Memento mori, friends

Posted on Feb 15, 2020

I was brought up to never consider death.

Whenever the topic of death came up, my mother would mutter something in her Philippine dialect and end the conversation. It was as if its mere mention would beckon the Grim Reaper to take us all at a moment’s notice.

Even when my father died suddenly almost 30 years ago, that fear never seemed to go away.

The concept of memento mori – remember your death – is kind of trendy right now, both in Catholic circles and in secular ones where a kind of manly neo-stoicism is a thing. Because I am Catholic, I think of memento mori in that light. Thinking of my inevitable demise is supposed to strengthen my faith and fear death less.

Writer Angelo Stagnaro explains this view:

Christians need not be fearful. In fact, I would go further to say we must never be afraid of death. We must embrace our mortality because it is the thing that defines us as frail and fallen human beings – fallen and broken, but immensely loved.

Dominican Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau expounds on this further:

The daily reminder of death isn’t something “macabre or depressing,” Guilbeau added, “but it’s something hopeful and joyful, that this veil of tears is not the end of our existence, it’s not the goal.”

“If we live in the love of Jesus Christ and we live in the light of the Holy Spirit, there’s constant preparation and help and grace and strength for that moment when we pass from this life to the next,” he said.

I’ve had a copy of St. Alphonsus Liguouri’s Preparation for Death on my nightstand for a couple of years now, and I often take it with me on retreats – yet I’ve not really spent as much time with it as I would like. Maybe it’s that lifelong fear again: If I read it at length, I’ll suddenly shuffle off this mortal coil or something. But could it be that actively bracing for death is exactly what I need to fend off my childhood anxieties? Here’s what the good saint writes:

And you, my brother, how are you spending the time? And for what reason do you put off until tomorrow that which you can do today? Remember that the time which is already past away is no longer yours: the future is not in your power; the present time alone you have for doing good. St. Bernard warns us saying, “Wherefore do you presume upon the future, O miserable one, as if the Father had put the times in thy power.” And St. Augustine asks, “Do you reckon upon a day, who canst not reckon upon an hour?” How canst thou promise thyself the day of tomorrow, if thou knowest not whether one more hour of life will be thine? St. Teresa thus concludes, and says, “If thou art not ready to die today, thou oughtest to fear lest thou shouldst die an unhappy death!”

Am I ready? And if not, what would make me ready?

Related links: Sr. Theresa Aletheia has almost single-handedly revived the idea of memento mori on social media. Read more from her in America, the Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor.