I have a skull on my desk. Procured from a fellow religious sister’s Halloween supplies, the small ceramic skull is my memento mori, a reminder of my inevitable death. When I acquired the skull, I had only a vague understanding of the history of meditating on death in my own religious order and in the Catholic Church. But I learned more as I began to tweet about my journey each day on social media. What I thought would be just a couple weeks of tweeting about meditating on death ended up lasting over 500 days.
Thousands of people have joined me on my memento mori journey. Many people have bought skulls for their desks and begun meditating on death. Some have even begun to affectionately call me “Sister Death.” But not everyone is comfortable with this type of spiritual practice. I have heard from Catholics who think it is just a strange new fad that borders on the demonic. I understand their concern. What I’m doing is a little strange, but it is not new and it is definitely not demonic.
Memento mori, Latin for “remember your death,” has long been associated with the practice of remembering the unpredictable end of life.
Memento mori, Latin for “remember your death,” has long been associated with the practice of remembering the unpredictable end of life. The spiritual practice of memento mori and the associated symbols and sayings were particularly popular in the medieval church. But the tradition of contemplating one’s mortality in order to live well is deeply rooted in salvation history. After the first sin, God reminded Adam and Eve of their fate: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19). God’s warning is the first of many such reminders in Scripture. The psalmist prays, for example, “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). In the New Testament, Jesus exhorts his disciples to pick up their crosses daily and to remember their death as they follow him to the Place of the Skull: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
The practice of remembering death may sound grim, but not so long ago, it was considered an essential part of the Christian tradition. Early Christian writers and countless saints refer to the importance of remembering death. In his Rule, St. Benedict exhorted his monks to “keep death daily” before their eyes (4.47). Following this advice from Scripture and tradition has strengthened my faith and transformed my perspective in a way that has influenced my everyday choices. For example, I regularly follow the advice of St. Ignatius Loyola to imagine myself on my deathbed before making a choice. Doing so has not filled me with fear but rather the opposite. I fear death less and make choices for heaven more.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus has conquered death and opened the gates of heaven through the cross. But do we really believe this? Can we really believe this without meditating on how the cross has completely altered the trajectory of our lives in a personal, concrete way?
Unfortunately, the spiritually fruitful practice of meditating on death has gone by the wayside in the past century. As early as 1954, Blessed James Alberione noted that people were losing interest in the practice of meditating on what are commonly called the Last Things, including death. Speaking to members of my religious order, the Daughters of St. Paul, he said: “Nowadays there is little human respect for meditating on the Last Things. They say it is no longer modern to meditate on them. It seems to me, however, that death is always modern. It is active every day!”
Lent is a perfect time to begin trying out the practice of meditating on death daily. It can sound intimidating and morose, but remembering death actually helps us to grow in hope and become closer to God. Encouraged by countless saints, memento mori is a path of penance that leads to dazzling light. Through meditation on death, we pick up our crosses and walk with Jesus to the Place of the Skull. But our journey does not end there. We follow Jesus to the cross so that we may experience more profoundly the light of the Resurrection in our lives.