This brief step considers a rather simple but essential practice of the desert fathers; to remember not only that one will die, but what death brings - judgment. Such a thought spurs one on to repentance and conversion, prevents laziness, makes dishonor and indignity sweet, banishes worries and anxieties, and deters sin. This alone is enough to make John call it the "most essential of all works."
1-5 Remembrance of death is defined, including how one recognizes it in others.
To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one's departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour. Fear of death is a property of nature due to disobedience, but terror of death is a sign of unrepented sins. Christ is frightened of dying but not terrified, thereby clearly revealing the properties of His two natures.
Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death.
You can clearly single out those who hold the thought of death at the center of their being, for they freely withdraw from everything created and they renounce their own will.
The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a saint.
6-12 John discusses how remembrance of death leads a monk to conversion and repentance and the practice of specific ascetical disciplines.
Some, because they are puzzled, ask the following question: "If the remembrance of death is so good for us, why has God concealed from us the knowledge of when we will die?" In putting such a question, they fail to realize how marvelously God operates to save us. No one who knew in advance the hour of his death would accept baptism or join a monastery long before it, but instead would pass all his time in sin and would be baptized and do penance only on the day of his demise. Habit would make him a confirmed and quite incorrigible sinner.
The man who wants to be reminded constantly of death and of God's judgment and who at the same time gives in to material cares and distractions, is like someone trying at the same time to swim and to clap his hands.
If your remembrance of death is clear and specific, you will cut down on your eating; and if, in your humility, you reduce the amount you eat, your passions will be correspondingly reduced.
To have an insensitive heart is to be dulled in mind, and food in abundance dries up the well of tears. Thirst, however, and the keeping of vigils afflict the heart; and when the heart is stirred, then the tears may run. Now all this may sound disgusting to the gluttonous and unbelievable to the sluggish, but a man pursuing the active life will try this course and the experience will make him smile, whereas the one who is still casting about him will become even more depressed.
13-15 Through the use of illustrative stories, John shows how remembrance of death prevents spiritual laziness and deters sin.
This is what an Egyptian monk once said to me: "If it ever happened that I was inclined to offer some comfort to this carcass of mine, the remembrance of death that had been so firmly established in my heart would stand before me like a judge; and - a wonderful thing - even if I wanted to push it aside, I simply could not do so."
And I must certainly tell you about Hesychius the Horebite. All his life he was careless and he paid not the slightest attention to his soul. Then a very grievous illness came on him, so that he was for a whole hour absent from the body. After he had revived, he begged us all to go away at once, built up the door of his cell, and remained twelve years inside without ever speaking to anyone and taking only bread and water. He never stirred and was always intent on what it was he had seen in his ecstasy. He never moved and had the look of someone out of his mind. And, silently, he wept warm tears. But when he was on the point of death, we broke in and we asked him many questions. All he would say was this: "Please forgive me. No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin."
Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it a bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity. The saint mentioned above proved this. Men like him unceasingly pile fear on fear, and never stop until the very strength of their bones is worn out.
16-20 John warns against excessive trust in the leniency of God and exhorts his monks to embrace this holy practice.
The man who has died to all things remembers death, but whoever holds some ties with the world will not cease plotting against himself.
Do not deceive yourself, foolish worker, into thinking that one time can make up for another. The day is not long enough to allow you to repay in full its debt to the Lord.
Someone has said that you cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last.
This, then, is the sixth step. He who has climbed it will never sin. "Remember your last end, and your will never sin" (Ecclus. 7:36).