Why does the Church focus on death? In his monastic rule St. Benedict tells his monks to “keep death daily before your eyes.” St. Jerome is famously depicted in paintings with a skull on his desk as he composes his translation of the Bible. Some churches are even made of human bones. Traditionally, crypts for Dominican priories were built under the cloister walkway next to the refectory so that friars can stand over their deceased brothers as they pray for them before eating dinner. The Church dedicates the month of November to remembering and praying for all the souls in purgatory. The very center of our liturgical life, the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, commemorates Christ’s death.
Why such a strong focus on death? Praying for those in purgatory provides a concrete good for souls. However, the constant emphasis on death strikes many as a morbid interest.
Meditation on death provides us with a healthy dose of reality. It is very easy for us to believe that the fleeting moments of our lives are permanent. For example, in several of the most recent presidential elections it has become common practice to say, “This is the most important election of our lifetime.” We are presented with the idea that history was building up to the most current election. While our political elections are important and a serious war of ideas is taking place, this sentiment is naive. History will not find fulfillment in any of these candidates or their parties. In fact, no earthly gain will ever reach that end.
Death reminds us that this life does not provide complete satisfaction. We hunger and thirst for something better. In the words of St. Paul “For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:31) and “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” (2 Corinthians 5:2) We are wanderers seeking to love and to be loved for all eternity. Praise the Lord! God has made us for something infinitely better than this world. All these things of this world will come to pass.
Especially in this election year during a tumultuous time, the contemplation of death can help remove us from much of the pettiness, vanity, and downright meanness present in the news and social media. Looking toward death can open us up to reflecting on our own lives; to help us to discern whether or not we are living in the love of God or adding to the anxiety in the world. One of the best ways to live this out is by praying and fasting on behalf of those in the world whom we believe are the biggest problems. In this way we can better die to the vanities in our lives, live in the love of God, and look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Br. Matthew Heynen, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE