This week, the Presbyterian theologian Carl Trueman reflected on what Christians ought to learn about ourselves and about the world from the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing, he says, seems obvious: “The levels of general panic indicate that few of us have been properly prepared for the reality of our own mortality.”
Many Christians have reflected on the significance of the fact that this pandemic has befallen us in the middle of the season of Lent. Lent is a season in which we renew our commitment to a life of repentance. Repentance or metanoia in scripture means “turning around” or, more literally, changing your mind about what you’ve committed your life to. My favorite way it’s been translated recently is “rethinking reality from the ground up.”
Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday with our collective remembrance of the fact that we are going to die, and it culminates in Holy Week, the church’s meditation upon and reliving of the crucifixion and death of Christ, our culpability in it, our judgment through it. The judgment of God stands over all human societies and over all of the ‘deathworks,’ as the social theorist Philip Reiff called them, that humanity has produced in its rebellion against God.
Through his resurrection, Christ breaks the power of sin and the fear of death in our lives, but we are not allowed to pass too quickly to this victory before we have mourned the “happy fault, which has gained for us/so great and glorious a Redeemer,” as the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil says. Meditation upon death, then, is at the heart of the practice of a holy Lent. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, and remember that death is the judgment of God that falls upon a sinful world.
This practice of meditating upon our deaths and upon the significance of death is actually the very best way for us to begin to change our minds or rethink reality. That is because there is a close connection between remembering our mortality and shortness of life and living wisely. This goes against the grain of modern societies, as the pandemic is revealing. Most of the time, we keep death as much in our peripheral vision as we can. We try to ignore it or to keep it in the background.
Modern societies are set up so that we have as little to do with death as possible. The medicalization of death is a big part of this. We don’t live with our elderly in America. A couple of years ago, I got an invite to attend the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah by one of the Bruderhof communities outside of Pittsburgh. The thing that was most striking to me about this community is that their elderly and infirm live with them instead of in nursing homes. This is not how I grew up, nor is it how my children are growing up, for better or worse. But this experience set me wondering about the difference that experiencing aging, infirmity, and death made for the children of those communities. There is an awareness of death that seems to me to be connected to the embrace of limits and the importance of living wisely.
We seek to reduce risk in our lives in such a way that we don’t have to think about death’s finality or the threat that it poses to all that we value. But what the COVID pandemic is doing is showing us that there is no safe harbor. Death comes to all, and we are all vulnerable to it. In the Renaissance painter Masaccio’s fresco in the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence that is entitled The Holy Trinity, there is a sarcophagus depicted with a visible cadaver. Over the skeletal form is inscribed, in Italian, “I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.” Death remains a brute fact whether we want it to be or not, and if we ignore our fate, we will, as Trueman says, be “mugged by reality.”
Our deaths can make us despair if we do not have hope for more than this life, but for those who hope in the resurrection, meditation upon death serves a different function. It forces us to reckon with the most important questions in life with urgency and passion. Even in the best-case scenario, we get one century in which to live. But more likely we will have less than that. It’s not a long time. Living with this fact forces us to move from a fixation on what David Brooks has called the “resume virtues” to focusing instead on the “eulogy virtues.”
What I mean by this is that death forces us to think about what kind of person I want to be and how I want to be remembered as a disciple of Christ rather than on how to have more pleasurable experiences, more stuff, or more accomplishments. Death makes me ask the question: what is my life for? What should I be doing with my time?
Real talk: I do often indulge the temptation to be a curmudgeon about modern society in a “kids these days!” kind of way. But I’ve studied history enough to know that the avoidance of death is just human nature. Even in the ancient world, philosophers constantly exhorted themselves and their disciples to remember their deaths. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus told his disciples, “let others study cases at law, let others practice recitations and syllogisms. You learn to die.” Socrates said that the whole point of pursuing philosophy was to learn how to face death easily. Marcus Aurelius, in his private journal, engaged in the spiritual exercise of memento mori, the remembrance of death, repeating to himself this aphorism: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you say and think.”
The early Christians, needless to say, saw reckoning with death as totally critical. In part, this was because early Christian teachers regularly “plundered the Egyptians” by borrowing from the best insights and spiritual exercises of the pagan world. But more centrally, the early church practiced meditation upon death because the Scriptures regularly recall us to the fact of our mortality. Psalm 90, for instance, prays that the Lord God would “teach us to number our days, that we gain a heart of wisdom.”
This practice is most well attested in the various form of monasticism that emerged in late antiquity from the fourth century on. One of the Abbots at the monastery at Mount Sinai in the 6th and 7th centuries, John Climacus, wrote an influential handbook on the spiritual life called The Divine Ladder, which is read by Orthodox monasteries every year during Lent. In the “sixth step” of that book is a long meditation on the practice of remembering death. Here’s what he says:
“As of all foods, bread is the most essential, so the thought of death is the most necessary of all works. The remembrance of death amongst those in the midst of society gives birth to distress and meditation, and even more, to despondency. But amongst those who are free from noise, it produces the putting aside of cares and constant prayer and guarding of the mind. But these same virtues both produce the remembrance of death, and are also produced by it.”
Climacus’s influence is dwarfed, however, by the influence of another programmatic document outlining the monastic life, the Rule of Saint Benedict. If we try to come up with the most influential document in western history outside of the Bible, there is a really good case to be made for the Rule of Saint Benedict.
One reason for the influence of this Rule is that it was written during a time when the western half of the Roman empire had disintegrated. It was a time of massive uncertainty, when the main thing needed was to create small communities where goodness, truth, and beauty could be cultivated, historical memory could be maintained, and stable communities could be cultivated. It’s also because it is a gentle rule, in which nothing “harsh or burdensome” is commanded, and so it was experienced as a way of life that led to flourishing.
To the end of creating stable communities of flourishing, the Rule begins with what Benedict calls “tools for good works.” The first two of those tools are: yearn for everlasting life with holy desire, and daily remind yourself that you are going to die. For Benedict, these two things were the foundations of a life wisely lived: have hope for the resurrection far more than for anything that you can obtain in this life. If you have that hope, it sets you free from the fear of death. Here he is simply echoing scripture: Hebrews 2 says that breaking the power of the fear of death is the reason why Christ became incarnate: “He too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
And secondly, and relatedly, remember that your life is short and who you are becoming matters a lot more in the kingdom of God than anything you can accomplish. To be aware of death so that we become wise, and unafraid of death because we believe in the resurrection—those are the twin aims of remembering our deaths.
So I wish everyone who reads this a holy Lent and Holy Week as we all stay at home. Let us remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Let us yearn for everlasting life with a holy desire, and day by day remember that we are going to die so that we may obtain hearts of wisdom.