Sunday, October 14, 2012

Memento Mori

I wrote most of the following meditation yesterday (Saturday) but was unable to finish it as I had to rush off to work. Since I'm posting it on a Sunday I attempted to end it on a note of hope in the final resurrection. :)

In the Byzantine and Maronite traditions, Saturday is considered the memorial of the faithful departed. It is on Saturdays in particular that we remember "those who have gone before us marked with the sign of Faith." It is on Saturdays, too, that we remember our own mortality, the shortness of our own lives, and that we too shall soon join those who have already departed this life. The reading from Safro - Maronite "morning prayer" - this morning was taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:1 - 11. In this reading St. Paul reminds us, "You know very well that the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Just when people are saying 'Peace and security,' ruin will fall on them with the suddenness of pains overtaking a woman in labor, and there will be no escape." The Byzantine funeral service reminds us:

Our life indeed is but a fragile flower, a vapor, a drop of dew in the morning. Let us approach and contemplate the grave: where now is the graceful form? Where is youth? Where are the bright eyes? Where is the moving beauty of the face? All has withered as the grass of the field and has vanished. Come, brethren, let us fall on our knees in humble prayer before Christ... Vain and perishing indeed are the pleasures and honors of this life. We shall all die because we are destined to decay: kings and princes, rich and poor and all human beings. Those who had been among the powerful of this world now are stretched lifeless in the graves. Let us pray to the Lord our God that He may give rest to their souls.

Most folks don't like to be reminded of the fact that, sooner or later, they will die. But the mystical traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity are universal in their focus on the importance of the remembrance of death. At one time in the Western monastic tradition monks used to proclaim "memento mori" (remember your death) as they would walk past one another. While I was studying in a defunct monastery in Austria there was still a painting in the courtyard of skeletons with the saying "We were once like you, you shall soon be like us" painted on the wall of the courtyard. Saints such as Alphonsus Liguori wrote quite explicit meditations on death. I remember reading the first bit of his book Preparation for Death many years ago. In it the first couple of chapters/meditations are devoted totally to describing a rotting corpse. Not the most pleasant imagery, but it really drove home the fact that one day we will all die, and this body that we worry so much about will decay. Have we prepared ourselves sufficiently for what will come after death?

Even the great Byzantine mystics tell us over and over again that we must remember our death. This is not in order to have a morbid fixation on death, but to reveal to us the futility of our sinful ways in order that we might fix our hope on Christ. Continuing the reading from Safro this (Saturday) morning, St. Paul reminds us, "You are not in the dark, brothers, that the day should catch you off guard, like a thief. No, all of you are children of light and of day... We who live by day must be alert, putting on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet. God has not destined us for wrath but for acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us, that all of us, whether awake or asleep, together might live in him."

This is the whole purpose of our spiritual and moral lives; to be ready. We live lives filled with love of God and love of neighbor because, frankly, in the life to come God and neighbor is all that we will have (and incidentally all that we will need). God will be all in all. Heaven is not just going to be "God and me, and to hell with thee" as my spiritual father used to say. "One Christian is no Christian." This holds just as true for the life to come as it does for this life. Heaven will be "God, me, and thee" so to speak. But we have to prepare ourselves in this life.

The Maronite prayers of Hoosoyo in both Ramsho (Vespers) and Safro (Matins) paint a very vivid picture for us of what the final judgment will be like.

On the awesome day of judgment, the foundations of the universe will be shaken; the sun will be darkened and the moon hide itself when you, O just Judge, will be seated at the tribunal of judgment. You will call all people to stand before you, and will open the register which lists all their deeds. With your piercing look, you examine consciences and heart and nothing will be hidden from you; works will appear in the light of your justice, in all their truth... (Safro)

Christ our God, on the last day you will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, each person will stand before your throne to hear judgment from your mouth and receive retribution from your hand. Then the light of truth will shine on the secrets, consciences will be revealed, and men and women will be divided to your left and right. The just will be in glory and joy and raise up songs of praise and glory. The evil ones will be in confusion and, full of sadness; they will burst into tears and sobbing with no one able to help them.

