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Memento Mori: Remember that you must die
“Remember that you must die.”
I am someone who grew up being terrified of death. I went to Sunday school when I was little and learned about Jesus, but then never really got the chance to go back to church until I was a preteen. I went with my Aunt, who would take me randomly with her to hyper charismatic revivals where they shouted about the Rapture, and I would sit in the pew terrified about being left behind. Even after I really began to follow Jesus at the age of 17, I still continued to be afraid of death and what would come after…and honestly, I still struggle with the uncertainty of how things come to pass once our soul has left our body…what it’s like when we pass from this life into the next.
It is interesting that I have this fear of death considering the intense period of several years where I experienced suicidal ideation. I pined for death all the while dreading it. I would wake up and wish I would die that day, and yet, as I fell asleep, I would be terrified that I would indeed die. I had become stuck in a very strange cycle. The Lord was faithful through those dark days and helped me through.
And yet, the anxiety surrounding death still continued for me. I met death in a very personal way on May 31, 2016, when my father died suddenly. I was holding his hand when his soul left his body. I am an only child and my father was one of my absolute best friends and my hero on this earth in so many ways. If feeling the life drain from your hero doesn’t bring about some kind of response to death, I’m not sure what will.
And so, years have gone by and the passing of my dad has become a melancholy normal. There are more intense moments when a smell comes into the room, like freshly cut hay, and tears start to fill my eyes immediately because of remembering being on the tractor with him as a little girl, cutting hay in the field so that we could bail it for our cows. A song comes on, like Hooked on a Feeling, and I can hear him singing off-key in my mind and see him washing his truck under the summer sun. And in those moments, the anxiety of death can creep up on me.
“One day, you are going to die. And it could be any moment.” That hits me. I panic, thinking about my three kids I would leave behind. My husband. My mother. The people that I cherish. There is so much I haven’t done! A cascade of excuses of why I cannot die flood my head, and I get scared.
So, why in the world would the Lord whisper to my heart to read about this phrase I kept seeing that always had a skull image associated with it: memento mori.
I had woken up at 4 am one morning last month, and this is all I could think about. So while my 2 year old lay sleeping peacefully beside me, I was reading all about why it was important to think about my death. It felt strange, and yet, the more I read about this phrase, the more I felt the Lord impress how important this is for me to lean into. He wants me to look death in the eye and realize something: I have already died.
Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” The “Old man” has died (Rom 6:6). And it’s not just that we have died, but that we are also raised. Colossians 2:12 says, “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
The Catechism says this, also:
Death in Christ's Grace (1010-1011)
Because the believer has already "died with Christ," death now has a positive meaning. "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him" (2 Tim 2:11). Dying physically (while in Christ's grace) completes the believers baptismal incorporation. "It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth" (St. Ignatius of Antioch).
By death, God calls man to himself. Paul wrote, "My desire is to depart and be with Christ" (Phil 1:23). "There is living water in me that says within, ‘Come to the Father'" (St. Ignatius of Antioch). "In order to see God, I must die" (St. Teresa of Avila). "I am not dying, I am entering life" (St. Theresa of Lisieux).
So, there are so many reminders for us to reflect on that can really take the sting away from death if we are choosing to life our lives surrendered to our Lord. And in these times especially, we need to be able to stay focused on having faith, not fear. Everywhere we look, there is death. It has been this way since the fall, so that is absolutely nothing new. However, with the increase in technology and all of us being constantly bombarded with every bit of bad news that the entire globe has to offer…one can get overwhelmed very quickly, as well as very defeated. It’s hard to find joy when you can’t see anything but destruction and death around. It is a gift and a curse to be included in the loops of the world and all its sufferings because we know things we may pray for, but it can weigh so heavy on our mortal minds. That is why allowing the Lord to help us see death through a different lens is so important. It’s everywhere, all the time. It’s coming for every one of us, one way or another…and the Lord doesn’t want us to have to fear that, but to realize that if we are following Him the way we should, death is just the next step. It’s our door that we walk through in order to go into His house.
I’ve had a very personal experience with death in regards to my dad that I mentioned earlier in this post, and I’d like to unpack that a little, so stick with me as I go through this story.
My dad was 58 years old when he had a massive stroke that sent my husband, my 7 month pregnant self, and my 10 month old on a middle-of-the-night trip from North Carolina back to Tennessee, to the ICU. He was in the hospital for 3 days, but it felt like months somehow. I remember walking into the ICU room with my mom at 5 a.m., watching her walk toward the love of her life that she had been married to for over 30 years, in a state of uncertainty, sorrow, and confusion. We had to go in two at a time, and I remember the walk into the ICU feeling like a weird dream. People with tubes coming from them in every which way. Hearing others sobbing softly by their loved one’s bedside. Feeling that Death himself was walking around, checking in on everyone there. It was a very chilling moment. And then, I saw my daddy in his bed. He wasn’t awake. He wasn’t able to respond to me. I’m an only child who had always had a very close relationship with my dad, and so my entire world was being turned upside down. I just wanted him to open his eyes…to see me there, get up out of his bed, and walk away with me.
