worthless slaves-memento mori

We have spoken of death as the absolute obstacle, the final stop; but this is only what it appears to be … through Faith, death is in reality the perfect passivity: it is the door that opens to transfiguration. (Henri de Lubac)

When I started meditating on this gospel (Lk 17:7-10)––‘“We are just worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’––I thought I might reflect a little on humility, on knowing our true place in the world, in the universe, based on that line. But then I looked back at the first reading (Wis 2:23-3:9) and I changed course. This lesson from the Book of Wisdom is one of the readings that is used often for funerals, and what greater spur to humility is there than death! November of course is the Month during which we commemorate and pray for the dead, beginning with All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, and then stretching on into remembering our deceased Camaldolese monks and nuns, and carrying the dozens of prayer requests that come pouring in. So I thought a few words on remembering death were in order.

There’s that ancient Latin phrase, which seems to be pre-Christian, memento mori–“remember death.” In ancient Rome, so they say, when a general was either about to march into battle, or was parading through the streets after a great victory in battle, a slave would stand behind him saying just loud enough for him to hear and murmur: Memento mori––“Remember death!” Those are both great occasions for it: “Remember that all this fame is going to end,” and “Remember how fragile you are.” According to legend, Trappist monks used to greet each other this way too: Frater, memento mori––to inspire their meditation. “Remember you’re going to die! Have a nice day!” St. Benedict doesn’t use the exact phrase memento mori in the Rule, but he does have the same thought when he teaches, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die­­.”[i] I think that goes with the conversatio morum, the conversion of our ways, because he follows that up with, “Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do…”[ii] What’s most telling about this is that St. Benedict includes this in Chapter 4 among the “tools for good works.” This is a tool for good works––to keep death before our eyes, to keep careful watch over all we do!

Remember you are going to die and what? Often memento mori is associated with memento vivere––Remember death and remember to live! No one knows how to live so well as someone who is ready to die. No meal probably ever tastes so good as when we know it is going to be our last. Remember you are going to die––and Wake up!! Pay attention! Remember death and be humble in the face of eternity, and the grandeur of the universe! ‘“We are just worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’ And especially this, I think: Remember death and have hope! Not only as Christians but already we hear of the Jewish belief in life after death in the Book of Wisdom. And so we have hope, as that same first reading says, that we have been made for incorruption; hope that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; hope that after we have been tested we will run like sparks through the stubble.

And finally hope in a new heaven and a new earth. An old friend of mine, who lost his faith years ago, is dealing with congestive heart failure and starting to feel his age. He still tries to lure me into debates about God and heaven, which I deftly avoid at all costs. Last week he sent me a YouTube video of a talk that Carl Sagan gave called “A Universe Not Made For Us,” debunking religion, especially heaven and hell, in favor, course, of science. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, and some of it was really good. I was actually really struck by the last line: “If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.” One of the things I am always countering my friend with is that this whole business of living is not just about heaven to me, nor is religions just fire insurance. Hope also lies in the fact that life is worth continuing, and that building a world of justice and peace is worth dying for so that others may live. The same thing applies to soldiers and peace officers that lay their lives on the line to protect the innocent, as well as for all those who suffer for the sake of justice, who courageously face evil and injustice every day. I feel so small in the face of this, all the little deaths I have to face. “I am just a worthless slave; I am just trying to do what I ought to do! Just trying to do my part to keep the universe on its trajectory toward the reign of God,” even if that means simply mopping the floor for someone, being kind, showing up for prayers, or getting up early to cook.

Let’s pray that, strengthened by the Word and Sacrament, we would have humility in the face of the grandeur of the universe as well as in the face of the great mystery of death, pray that we would find ourselves a worthy goal, and pray for hope to be living stones, building God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

cyprian, 14 nov 2017

[i]mortem cotidie ante oculos suspectam habere––

[ii] RB 4:47-48.

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