It’s one of those thoughts that occur to you when it’s three o’clock in the morning and it feels like you’re the only person in the world who’s awake and everything that is moderately upsetting during the day turns into something Really Scary. You know those nights.
And you know those thoughts, too: you think about death.
It’s been said that death has replaced sex as the taboo subject of our era. Certainly, it feels that way, even within our own community of faith: our Church’s mission is to bring life and love to the world, and talking about death seems inappropriate somehow, even grotesque. The irony, of course, is that what we’re trying to avoid thinking about—dying—is the one human event guaranteed to happen to every one of us.
Today’s first reading addresses death, and our fear of it, with directness: “Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and free those who through fear of death have been subject to slavery all their life.”
It’s an intense image: being subject to slavery out of fear of death. Yet death’s hold on us is exactly that—we’re enslaved to fear: the fear of pain, the fear of nothingness, the fear of the unknown. The thought that fifty or a hundred years from now, our name will be forgotten, our life will be unremembered. The knowledge that in the transition moments of death we will be alone, that whatever we’ve accomplished or accumulated during our lives will become meaningless. Those terrible three-o’clock-in-the-morning thoughts.
I’d pretty much call that enslaved, wouldn’t you? Yet it also tells us we’re ignoring the most important part of today’s reading: that Christ has already freed us from that slavery. If we persist in our fear, then the onus is on us—it’s a choice we’ve made. Jesus frees from the fear of death by destroying evil and assuring us we have eternal life beyond death.
So—how do we bridge the gap between our faith and our fear?
One first step might be to put life (and therefore death) in perspective. There’s a story about a young man traveling through the mountains in search of wisdom, and he visits the hut of a famous learned monk. He is disappointed by its austerity. “But where are your books?” he asks. The monk counters, “Where are yours?” The traveler shakes his head. “I don’t have them; I’m just passing through,” he says. “Ah,” responds the monk. “And so am I.”
We are all travelers. Travelers might enjoy the journey, but no matter what adventures happen along the way, the experience takes place with the certainty of eventually arriving at a destination. We can—and should!—enjoy our lives, but keep the perspective that there’s somewhere else we’re going.
The perspective alone isn’t enough: it’s time to start thinking about death, and not at three o’clock in the morning. The wisdom of keeping death always at the forefront of our thoughts has been pointed out by non-Christians: Buddhist Geshe Kelsang writes that “preparing for death is one of the kindest and wisest things we can do both for ourself (sic.) and others,” while the ancient practice of reflection on mortality goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” If those who do not have our certainty of eternal life can focus on death so positively, then how much more should we be able to!
The practice in the Roman empire of memento mori—”remember your death”—passed into Christianity and became especially prevalent in the middle ages, when plague and lack of sanitation kept death uppermost in people’s minds. Stories of banquets where skulls were used as mugs might be apocryphal, but the concept of memento mori inspired a whole genre of art and literature that was hugely popular throughout medieval Europe and practically exploded into the Victorian era. And it’s even coming back into usage today.
Christ died to deliver us from fear of death: making the journey from fear to hope is intrinsic to our call as Christians, and it’s a great deal easier if we stop giving death such an influential place in our psyches. It is; that is all. Thinking about it, planning our lives to include it, even following the custom of keeping an imitation skull as a constant reminder—all that strips death of its power and reminds us that, like the traveler, we are only passing through.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.