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.
~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 6
I have written before on the remembrance of death, but having just read St. John Climacus’s treatment of the subject (which is short, profound, and highly recommended), and since it has been a while, surely I have room for another reflection on the same subject. After all, if it is truly “the most essential of all works,” then I can’t imagine a limit to what of value can be said about it.
Why meditate on one’s certain doom? Well, because it is certain; that’s why. It is nearly the only certainty in life. A life lived in ignorance of one’s impending death is irrational and unrealistic—a fantasy, in the pejorative sense of the word. However, if one does not let oneself forget this reality (a fault I too often fall into myself), then the benefit cannot be underestimated. St. John Climacus concludes his short chapter as follows: “This, then is the sixth step. He who has climbed it will never sin.” He bases this on the Scripture: “Remember your last end, and you will never sin” (Ecclesiasticus 7:36). Quite the promise, but what does it mean?
St. John emphasizes that the remembrance of death is a grace: “How else can you explain the fact that often we can be dry-eyed and hard at a cemetery, yet full of compunction when we are nowhere near such a place?” Thus, despite being “the most essential of all works,” he does not understand this in a dichotomy between works and grace but presumes that the former can actually, in some sense, be the latter.
Furthermore, I would add that for the Christian remembrance of death necessarily encourages us to fix our minds on Christ, who has risen victorious over death and offers the life of his resurrection to those who come to him through the sacramental life of the Church.
With all that as a preface, I offer the following reflections on the remembrance of death:
1. Worries cannot abide the remembrance of death. We cannot be tyrannized by the morrow knowing that we could die today.
2. On the other hand, we cannot live carelessly when we remember our deaths. If for all our life we must give an account before the dread judgment seat of Christ, we cannot be reckless. Freedom from worry does not require short-sightedness.
3. If we remember our deaths, we will treasure our lives. Every breath should be so sweet to the one who knows that any one may be the last.
4. Knowing that we may die at any moment (for we are mortal and not omniscient), we must also treasure those in our lives, every person we meet. Each word may be the last. Each meeting may be our last impression in this life.
5. Acknowledging the shortness of our lives, we must see the good in all our work, in every moment. Most work (unless it is evil), whether professional, domestic, or otherwise, has as its aim the service of others. It is good to work; it is something we were made for, and it is a way in which we ourselves create new things in imitation of God.
6. If we fix our minds upon our ends, what tolerance would we have for silly or, worse, vile thoughts and passions? Would we not dash them against the Rock of Christ? (cf. Psalm 136 [137 MT])
7. If we realized that our life is “a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14), would we waste our time and efforts seeking purely material gains? “The man who wants to be reminded constantly of death and of God’s judgment,” writes St. John Climacus, “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.”
8. If we remembered that “all flesh is grass,” and “all its loveliness is like the flower of the field,” and that “the grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it” (Isaiah 40:6-7), then would we fail to submit to every event of life as the will of God, who could otherwise have ended our lives as the wind sweeps away a flower that has withered?
9. Would we ever be lax in prayer, if we thought that each moment we could die? Could we fail to value it for what a wonder it is: the meeting of God with one’s soul?
10. Could we ever forget the cost of the cross or the victory of Christ’s resurrection, when we look to our deaths unceasingly?
11. Could we think lightly of the Eucharist, in which we receive the life of Christ, and in which consists the summit of human existence?
12. Would we not bear suffering in hope, knowing that death has been defeated by the passion and death of Jesus Christ?
13. Would we not “let [our] mind be ever upon the kingdom of heaven,” if we remembered the ephemeral nature of all earthly things?
14. Could we think of anything other than “whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report,” and all that is virtuous and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8) if we realized that these things alone last, that they are heavenly treasures that cannot be stolen or destroyed and that they are the cause of all true joy?
15. Would we not savor every moment of rest from life’s toil as a divine blessing, if we remembered that we could have died before enjoying it?
16. Would we not give thanks at all time for everyone and everything?
17. Counting ourselves to be nothing, shouldn’t we be uplifted to know that Christ Jesus valued us as a pearl of great price, even more than his own life?
18. With death on our minds, would we not submit our plans to eternal purposes and live each moment in light of the glory that is to be revealed?
19. By the thought of death, would we not be truly, finally free?
20. Would we not, then, meet death in the end as a familiar, faithful friend? Though the thought of judgment ought to inspire a righteous terror, all harmful fear must pass away. As St. John Climacus writes, “a perfect sense of death is free from fear.” He says this, I think, because “a perfect sense of death” frees us from all we would have to fear before Christ our Judge, viz. our sins. As, again, the Scripture bears witness, “Remember your last end, and you will never sin.” The remembrance of death, then, is the way of life.
Death, in the last assessment, is a dreadful mystery. It haunts us whether we acknowledge it or not. And it is both a cosmic tragedy and, for those in Christ, a new baptism, a purgatorial passage from the weight of sin to the liberty of unencumbered righteousness. “Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it a bottomless pit,” writes St. John Climacus, “so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity.” The thought of death, rightly understood and practiced, is an inexhaustible well of invaluable virtue.