energy in compost. You can notice resurrection every day. And you are part of that cycle. A garden tends you.
Even rocks are shaped by wear. For my California garden my elderly neighbor gave me several large lava stones from a local volcano (her father took them from the mountain before filching historic rock was illegal). You can see how the glowing magma stopped in mid-flow and how poignant it feels that these rocks sit stationary at the foot of my garden next to the datura. The white limestones carved full of holes scooped out from rushing water stand in the little meditation garden. River stones, smooth and round, and marble pebbles crushed in some machine for use in outdoor paths – all these rocks attend the garden in the declining cycle of their existence. As do I.
Every month I read the necrology of clergy of my denomination. There's usually one or two or more that I knew personally, or knew of, and sometimes worked with, or served with in one capacity or another. I read the columns first by name, then by age – older than me, younger than me, weighing their ages between mine like a set of scales.
So many friends and family gone. Just gone. I have touched, held, stroked their dead bodies. Gone. The husks fallen off the seedling? I don't know. I only know they are gone.
What is death? I don't know. The dead have never come back to let me know. Clairvoyants and empaths and numerous people in my life claim to have had visits from the dead. As far as I'm concerned the very personal messages or appearances my friends describe don't convince me. Why don't the dead ever say anything useful or interesting about what the beyond is like or report on the melting icecaps or reveal hidden prisons or lost children? Let folks be comforted by the uncanny presence of a butterfly, but I expect more of my dead than showing up as an insect.
But if I look at the life cycle of a butterfly, eggs in foaming spit, hatching to worm, to caterpillar (chewing my passion vine into lace!) to silky cocoon, to a completely new creature of iridescent color that flies to the nectar in the flowers, lays eggs and dies, I see a whole of which I am a part. As are my beloved dead. Everything interconnects. I remember I am dust.
Let the husk of my life give energy to Your project of life.
I ask only that for Your delight alone and, perhaps, for the beloved dead,
I might have once or twice mirrored a shard of Your translucence
as I flittered by in the open space between the hidden mysteries behind time.