Monday, May 14, 2012

On the Remembrance of Death

We must remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Daily meditation on these realities have long been held up by the Desert Fathers as essential for the spiritual life and as a means of avoiding sin; but most of all as way of heeding the words of our Lord who warns us that we know neither the day nor the hour. Life is a gift, but we must not take it or our salvation lightly. Here is a reflection of one well formed in the wisdom and tradition of the Holy Fathers:

"We should never lack the contemplation of death or other such meditations. All these contemplations create watchfulness in the soul and purity and cleanse the mind so that it may feel the contemplation better. This contemplation is a barrier for evil thoughts. When this spiritual contemplation is within us, we shut out evil thoughts . . . We should never at any time stop remembering death. The Holy Fathers said that they were not overcome by negligence in their cells, because they had the remembrance of death night and day. Negligence found no room in them. The Fathers kept thinking, 'If today or tomorrow is my last day, what should I do?' In this way, this remembrance kept their mind on the fear of God, and the fear of God gave light to their conscience regarding how to compel themselves.What will come more certainly than death? It is the most certain thing that every person will encounter. We ought to keep the remembrance of death alive within us constantly, so that through this most saving remembrance, we may avoid the soul's death . . . Violently compel yourselves, says the Lord in the gospel, for you do not know when the Bridegroom of your soul will visit you, and woe to him whom He finds indolent and neglectful of his salvation. The truth of God sounds forth like a might trumpet and says, 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!' 'For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 'Remember your end and you shall not sin unto the ages.' 'Riches do not remain, glory does not accompany one to the other world, for when death comes, all these things are obliterated.' Behold the truth, which mightily crushes the lie!When we visit our final dwelling, our grave, we shall see with our own eyes all the vanity of man, as did Abba Sisoes when he saw the tomb of Alexander the Great and cried out, 'Alas, alas, O death! The entire world was not big enough for you, Alexander. How then have you fit into two meters of earth now?'My child, be careful with this world which is like a theater. For poor and ignoble people on stage in the theater wear the clothes of kings, tycoons, etc. and appear to be different from what they really are and fool the audience. But when the show is over and they take off their masks, then their true faces are revealed." (Elder Ephraim - Counsels from the Holy Mountain)

Likewise, St. John Climacus dedicates the sixth step of his “Ladder of Divine Ascent” to the subject and has powerful things to say about it: 

“Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods so the thought of death is the most essential of all works . . . .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.”

Like Ephraim he offers many compelling reasons for this spiritual practice as well as a story of Hesychius the Horebite for our edification:

“Every word is preceded by thought. And the remembrance of death and sins precedes weeping and mourning.
Not every desire for death is good. Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility. And some, who do not want to repent, invoke death out of despair. And some, out of self-esteem consider themselves dispassionate, and for a while have no fear of death. And some (if such can now be found), through the action of the Holy Spirit, ask for their departure.

Some inquire and wonder: “Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial to us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?” – not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation. For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death, would he approach baptism and repentance. From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.

And I cannot be silent about the story of Hesychius the Horebite. He passed his life in complete negligence, without paying the least attention to his soul. Then he became extremely ill, and for an hour he expired. And when he came to himself, he begged us all to leave him immediately. And he built up the door of his cell, and he stayed in it for twelve years without ever uttering a word to anyone, and without eating anything but bread and water. And, always remaining motionless, he was so rapt in spirit at what he had seen in his ecstasy, that he never changed this manner of life but was always as if out of his mind, and silently shed hot tears. But when he was about to die, we broke open the door and went in, and after many questions, this alone was all we heard from him: "Forgive me! No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin." We were amazed to see that one who had before been so negligent was so suddenly transfigured by this blessed change and transformation. We reverently buried him in the cemetery near the fort, and after some days we looked for his holy relics, but did not find them. So by Hesychius's true and praiseworthy repentance, the Lord showed us that He accepts those who desire to amend, even after long negligence.”

The Fathers warns us of the need to repent of our preoccupation with the world.  As the psalmist says: “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

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