Over the next day, dad declined. I remember talking to his doctor over the hospital phone and saying, “You know that I am a believer in Jesus Christ, and that I believe that he can heal him at any moment. But aside from that, can you tell me, medically, where he stands?” And I heard the news that I dreaded. He said that medically, my dad would not recover. At best, he would end up in a nursing home because of how much care he would need and then likely die from an infection not long after. The stroke had killed the right side of his brain, and the MRI showed the damage was deep and irreparable. I replied to the doctor, “Thank you, that’s all I needed to know.” They had given my mom and I a choice to let them perform a surgery to relieve swelling on his brain or to let the natural course of things unfold. Knowing what the doctor said, I told my mom that I knew that my dad would not want to be held to this earth if he could not function and do the things he wanted to do- he rode motorcycles, he fixed everything, and he loved sitting on the front porch. Another thing made this the right choice was that my dad had actually already gave us the answer to this question. His father had a series of strokes that left him in a very poor state of life until he was called home, and my dad always was adamant that if we ever had a choice to let him die or to save him if he had a stroke that left him in a debilitating state…to let him go. She agreed with me, and we both told the Lord that it was up to Him.
It had always been up to Him, but those moments when you are really made aware that you are absolutely not in control really smack you in the face. So, our precious ICU nurse arranged for my dad to be moved to a private room, unhooked from all the wires and things, where the natural process of dying could take place. If you’ve never been around one who is passing away, it’s a hard sight to see. Seeing my strong dad weak and vulnerable like that was so hard. Death has a way of humbling us all.
It was Memorial Day of 2016. The doctor told us it wouldn’t be long. I knew my dad was nearing the end of his journey. We had people come by to visit that prayed for my dad and other immediate family were in and out, but when the moment came, it was only my husband, my son Cyrus, my mom, and one of my mom’s friends in the room with him. The friend said, “Look, he is starting to open his eyes!” My heart jumped out of my chest because he hadn’t had his eyes open this whole time. I knew that it was time. I fell on my knees beside his bed, holding his hand and looking at his sweet face. Death had come. My dad looked up skyward, and the peace that was on his face was indescribable. It looked as if he was looking at someone who made him happier than I’d ever seen. His sea-foam green eyes were glassy and bright. I never remembered my dad looking so peaceful and calm as I did in the moment that he took his last breath. When he exhaled, I knew that he was in the presence of the one that he owed his life to from the very beginning.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
That was the scripture that the Lord hit me with in that moment, and it rang in my thoughts over and over again. How strange a comfort it is to meditate on God being the only one with the authority to both grant life and take it away. Again, in these moments we realize…we are not the ones in control. We like to think we are, but truly, when God desires us, none on Earth can stop the process. It’s these moments we have to lean into that knowledge and realize that there’s beauty to be found there, somehow. We have to sift through the stages of grief to find these gems, because sometimes, they are buried way down in the pile of ashes we dig through. I’ve had moment after moment where I had returned to the ash pile, desperately trying to understand why the Lord took him, why couldn’t he have gotten better, and what if this happens to me? And the Lord reminds me to bring him those ashes instead of digging through them, trying to find an answer. That His Spirit is ready to do something:
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The cloak of praise instead of a disheartened spirit.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.
He’s reminding us that He is the answer. When we ask “Why?!” He is the answer. And again, as with suffering, there is a mystery there that must be wrestled with, but also be accepted. Death has to happen so that new growth can occur sometimes. In fact, when doing a controlled burn in a forest, this actually takes place. The initial fire makes everything charred and ugly, but the reason behind the fire is that it removes old vegetation to make room for new growth. So after the flames settle, the work begins. I realized through my dad’s passing that I have grown exponentially in ways that I likely never would have otherwise. I miss him, sometimes painfully in my heart, but I have come to this place where I know it was all according to God’s plan. I have accepted the mystery of it all. The days when I try to piece together ways we could have prevented his stroke: if he would have just gone to the doctor, if he would have just let my mom drive him to the hospital earlier that day when he was acting off, if he just, if he just, if he just….
And then I stop. I breathe. I remember that we are not in control. I remember his death. I remember my death. And I do not allow fear from the enemy to come into my heart and take over the only fear that should be there: the holy fear of the Lord. Fear death in the sense that we should always been ready to meet God. Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We should be terrified of meeting God in a state of mortal sin. So yes, while we should find comfort in meditating on our death, we should also have that holy fear of it. When we die, we will meet God. That is why Memento Mori is so important. When we choose to remember our death and remember that we will one day stand before our great and fair Judge, it makes us remember that we must live a holy life. And not just out of obligation and fear of hell, but because we want to stand before Him and know that we have made our Father proud. When we stand before Him, we want to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Then we would know that we pleased him and lived well for Him. That we helped to advance His Kingdom while down here. It helps keep our lives in the perspective that it’s not all about us: it’s about Him. He created us to live in community with Him, and as we do that, we will be drawn to lives that are holy and pleasing to Him. Then, when death comes to greet us, we can look it in the eye and say that we are happy he’s come because, though we can’t really know what it’s about to look like when we take the next step, we know that we are going Home.
Remember your death, so that you may live holy.