In this installment of Treasures of the Faith, I would like to continue looking at our Latin maxims, focusing this time on the ancient phrase adopted for centuries by the Church, “Memento mori.”
Vividly I recall the day when a demon showed himself in possession of someone close to me. We were Religious and seminarians living in Rome at the time, and he stayed in the room right across the hall from me, only a few feet away. Just like in the horror films—only much more frightening—his eyes rolled back and the young man began yelling and growling blasphemies in a deep, cavernous voice.
People often ask why God would allow such a thing to occur. Though God doesn’t cause such (or any) evils, He does allow them for now (His permissive Will). We shouldn’t pretend to know all the reasons of the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, but one reason was strikingly clear to me on that day. Even though I had been in temporary Religious vows for years and had given my life to God, it was a powerful conversion experience for me. Feeling the dark, filthy abyss—like an evil black hole—so near to me, I fell on my knees to pray for my brother in Christ, for the triumph of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, and for my own soul. It was an intense wake up call: that this short life is a battle and it is for real! Job was not exaggerating: “Militia est vita hominis super terram.”(Job 7:1) [The life of man upon the earth is warfare.] I needed to kick it into gear!
And what was the demon saying as the priests prayed over him? It was blaspheming Our Lady and yelling, “Don’t touch me with those hands that touch Him!” In its arrogance and desperation, the infernal enemy—as though shooting itself in the foot, so to speak—was proclaiming loudly and clearly the Truth of the Catholic Faith, the Eucharist, and the power of the Catholic priesthood, unwillingly and ironically causing souls to turn to Christ and His Church.
Similarly, the dark experience of death (an effect of sin) is allowed by God and can have salutary effects for us who are mindful of its bite.
Memento mori is a Latin saying, meaning “You (singular), be mindful [that you will have] to die.” This concept has existed for centuries in the wisdom of pagan circles such as the Greek stoic philosophers, it echoes what is written in the Scriptures, and it has been effectively taken up by the Saints as a proven tool for staying on the road to God; for, His word is true:
In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 7:40
When I lived in Italy, I remember visiting the house where St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori had lived. Besides the fact that the Saint had suffered so humbly through being kicked out of the order that he had founded (the Redemptorists), one of the things that struck me the most was what he had painted on the wall of the cell (small room) where he lived: the bones of Alexander the Great being eaten by rats and worms! He wanted to be reminded morning, noon, and night that sic transit gloria mundi [thus passes the glory of the world]. Every sinful pleasure and worldly glory this world offered would not give true and lasting happiness, and looking for such happiness apart from God was only “chasing a bubble over deadly snares”(Proverbs 21:6b): Quickly it would pop, and he would fall to his sad ruin. In order to fight and to overcome every such temptation, he knew that he needed a stark reminder stuck in his face, as unpleasant as it may have been.
Similarly, we are told that it was common for monks in the middle ages to greet each other with the salutation, Memento mori: a salutary reminder of why they were there in that moment. Following the wisdom of Saints like Thomas Aquinas and ancients like Aristotle, the monks knew that it was most prudent to make each decision based on whether it took them toward the highest End for Whom they were made (God, True Happiness) rather than choose what would take them away from Him.
The same is true for us. The state of our souls at the moment of death—which could come at any moment—will ultimately decide our everlasting future as being fulfilled with Love, Life, Being, and Goodness Himself in eternal bliss, or separated from Him in total, unending darkness. As the Scripture quote from Ecclesiasticus above states, if we keep the end of our earthly life in mind, we will be much more likely to “decline from evil and do good.”(1 Peter 3:11) The world, the flesh, and the devil try to keep us focused on this life and its pleasures, never thinking of death; meanwhile, the Saints have the charity to put this stark reality in our faces for the good of our souls:
We should all realize that no matter where or how a man dies, if he is in the state of mortal sin and does not repent, when he could have done so and did not, the devil tears his soul from his body with such anguish and distress that only a person who has experienced it can appreciate it. All the talent and ability, all the learning and wisdom which he thought his own, are taken away from him, while his relatives and friends bear off his property and share it among themselves. […] And the worms feast on his body. So he loses both body and soul in this short life and goes to hell, where he will be tormented without end.St. Francis of Assisi, Letter to All the Faithful
Therefore, brethren, let us be often mindful that we will have to die, that we may better live each remaining day:
Do not put off till tomorrow the good you can do today. You may not have a tomorrow.St. John Bosco
Mementote mori, et oremus pro invicem.
Translation and Article by Stephen Snyder, 2021. All Rights Reserved
For more on St. Alphonsus, see this article and listen to the Christmas carol he wrote!
Image 1: “Saint Francis in Prayer” by Caravaggio, c. 1606.
Image 2: “Death Blowing Bubbles,” 18th century plaster art on the ceiling of Holy Grave Chapel in Michaelsberg Abbey, Bamberg, Germany. The bubbles symbolize the fragility of this life.