by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP
I have a skull on my desk
Several years into my time in the convent, I decided to acquire a little ceramic skull for my desk, and I started to meditate on my death regularly. I have been meditating daily on my inevitable and unpredictable death for more than two years now.
You might be thinking, “Well, that sounds unpleasant.” And you would be partly right. At first it was unpleasant. I hated thinking about my death. It was a thought that, like most people, I had put a lot of energy into avoiding. At first as I meditated on my death, I felt anxious and full of doubt. A couple of weeks into the practice, I wondered if I ever should have begun. But, thankfully, I persisted. And I can now honestly say that meditating on my death daily has changed my life.
The tradition of remembering death
I actually knew very little about the tradition of meditating on death in the Church when I started. But over time, as I delved more into it, I realized that this tradition has a rich and long history. When I first got a skull for my desk, I was inspired by Bl. James Alberione, the founder of my religious order, the Daughters of St. Paul. He kept a skull on his desk as a memento mori to remind him of his death.
Memento mori, or “remember your death,” is the Latin phrase long associated with the practice of remembering the unpredictable and inevitable end of one’s life. This phrase and the symbols and sayings associated with it were particularly popular in the medieval Church. But the practice of remembering death stretches back to the very beginning of salvation history.
God says to Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden of Eden: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
God’s reminder continues to echo throughout the Old Testament, reminding readers of life’s brevity while exhorting them to remember their death. My favorite passage is from the Book of Sirach: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (7:36).
The psalmist prays, “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Psalm 90:12).
In the New Testament, Jesus exhorts this practice when he tells his disciples to pick up their crosses daily as they follow him to the Place of the Skull: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
The value and benefits of meditating on death in this way has been recognized by philosophers and other religious traditions for millennia. For the Christian, however, remembrance of death extends beyond the reality of earthly life and bodily death. Just as death is a doorway to the afterlife, meditation on death is the doorway to meditation on the afterlife, or what has traditionally been called the “Last Things.”
Meditation on death as well as judgment, hell, and heaven has been encouraged in the Church for centuries. Why meditate on these things? Because thinking about the definite end of life — death — necessarily leads to the consideration of life’s possible ends. Meditation on death in this context is not morose, but rather becomes a celebration. For those who choose to accept the grace of salvation, death is a positive step, a doorway to heaven.
How to meditate on death
You may be wondering, So, how exactly does one go about remembering death?
The answer is simple; this practice really is not complicated. What makes it intimidating is not what it involves but what it brings up, as well as the required regularity. Meditation on death is not helpful if done irregularly.
There is a reason St. Benedict urged his monks in his Rule to “keep death daily” before their eyes (Rule, 4.47). It makes no sense to prepare every once in a while for death and the afterlife. The entire point of the practice is that death could come at any time, so it’s necessary to remember this regularly.
But what does one do exactly when meditating on death? No formula for the perfect meditation on death exists. And how you do it from day to day will vary. But here is one way you could go about it. First, think something along the lines of, I could die at any time. I could die today, I could die tomorrow. Am I ready?
Second, imagine yourself on your deathbed or dying suddenly. As you think about death’s inevitability and imagine it, allow your mind to penetrate the reality, not just to think about it in a detached way.
Third, after you use your mind to think about this reality, it is also important to lift your heart in prayer. Whatever comes up during your short meditation on death, bring it to God. Listen to what he has to say in response to any anxiety and fear that you might experience. During your time of prayer, you could imagine yourself beneath the cross, looking up at Jesus. This helps to connect the reality of your personal death with the reality of salvation.
However one may decide to meditate on death, it is important to remember that, for the Christian, prayer is key. Christians do not just meditate on the dark abyss of death as the end. Jesus Christ died for our sins, saving us from death. In the Christian context, the light of Christ streams through the darkness of death and fills it with the hope of heaven.
For the Christian, prayer is key.
The benefits of remembering death
Perhaps you remain unconvinced that remembering your death is a practice that you should take up. You may be wondering, “What are the benefits? Is this worthwhile or am I just going to stress myself out for no reason?” Allow me to share with you the benefits that I have experienced from this practice.
Remembering my death daily was stressful at first, but over time I began to feel a greater focus. When I recalled that death could come at any time, I realized that few things in my life were as important as I thought they were. My list of priorities suddenly became smaller. For instance, at one point I was stressed out about a test I had to take for school. But when I realized that I might die the next day, the test lost some of its importance in my mind.
As I narrowed in on the things in my life that were most important, one thing immediately went straight to the top — holiness and union with God. Before I started thinking about my death, it was easy to put off holiness for another day. But when I meditated on the fact that death is unpredictable, I soon realized that I needed to prepare for death. I wanted to choose God every moment of every day and not be caught unawares. I desired holiness — not just someday, but now.
St. Francis of Assisi affectionately called death “Sister Death.” His attitude toward death demonstrates how the Christian is called to see more joy in death than fear. When I first meditated on death, it was a frightening foe. But over time I began to see death more as a doorway to heaven.As I began to focus on the things that really matter and to look forward to heaven, joy surged in my heart.
This time-tested tradition, encouraged by Scripture and the saints, has the potential to change your life like it did mine. I encourage you to try meditating on the Last Things for a month or two! Try it out and discover how this regular practice can inspire and prepare you to meet God face-to-face in heaven.