Memento Mori – Raised Catholic episode 47

The following is a transcript from the Raised Catholic podcast. To listen to the podcast, click here.

Today is episode 47: Memento Mori

Hi friends.  This past week we’ve had All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and I’ve had my own little triduum of important days, too.  This week, I remembered my Mom’s last day on Earth nine years ago in which we celebrated Christmas early as a family.  She went home to Heaven the day after, and the day after that was my birthday.  The sequence of these three important and holy days back-to-back-to-back has always made me thoughtful, and this year even more so, because this year I turned fifty.  So, for me, it’s been a lot of thinking about life and connection and time and all of the big stuff – the span of our lives and the impact we can have on other people.  And all of this leads me to an episode that I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now, and it’s this: Memento Mori.  It means “remember that you will die”.

Are you still there, friend?  I’m sorry if this seems a bit dark to you today.  I actually don’t see it that way at all, though this topic does make certain people squeamish, and I know that from real conversations I’ve had with some of my family and friends over the years, so I get it. It’s possible that it is my dark Irish sensibility showing here, but I’ve never minded talking about death. I kind of like it, actually, because death is literally going to happen to everyone, right? It’s an experience we will all have in common one day, but somehow as we live out our daily lives, we can kind of go on autopilot, conveniently forgetting this universal eventuality. That is so natural and easy to do, I know.  But Memento Mori gives ultimate clarity.  Remembering your death can mean remembering to live.

The origin of ‘Memento Mori’ is an ancient Roman tradition. Following a military victory, triumphant generals would parade through the city to the cheers and adulation of the people.  And next to a general in his chariot, there would always be a slave, and the slave’s whole job would be to continually whisper in the ear of the general: “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!” And this is translated:

“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”

The idea was to remind the general that the intoxicating praise of the public would come to an end, and so would his life.  No one escapes death, not even the most famous and powerful among us, and this reality was meant to motivate the general toward using his short time on Earth well. 

It should do the same for us.  And this is why people build legacies later in their lives. It’s why they write auto-biographies or start scholarship funds and foundations.  Humans know our lives are short, and we want to be remembered well. Each one of us has the chance to impact our memory by the choices we make today, big and small.  In his book, Meditations, Emperor and Philosopher Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”  Shakespeare compared our lives to the span of a play, saying, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” So, friend, what part are you playing today?

Memento Mori came up in a birthday celebration of mine this week.  It’s kind of a running joke in my immediate family that I have no wish to be old.  And this is not to disparage old people – many of them are perfectly wonderful, it’s just that my goal in living my life has much more to do with meaning than it does with longevity. But that’s not to say that I don’t take care of the body that carries me around every day – I run, I do yoga, I eat well, I take vitamins, all the things.  It’s just that I know that all we have is today.  All I have is the work that God has for me to do – work for myself and for others, and I try to do that work well.  It is not for me to say how long my life will be before I go home to Heaven, but it is mine to say how I will use the time I am given. 

Fr. Richard Rohr writes and speaks often on the concept of the two halves of life.  In the first half, we build our containers – our education, jobs and families, and then in the second half we should shift toward a detachment of sorts, a pouring-out of what we’ve learned and gained for others.  These two halves of life are not marked by a number, but a mindset.  Some young people get there early, and some old people never do, which is so sad, really.  I sing funeral masses from time to time at church, and I’m always struck by the people who have clearly left a legacy of wisdom and light and care behind them, no matter their age.

I remember after my mother passed at age 66, my friend Deacon Jerry said, “Now, some people will tell you she died too young, but that’s not so.  She lived every day she had, exactly the right amount.”  Now, this is tricky theology, because we all know people who’ve died young from illness or tragedy who leave huge holes in their passing. If we had the power to control it, we’d bring them back in a minute. We’d enjoy them and see how their beautiful lives would have unfolded with more time.  I have people like that that I’m thinking of right this very minute, and I bet you do, too, but they are a reminder that time is not promised to us.  There’s no guarantee that you or I will reach what actuaries say is an ‘average’ age of death. As I record this episode, today could be my very last day. We just don’t know.legacy

In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of our bodies as ‘earthly tents’ and he emphasizes the life to come. He says that “as long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord,” and while that’s an important reality to remember, the truth is that who we are as professed Christians are kind of dead already. Did you not know?  It happened in our baptism.

The symbolism of submerging under the water, even if we were only sprinkled that day, is an image of death and dying.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” And in Galatians, he says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Our lives are hidden in Christ, no longer ours. And in the span of eternity, they are a blink.  What are your thoughts about all of that today, friend?

Death can be a hard subject to tackle, and if you’re still with me, thanks. The sort-of dinner party question of what you would do if you knew you only had a day, a week, or a year to live is a good one and it can focus us to understand what matters to us, because we don’t know in this race of life if we’re running a marathon or a sprint. The gauzy nature of our timelines can cause us to lose our focus sometimes, but for me it’s the lives of those who have gone before, and often the funerals I’ve sung at and attended that crystalize my resolve to live well so as to be remembered well.

And what about you?  What are your goals and priorities?  What would you say your life would have to look like to be considered a successful life, or a life well-lived?  And what can you do today to move toward that goal?  How will you use the resources that matter – your time, money, words, and talents as you actively remember that your life is limited? Hospice and palliative care experts who are emersed in the world of the dying say that it’s actually death that gives life meaning, and if that’s true, what do you want the meaning of your one life to be? Don’t wait.

Memento Mori, friends. Remember.

Well, thanks so much for listening today.  If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com.  Thanks for sharing, rating, reviewing, and subscribing to this podcast, as it helps more people to find us and for our community to grow.  Before we close today, let us pray.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Oh God, by remembering our deaths, help us to know how to live. As it says in the psalms, teach us to number our days, and by doing that, help us to be grateful, to know You and ourselves, and to serve others with whatever time we are given. Thank you for each day and every good thing in it.  And please bless us and our dear ones too in the name of Jesus, amen.

Well, thanks again for listening, and I’ll see you next time.

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