“You don’t believe in God?”
I was sitting next to my classmate Ana as we always did in our orchestra class. We had bonded over the fact that neither of us had practiced enough for orchestra tryouts. Giggles regularly erupted from our row in the back of the violin section. We got along well—until the day I told her I was an atheist.
“You do realize that you are going to go to hell, right?”
Ana glared at me, waiting for me to respond. But I just stared at the blurred music notes in front of me until I could blink my tears away.
I thought, Why would anyone think that telling a person that she is going to go to hell is a good way to get her to believe in God?
The Eternal Weight of Now. Ana never talked to me again. But later in life, after I converted to Catholicism (and then entered the convent!), I would occasionally think back to that conversation. I can tell you that it’s not an effective way to evangelize someone. But although Ana expressed it badly, at least she was concerned about my soul and where I would spend eternity. As an atheist, I didn’t meet many Catholics who were willing to talk about the eternal consequences of my beliefs or who seemed particularly interested in the afterlife.
I too didn’t focus much on these themes after my conversion—even when I joined the convent. But that all changed a few years ago when I began the daily practice of meditating on my death.
Looking Death in the Face. Memento mori is Latin for “Remember your death.” It’s a phrase associated with the time-honored tradition of remembering that death is inevitable and unpredictable in order to prepare for what comes next. Meditation on death might sound morose and depressing, but it’s actually quite hopeful. It helps us to refocus on our highest priorities so that we can live with clarity and purpose. The practice is rooted both in Scripture and the tradition of the Church. For example, the Book of Sirach says, “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (7:36). In the sixth century, St. Benedict considered the practice so important that he included it in his Rule for monks: “Keep death daily before one’s eyes” (4.47).
Before I entered the Daughters of St. Paul, I learned that our order’s founder, Blessed James Alberione, kept a skull on his desk to remind him of his death. While I knew very little about this tradition at the time, I decided to follow Alberione’s example several years later. Each day I would look at the ceramic skull on my desk, and I would remember that my death could come at any time. Then I would bring the thoughts or feelings that I experienced to prayer.
At first, meditating on my death felt stressful and unpleasant. Like many people, I had avoided thinking about my death with every fiber of my being. But over time, Jesus led me through the process to him. As I thought of my death each day, the reality of my salvation became more tangible and profound. I understood in a more personal and immediate way than I ever had before that I had been saved from death by Jesus Christ, who opened the gates of heaven. Thinking of death was a doorway to focus more on heaven as the final goal of my life. Each day became an opportunity to live wholeheartedly for the loving God who awaited me in heaven.
A Life-Changing Practice. Now, almost two years later, I can honestly say that the simple, short, daily practice of remembering my death has changed my life. I’ve particularly found that making decisions has become easier in light of my impending death. For example, last year I felt God call me in prayer to write some books about memento mori. I resisted. I was in graduate school. I had full-time responsibilities in our sisters’ publishing house. And I was in a difficult place emotionally and spiritually. But as I meditated on death daily, I realized that I would regret not listening to God if I happened to die unexpectedly. I wrote the books!
Maybe you’re not wild about the idea of putting a skull on your desk or night table to remind you of your impending death. Thankfully, this is just one way to meditate on death. You also could incorporate memento mori into a daily examen—one of the spiritual practices recommended by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Each evening, the examen prompts you to ask the Holy Spirit to help you see your day in the light of God’s grace.
As you review your day, you could consider it in view of your life’s last moments. You might even envision your deathbed scene. Then thank God for everything in the day that prepared you for heaven, and ask him for the graces you need for the coming days. That’s one possibility—but there could be many other ways to make memento mori part of your daily prayer.
See More Clearly. The prayer itself doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does have the potential to change your life as it did for me. When you think of death daily and prepare for heaven, the real meaning of life gradually becomes clearer. This clarity can help you step back from your day-to-day busyness and focus on the one thing necessary—spending time with the Lord Jesus, listening to him (see Luke 10:42). I encourage you to try memento mori for a month or two. It just might help you to look forward to that glorious day when you will die and meet God face-to-face!
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things, published by the Daughters of St. Paul, available at www.amazon.com.