I want to begin this Lenten season with a confession: I broke the law two months ago. It wasn’t something insignificant like a parking ticket or going 30 miles per hour in a school zone. I purposely ignored a New York State law and I don’t regret my actions. In fact, I’d doubtlessly do it all over again.
You see, my dog Pepper was put to sleep a few weeks before Christmas. We adopted her from the dog pound up in Ulster County just a few months before moving to Valhalla 15 years ago. She was an abused, terrified animal who trembled whenever any man entered our house. Even years later, she would bark with an alarmed sound if someone showed up at our door. But Pepper loved us and was the most faithful canine I ever knew. So when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer and was exhausted from her courageous battle with the disease, Dawn and I decided it was time to end her pain. We called a veterinarian to the parsonage and she gently eased Pepper from life to death as we surrounded her with love and caresses and, of course, tears.
Afterwards, the vet asked if we wanted her to dispose of Pepper’s remains. But I wanted to take care of the dog who had given us so much love and devotion. I told the doctor that I would take care of it–without saying exactly what I was going to do. But she knew. “In my family”, she said, “we have always buried our pets in the yard.” And that is what I did–knowing full well it is against the law. I dug a deep hole in the back of the property, wrapped Pepper carefully in a quilted blanket, and placed her in the resting place. I covered her and piled rocks and made a cross out of bricks on top of her grave. And I felt as if I had done right by her.
None of us like to think about death. The passing of beloved cats and dogs and other animals can be as painful as the loss of siblings, parents, and other loved ones. But how often do we consider the fact that we, too, are mortal? That our end is inevitable? That someone will care for our remains after we have “shuffled off this mortal coil” to use Shakespearean language. It’s not a cheery thought, but it may be one of the most useful things we will ever do.
There is a phrase in Latin that echoes the words that priests used to say when administering ashes on the foreheads of parishioners to scare the hell out of them: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return”. The historical–and probably, legendary–roots of this phrase are said to be found in a ritual that was performed when a conquering hero entered the city of Rome. When a general won a great victory and was celebrated by the masses, it is said that there was a slave who followed the military hero, whose job it was to whisper to the great warrior: “Memento mori; memento mori”. Remember that you will die.
Why in the world would we want to be reminded of this?
Wouldn’t it be better to fill your life with pleasure and entertainment, with good food and noisy children, with sensuality and hedonism? But this Lenten season intrudes into our lives, whispering that undeniable truth: “Memento mori”. Get ready. Think about it. You are going to die.
Allow me to quickly give you a few good reasons why it’s a good thing. There are probably a lot of things going on in your life right now, things that we need to do or address. But we put them off, because we are scared; we are afraid to fail, scared to be alone with our own feelings, scared to reject certain people from our lives, scared to tell our partners who we really are, scared to take our dreams seriously. From fear we delay the lives we know we should (or could) be leading. We’d like to change jobs; we would like to change our lives; we’re not especially happy or satisfied doing what we’re doing. So what can shake us out of our lethargy? What can jolt us from unconscious living to complete wakefulness?
This is where memento mori comes in: we should think about our death not to make us despair of life, but to shake the core of our being into living every precious moment of our days–however long or short they will be–to pursuing the life we know that we are meant to lead. I want you to think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you; your most embarrassing moment of your life. Think of the time you failed miserably. Remember that occasion when you felt so humiliated in front of others. When you were ashamed of being seen by others. But you didn’t die, did you? Very rarely in human experience is there such a thing as a “fate worse than death”.
In times gone by, people would place a human skull or an hourglass on their desks to keep their thoughts focused. It was a physical memento mori–a reminder that our days are not unlimited. We have meaningful work that we want to accomplish, we have goals that we have not reached; life is more than just going to work and paying the bills and watching the television or surfing the internet until we fall into a fitful sleep.
I wonder if our fascination with zombies and the popularity of The Walking Dead are not a contemporary cultural manifestation of this ancient tradition. It’s not that we want to hasten death, but we realize that death needs to be taken seriously. On one hand, our culture fetishizes violence; kids play video games and people watch movies where death is gruesomely portrayed. But at the same time, when it comes time for terminally ill people to die, we take them from their homes and families and communities where they expire out of sight and sometimes, out of mind.
These next 46 days are an opportunity for every one of us. What dream in your life is unfulfilled? What change do you so desperately long to make in your life tonight? What words need saying, but you haven’t had the courage to utter them? What are you so afraid of? Memento mori. It’s the whispering truth of Ash Wednesday. Time is short, so make the best of it. You were made for a purpose. You are gifted by God like no one else. You can change your life.
Let this Lent be a skull, an hourglass, a memento mori. Fear is the primary obstacle keeping you from doing the important stuff in your life. As philosopher Alain de Botton says, “Deliberately scare yourself about the only thing you need to fear and thereby be liberated to get on with everything else that so badly needs doing.”
Jim Morrison of the Doors famously said, “No one gets out of here alive.” When the philosopher Martin Heidegger was asked how to live an authentic life, he replied, “Aim to spend more time in graveyards.” Remember that life is short, that all of our ends will be the same. To dust you will return. But before then, we have stuff to do.