To me such imagery is both powerful and horrifying. Knowing that everyone who has ever been shall know every one of my thoughts and actions - miserable sinner that I am - makes me want to run and hide. But there will be no hiding from God's judgment on that day.

The Byzantine liturgical texts paint a somewhat more hopeful picture while being just as realistic:

O God of all spirits and of all flesh, who have destroyed death, overcome the devil, and given life to the world: grant, O Lord, to the soul of your servant N, who has departed this life, that it may rest in a place of light, in a place of happiness, in a place of peace, where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing. And since You are a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind, forgive him every sin he has committed by thought, or word, or deed, for there is not a man who lives and does not sin: You alone are without sin, your righteousness is everlasting, and your word is true. You are the Resurrection and the Life, and the repose of your departed servant N, O Christ our God, and we send up glory to you... etc.

Here the Byzantine tradition focuses on the fact that as sinners we are in constant need of God's mercy. How wonderful for us that our God is "a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind." I believe it was St. Symeon the New Theologian who spoke about how we ought not to put so much emphasis on God's justice, because each of us justly deserves eternal damnation for even the slightest sin. Rather, he says, we ought to speak of God's mercy, because it was out of mercy that God sent His Son to die for us that we might have eternal life. Obviously this is not an endorsement for "loose living," but rather encouragement that every time we fall, so often as we get up and repent, our heavenly Father is waiting there for us with open arms.

Hoosoyo from Safro/Matins in the Maronite tradition concludes the prayer in the following manner:

On this day, treat with mercy your believing servants who partook of your body and your blood as their final food and now rest in the hope of resurrection. Forgive them the sins they have committed on this earth; save them from eternal loss and temporary suffering; open to them the gates of your heavenly dwelling through the intercession of Mary your Mother, queen of the universe, and through the prayers of your pure apostles and saints; then we will praise and glorify you, for ever.

Here there are a number of exclamations of hope for us. First, we who have partaken of Christ's Body and Blood as our spiritual food, so long as we have done so worthily, have also a special hope to receive His mercy. We also rest in the hope of resurrection. If the liturgical week is a miniature of the liturgical year, and Sunday is the day of Resurrection, Saturday is the day that we not only are reminded of Jesus time in the tomb as well as ours, but also the day that we look forward to the resurrection to come. We lie in the tomb in the hope of one day being raised from there unto new life! Death no longer has the final word over us, nor does our sinful nature have the final word. As we sing on Easter Sunday in the Byzantine tradition, "Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tomb!"

So in remembering our death, in order to avoid any morbid fixation and/or despair, it is also vitally important that we remember in hope the promise of resurrection. This promise has already begun in Christ Jesus, who was raised from the dead. "Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled upon death, and has given life to those who were in the tombs!"

May heaven consume us.

1 comment:

  1. I’m a geropsychologist working in nursing homes. When I first started this work I was surprised at the way people who are around 95 years old or more look at death. They universally (seriously, each and every one of them) feel cheated that they have not died yet. They often times are actually irritated about it and wonder what God is waiting for. They are not depressed or in despair, they are simply restless to “get on with it” (and I haven’t met one yet who doesn’t have a strong faith and a belief in an afterlife). This week, I was called in to talk to a woman who was crying because the woman in the next room died — people assumed she was grieving the loss, but in fact, she was sad because she wondered why this other woman was able to die and she wasn’t. She wanted her “turn.” This attitude seems so strange to us, but I have to think that this is a wisdom God gives to people who reach a certain stage in life — a conviction that they belong to God and that he continues to have a plan for them. They are past the stage of guilt over things they have done in their life. They don’t worry about where they are going after death. They feel sheltered in God’s arms with the certainty of a baby in the arms of its parent. I’m not exactly sure what I am supposed to learn from this, but it is such a contrast to how most of us feel about death that I’ll throw it out here and see what ideas the theologians among us might have.