“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” — Psalm 90:12
In the Middle Ages, many Christians practiced a spirituality summed up by the Latin phrase, memento mori: remember that you die. Our forebears figured that cultivating an awareness of death was the best way to keep themselves bracingly honest about life and deeply engaged with the world.
The proximity of death taught them that nothing is secure or permanent. The democracy of death taught them that power and privilege mean nothing in the grave. The finality of death taught them that on this side of the grave they might as well risk everything.
Such realism, they believed, was essential for grounding an authentic love for God and neighbor. But it doesn’t come naturally to us, we have to work at it. It’s an everyday discipline.
So, for example, if a medieval nun kept a companionable human skull in the alcove where she prayed, she was not being morbid, and she was not depressed by her daily contemplation of its unmistakable message. It ushered her instead into a realm of radicality, clearing her mind of the world’s nonsense and her heart of egoistic clutter.
In its shadow it seemed foolish to aspire to the unnecessary; it became easier to refuse ephemeral delights and savor lasting ones, easier to gain the freedom of soul to respond to the urgent claims of her neighbor. By a practice of discernment and detachment in the light of our common end–a practice of distinguishing impulses from needs, needs from wants, and wants from entitlements–she prepared her heart to offer the least possible resistance to the Holy Spirit.
She believed that Jesus asked her to live in such a way that when death came it had very little left to take from her.
She would be surprised that we find that notion grim. What she would find grim, as another writer has noted, is a culture like ours that considers the accumulation and protection of wealth to be so serious as to merit the efforts of a lifetime.
What she would find depressing is the way that the material things we collect and store away like cadavers in a morgue captivate our hearts.
The big question is why we don’t.
Image: St Francis Contemplating A Skull, Francisco de Zuruburán, c. 1635
I love this so much and want to know more about this nun. I seem to recall that you’re a big Teresa of Avila fan. Is that the nun in question?
No nun in particular, sorry… just a relatively common monastic practice. Teresa doesn’t mention having one, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Although… I saw a photo from a Spanish film about Teresa that depicts her in prayer in the convent kitchen… (There’s a famous quote of hers that says, ‘The Lord also walks among pots and pans’). And what should be on the shelf right above her? You guessed it! If I an find it, I’ll email it to you.
Dear Mary–in retirement you reach me almost daily with your Sicut Locutus Est posts, whereas before that your person was bound into the constructs of church and classroom….seems a win-win.
Thanks, Gail–it’s a privilege and a pleasure.