The Catholic Church has always embraced meditation on death, and November is the month most associated with that, writes Jason Osborne
The leaves continue to fall from the trees as nature uses the rest of autumn to prepare for winter, a fitting natural symbol of death, which is at the forefront of Catholic minds in the month of November. November is the month traditionally associated with the dead, both those in Heaven and those whose salvation is being worked out in purgatory. All Saints’ Day is followed by All Souls’ Day, and both are intended, at least in part, to orient our minds to things eternal.
The benefits to the souls in purgatory of our attention and prayers is obvious, and while the saints in Heaven don’t need our prayers, there is certainly value for us in their intercession. What then is the point in remembering our own death?
Memento mori means ‘remember your death’ or ‘remember you must die’, and this exhortation has a long history in Catholicism. Saints have long extolled the benefits of reflecting and meditating on death, and the Church has traditionally set aside this month to help us do just that, a practice as much ingrained in many cultures as it is in the Church at this stage. St Alphonsus Liguori famously encouraged the Faithful to “embrace death” to fulfil God’s will, and said that such a step would “assuredly” see us die saints.
To go even further, the Bible itself encourages such contemplation. Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days/ that we may get a heart of wisdom”. It is in this that the highest value of this meditation is to be found: reflection on death, on the limited span of our lives, informs us regarding how to live properly here and now. It helps us to receive the time we’ve been allotted as a gift, rather than as an endless resource to be plundered.
Cardinal Sarah’s frequent collaborator, French author and journalist Nicolas Diat, wrote a book on the centrality of memento mori to the monastic lifestyle. A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, saw Mr Diat travel to eight of Europe’s most remarkable monasteries, such as the Carthusian Grande Chartreuse in France, to interview the monks about their attitudes towards death and the end of life.
The overwhelming impression they gave was that of humility in the face of death, acknowledging that they are encountering a foe that cannot be fought, only submitted to, trusting in God’s mercy. As such, the tradition of memento mori continues to thrive and instruct at the beating heart of the Church today.
A key observation the monks make is that much of the western world today is terrified of death, and so it is pushed out of view, solely into the corridors of hospitals and hospices. Memento mori encourages the Faithful to face up to the fact that, sooner or later, each of us will die. Rather than being a macabre or morbid fascination, it is a helpful tool to help us to live better lives, closer to those God intended for us. How is this to be incorporated into a life in proper, Catholic spirit?
Visits to cemeteries
Married to a Polish woman as I am, I’m aware of the central tradition in Poland of visiting cemeteries frequently, and most especially on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, and throughout November. On the two big feasts marking death, thousands upon thousands of people flock to the cemeteries, and illuminate the gravesides with candles and lanterns, keeping vigil and praying for the souls of the dead.
Simple acts such as tending to the grave and praying at the graveside are good ways to continue to love the dead, whether they be family, friend or stranger”
My own family make frequent trips to the nearby cemetery to take care of the family grave and spend some time in reflection or prayer, and I’ve come to learn the significance of such an activity. Catholicism insists on the importance of the physical, and visiting cemeteries and continuing to care for the dead is a very effective way to memento mori in your own life.
Simple acts such as tending to the grave and praying at the graveside are good ways to continue to love the dead, whether they be family, friend or stranger. As is suggested by the tradition of memento mori, these concrete acts for the dead at cemeteries give us a greater respect and regard for life everywhere – which is essential at all times and in all places.
Considering our use of time
Memento mori brings to mind the scarcity of our time in this life, which seems to slip away like leaves off trees in autumn. Every moment, good and bad, is a brief flash in the span of our whole lives – although we also don’t know how long those lives could be. We could live another five, 10, 15, 20 to 50 years, depending on our age. It’s simply unknowable.
However, there is an extra dimension for Catholics – we know that what we do with our time is of eternal significance. These considerations should prompt us to re-evaluate how we spend our time. Do I spend too much time browsing social media or watching TV, and not enough with the precious people I’m surrounded by? Do I lie in bed until midday at the weekend, week after week? This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t relax or take some time off, just to say that memento mori very much compels us to reconsider how we spend our time, and whether it’s sufficiently good and meaningful.
Reignite your Faith
All times are perfect for taking back up the Faith and its practices if you’re flagging, but November is ideally suited to this. The whole point, as discussed, of memento mori is to remember the temporary nature of this life, that it might propel you on to remembrance of God and Heaven.
We all go through spiritually ‘dry’ spells and it can be difficult to focus on what’s deep and meaningful rather than on what’s cheap and easy sometimes”
When we examine our own lives, more often than not, we realise that there’s a lot of fluff that could be cut out – to our own benefit. Excessive (and that’s the key word) internet browsing, TV, or video games could be replaced with a Holy Hour, mental prayer, spiritual reading, a family rosary, reading the Bible or going to Mass. We all go through spiritually ‘dry’ spells and it can be difficult to focus on what’s deep and meaningful rather than on what’s cheap and easy sometimes.
However, if memento mori teaches us anything, it’s that in the end, we’ll be so happy we made the effort.