Bulletin Column for February 9, 2020 – Memento Mori
A couple of weeks ago, the news story broke: Kobe Bryant, the basketball great, was dead at 41. Along with his 13-year-old daughter and several others, their helicopter crashed in the fog on their way to a basketball game.
People were stunned – in the prime of his life, this father and athletic legend would meet such an untimely demise?
But then, reports started to surface that Bryant and his daughter were seen at daily Mass that morning. Bryant was a devout Catholic, and it was not uncommon for him to attend Mass and receive Communion. Many people were edified at his example.
What a grace it would be to receive Holy Communion on the day of our death! May we always stay so close to the Lord that we may be found in His grace at our passing.
If you ever visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you will notice that many of the tombs of the Popes feature skulls, skeletons, and hourglasses – the symbol of Memento Mori (“Remember your death”). There is a rich tradition within the Church of being conscious that today may be our last day on earth. We must always be prepared, for our death may come at an hour we do not expect.
The saints knew this. St. Jerome often kept a skull on his desk as he wrote, to remember the shortness of this life and the length of eternity. The Carthusian religious community, founded by St. Bruno, would greet one another with, “Brother, remember your death.”
There is a sobering church in Rome, officially called the Church of the Immaculate Conception – but unofficially called the Bone Chapel. In 1631, the Franciscan pastor of the church had no place to bury the bones of thousands of friars who had been buried in a local monastery, now closing. He opted to incorporate them into the decorations in the crypt of the church. To visit the five small chapels in the crypt is a haunting experience, as you will see chandeliers made from skulls, rows of vertebrae and femurs decorating the walls, and several entire skeletons cloaked in the Franciscan habit. There are remains of about 4,000 Franciscan friars in the crypt, all of whose bones have become part of the decorations. It could be considered macabre, but there is a powerful sign in the middle of one of the chapels that should give us pause:
“What you are, we once were.
What we are, you will become.”
All of us walking around on the earth will become like them. For some of us, that moment will come soon. For others, it may be delayed by fifty or more years. But for all of us – rich and poor, famous and obscure, no matter our race or health or bank account, will someday be laid low by the rapacious grasp of death.
When I left St. Benedict’s, in appreciation, the fifth-grade CCD class gave me a book as a parting gift. It was St. Alphonsus Liguori’s “Preparation for Death”. (I wasn’t sure if they weren’t trying to give me some subtle hint about something!). It is a powerful reflection about death, and it has us imagine what it would be like to die having lived a virtuous life of faith, assisted by Jesus and Our Lady. It then has us contrast that image with a dying man who has foolishly refused God’s grace for his entire life. What death would be more envious? The first would be a beautiful passing, a seamless transition into a new and more abundant life. In the second, the man would do anything to wrestle and fight with death, to try to buy more life, to be dragged unwillingly into the darkest night – all because he knows that when death strikes, all of the pleasures and riches of this world will be utterly meaningless.
Christians should not fear death – for we are already dead. Priests wear black because it is a symbol that they are dead to the world – the pleasures of this world no longer draw them. Early Christians practice baptism by a three-fold total immersion in water, as a symbol that baptism is a death (going underwater, as into a tomb) and resurrection (rising up again out of the water, into the air). Those who are truly dead – who use this world without becoming bound to it, who love others while remaining healthily detached – do not fear death.
St. Francis of Assisi put it best in his “Canticle of the Sun”:
Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Remember your death, my friends.