I’m staring out my 6th floor Queens apartment window facing Manhattan, trying to wrap my mind around the debilitating reality that just two miles from my home, the current national epicenter of the Coronavirus epidemic is inconspicuously situated. Inconspicuous, because there’s no smoke filling the sky as it did in Manhattan on 9/11. Yet, the presence of death and our ever-present mortality is filling the skyline of our collective lives.
I pastor a church called New Life Fellowship in Elmhurst, Queens. As I write this, Elmhurst hospital—the hospital prominently featured in the news due to COVID-19—is at the center of the pandemic in the United States, less than one mile from our church. There is much anxiety to go around in Queens. In fact, around the world. Anxiety about toilet paper, our jobs, homeschooling our children, and of course, the ubiquitous anxiety of avoiding contact with people in close spaces.
The anxiety is very real, and Lent is a time to face it. But how do we face it? What practice is needed for this time? I would like to suggest a practice that some might deem to be extreme. However, it’s a practice rooted in Scripture and in the long tradition of monks who have given themselves to prayer. I’m speaking of the practice of remembering our death.
The notion of remembering our death is absurd to a world fixated on life. But the key to an immeasurable life is the act of embracing our inevitable death. For a people who identify themselves with the one who came to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28), Christians are notoriously resistant to any embrace of death. I’m one of them.The notion of remembering our death is absurd to a world fixated on life. But the key to an immeasurable life is the act of embracing our inevitable death. Click To Tweet
The ethic of success we are formed by could be called the ethic of “death avoidance.” In his book The Slavery of Death, Richard Beck writes that “persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness.” I understand completely.
In a given week, I think about death often. Not in a morbid sense, but in a way that reminds me of my finitude. Even so, my reflection on death is not for the sake of forging a new way of living, but to avoid the tragic realities that beset everyone. This is why a counter-intuitive practice is needed for our time.
The Prayer of Moses
In Psalm 90:12—a psalm attributed to Moses—he offers this spiritual formation practice in a nutshell. He writes, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” This is the Lenten practice succinctly articulated. Moses asks the Lord to instruct him in recognizing his finitude, for the purpose of wisdom.
This section in the psalms has been my preferred chapter during the Lenten season. I often live avoiding death like the plague. In so doing, there is wisdom that never penetrates my heart. A wisdom marked by mindful presence, embodied gratitude, and a shifting of priorities.
The irony of our day is that we are constantly reminded of death, whether through movies, media, or the universal moments of existential angst. Yet, even as we are inundated with images, statistics, and stories, we dissociate from the inevitable, often in the name of Jesus. We gravitate towards Scriptures that allay our fears from our mortality; we distract ourselves from any reflection on our finitude; we confess victory over death, but in a way that fear of death still persists in our souls.We gravitate towards Scriptures that allay our fears from our mortality; we distract ourselves from any reflection on our finitude; we confess victory over death, but in a way that fear of death still persists in our souls. Click To Tweet
Stanley Hauerwas has said, “If we are to be human, we are in the business of learning to die.” He would also say about Americans, that many believe “if they just get good enough at science and medical care, they can get out of life alive,” not really seeing that “what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to die early.”1
This is the way of Moses, and the way of Benedictine monks.
A Monastic Way
Benedictine monks have shaped my conception of God and faith for over fifteen years—first through Thomas Merton’s books, and subsequently through Trappist monks in Spencer, Massachusetts.
In his memoir The Pastor, Eugene Peterson tells of an encounter he had at a Benedictine monastery. Eugene and his wife, Jan, visited a monastery in New Mexico. He writes,
One of the brothers was leading us on a path from prayers in the chapel to the refectory where we would have lunch. The path led through the cemetery. We passed an open grave. Jan said, “Oh, did one of the brothers just die?” “No, that is for the next one.”
Peterson would then write, “Three times a day, on their way from praying together to eating together, the monks are reminded that one of them will be ‘the next one.'”
Some of you might be reading this and thinking, Rich, thanks for cheering me up. But again, the goal in this practice is not to perpetuate the sense of anxiety we feel. It’s to name the anxiety and the despair of death we embody, asking God to fill us with the kind of life that leads to the death of despair.
In chapter 4 of St. Benedict’s Rule of Life (a document created for monasteries), he says simply, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.”
We have unwittingly taken Benedict’s monastic exhortation and redirected it in troubling ways. Yes, we keep death before our eyes in the constant scrolling of “death stories” in our culture. But that’s not what he had in mind. Benedict had in mind a spiritual practice that recognizes that we are from dust, and to dust we shall return. In the act of this kind of remembering, we are positioned to enter into the abundance of life before us.
Practicing Remembering our Death
What does it mean for us to do this well? Let me offer three elements to consider:
Becoming conversant with death
I wrote this piece because I need to become more conversant with death. I often carry a kind of pagan superstition that to talk about death only accelerates it. But as many of my monastic friends can attest, to remember our death animates our lives. We need to write, speak, and reflect on death because in the embracing of reality, God meets us. While death is an enemy that will die one day, we are called to name its presence. Why? Because whatever we can’t name has a deep hold on us.To remember our death animates our lives. Click To Tweet
Imagining a life impacted by death
For many in our world, this is not something we can imagine, because it has been our reality. As a pastor, I routinely meet with people who have lost loved ones. I’ve lost them as well. But as we take the time to imagine life without those near and dear to us, we create space for loving presence. When I take a moment in the morning or before bed to imagine life without loved ones, something is stirred in my soul. I find myself more emotionally available, grateful, generous, and forgiving.
Remembering the limits of death
Christians have hope that death has been conquered in Christ, and will be fully vanquished when he makes all things new. Our lives need not be subjected to death’s power, because another power has already laid claim to our world. To proclaim that Christ is victorious over death is to remember that no matter what pandemic, war, or evil we encounter, the love of God will have the last word.