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‘Memento mori’ during a time of panic

This is a photo illustration depicting memento mori, a reminder of one's death. The Lenten devotional was designed by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble to help others meditate on the moments of their lives and ultimately remember Christians hope in the Resurrection -- made possible through Christ's victory over sin and death. (CNS illustration/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)


When death threatens those we love, our lives come to a standstill. The pain of grief often is increased by the fact that just as we cease moving, the world continues to whirl around us. When death looms in everyday life, we might drive to the bank or the grocery store and hear people laughing uproariously at a joke and feel offended for a moment. But then we remember that death is not touching them. The COVID-19 virus has changed that reality. As it spreads across the world, death has, to some extent, entered everyone’s lives at the same time. We are experiencing a communal memento mori, a constant, ever-present reminder of death.

I see God’s providence now in that, three years before this crisis began, I put a small ceramic skull on my desk and began to meditate on my death in imitation of the founder of my religious order, Blessed James Alberione. At that time, I had been in the convent for seven years, and the malaise of mediocrity and cooled fervor had crept into my spiritual life. I would rail at Jesus in prayer, saying: “Please help me! Fill me with your fire and your fervor again.” He answered my prayers with the grace of the practice of meditation on death. Everything suddenly gained focus; I felt as if I had gone to the eye doctor and walked out with the right prescription. Meditation on death changed my life.

One of the benefits of memento mori, or the practice of meditation on death, is that it can provide an opportunity for God’s grace to ferret out and bring to our attention the ways we live and think as if we were unbelievers. As a former atheist, God helps me regularly to see the ways I still act like God doesn’t exist and like Jesus didn’t save me. Cradle Catholics and converts from others faiths and religions also are not immune to this kind of behavior. Many of us go about our daily lives in ways that reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of life and death from the Christian perspective. We can learn Church teaching on these topics to remedy this to some extent, but the practice of meditation on death helps us to really see how strands of poisonous thinking actually play out in our lives.

As Catholics respond to the COVID-19 crisis online, some poisonous threads of unbelief in people’s attitudes about life and death have surfaced. On one extreme, some are holing up at home and worrying only about themselves. Finally forced to face death, they are overwhelmed by the terror and fear that prevails. Of course, all of us are experiencing fear to some extent, but the selfish extremes of fear are easy for most of us to recognize as the nonideal Christian response to this reality. The other extreme is a little more difficult. Some people are brazenly declaring their lack of fear in the face of death and not exercising the extreme caution this situation warrants. At face value, this behavior can look like holiness. After all, the martyrs were courageous in the face of death. But we forget that they also took neither death nor life lightly.

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While our faith calls us to an acceptance of death, it also calls us to realize the startling fragility and value of our lives and the lives of others. Human life is valuable in any condition, at any point of development and at any age. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae, “The blood of Christ, while it reveals the grandeur of the Father’s love, shows how precious man is in God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life” (No. 25). Many of us profess to believe this, but another thing this pandemic has surfaced is a disregard for the lives of the elderly.

Unfortunately, quite a few people have voiced the idea that since the elderly are going to die soon anyway, there’s no reason to be overly concerned. Yet, nothing in our faith tells us that life loses value with time. All lives are worth preserving like a precious treasure until we are called by God to give them up. Meditation on death can help us to come to grips with some of the ways we don’t value life and are motivated by a fear of death. Memento mori helps us to have the necessary courage in the face of death, but it also leads us to caution and care for our own lives and the lives of others. In bringing our death to mind regularly in the context of prayer, we learn both that our lives are precious and that we can trust God with them.

Normally, meditation on death is a practice that Catholics have the freedom to take up at a time they feel ready. However, every day now presents us with a stark, glaring invitation to meditation on death. If we do not take up this invitation now, we leave the door open for this constant state of memento mori to lead us to temptation and despair. God always brings good out of evil, and he can use this pandemic for our holiness, even if it should lead to our own death. But we must also invite him into our lives so that we can prepare. We can do so by beginning regular meditation on death or more intensely applying ourselves to the practice. We need only open our hearts to God to present him with our fear of death. He can and will shed light on the darkness in our hearts and in our world and fill them with light.

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of several books on the practice of remembering death, including the Memento Mori Lenten Devotional, Journal, and the prayer book, “Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things.”

For those Catholics who have never meditated on their death in the context of prayer, and even for those who have, some of these questions can serve as prayer prompts:
  • How is God calling me to reach out to the wider community in this time of fear, illness and financial instability? What risks to my life is God calling me to make to serve his people?
  • How is God asking me to exercise extreme caution in order to prevent the spread of this virus to the vulnerable and weak? How can I value life and prepare for death?
  • How is God asking me to listen to the anxieties and fears of those around me and to express my own?
  • Take some time in prayer to reflect on the fragility and beauty of human life in general and of your life in particular. Then take time to reflect on the inevitability of your death. Imagine yourself beneath the cross and converse with Jesus about all that comes up.
  • Consider the question, “Am I ready to die?” Make an examination of conscience and go to confession if possible. If you can’t go now, make a resolution to go as soon as possible and express to God your remorse and contrition.

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