Remembering our death helps us live more fully alive

“Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind, and daily prepares himself to die,” advises Thomas à Kempis. A new beatitude?

No, an old one. “Remember your last days, set enmity aside, and cease from sin,” admonishes Sirach 28:6. Lent itself is, in part, a meditation upon human mortality. We begin the season signed with ashes and reminded that we will return to dust. Reflection upon death might seem frightening, but it has always constituted a recommended part of Christian piety — because it leads us toward a daily existence that is blessed and fully alive.

A person who keeps death in mind is doubly blessed. On the one hand, recognizing our mortality reminds us who is really in charge and what is really important in life. This helps us to avoid the sins we commit out of an exaggerated sense of our own power or of the importance of our possessions or status.

Acknowledging that we depend upon a loving Father for everything draws us, out of love for Him, to make sacrifices that are themselves daily deaths. When we sacrifice our will — hushing a word of gossip that comes to our lips, giving up a food we like, staying away from a sinful activity — we die to ourselves. And, after the model of our Lord, we rise to a new life, His life, a freedom to live in union with Him.

Those who remember death are blessed because they quickly draw near to their Creator. But they are also blessed because they become aware of how lovingly He draws near to them. 

In 1865, St. John Henry Newman, who had just endured a near-death experience, composed the Dream of Gerontius, a poem describing the moments immediately preceding and following the death of a Christian named, simply, Gerontius, or “old man.” The poem is filled with consolation. Although the unnaturalness of death shines vividly, so too does the mercy with which God surrounds a departing soul. The priest repeats the liturgy’s words of commendation, “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul,” with a sonorous strength that draws upon the limitless wellsprings of God’s own strength. Gerontius’s Guardian Angel rejoices that he has died in grace and leads him with tenderness before God’s judgment seat. There, the Angel of the Passion, who ministered to Jesus before His own death, pleads by the merits of each of Christ’s sufferings for a speedy completion of the soul’s purgation.

“Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His faithful,” reads Psalm 116. God holds very dear the moment in which each individual soul makes the final surrender to Him. He surrounds that moment with His mercy. And He looks with equal mercy upon the small deaths that we die daily in loving sacrifice to Him. The more we acknowledge our dependence upon Him, the more we open ourselves to the graces He wishes to pour out upon us. “How I love those souls who have complete confidence in Me,” Christ said to St. Faustina. “I will do everything for them.”

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.