Friday, November 7, 2014

Keep Death Daily Before Your Eyes: a November Reflection

In most places in the northern hemisphere, November refuses to allow us to entertain fantasies of summers past or springs yet to come.  The trees may still dress in multi-colored leaves, but the leaves are slowly, inexorably falling, and the branches are growing bare.  Or perhaps the autumn leaves left with October, and bare branches are all that remains.  The air is growing chilly.  In northern Colorado, the snows have begun to fall.  It’s no longer possible to kid ourselves: winter is not just around the corner, it’s beginning to unpack its bags in the guest room.

Not by chance, November is the month when the Catholic Church remembers our dead.  On November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints, we celebrate the story of those now safely ensconced in God’s glory.  On November 2, the Commemoration of All Souls, we turn our eyes toward those who have traveled through death’s door but are still being made ready for the final stage of their journey into everlasting light.  Glory, with its biblical overtones of the fiery Cloud, and everlasting light, with its promise to thumb its nose at the valley of the shadow of death, are welcome images as days grow shorter and colder.  The Benedictine liturgical calendar has its own days of remembrance:  we celebrate the memory of our own departed—including oblates!—on the Solemnity of All Benedictine Saints (November 13) and the Commemoration of All Benedictine Souls (November 14).  (A note:  you may know Benedictine monasteries which do not keep this custom, but the Abbey of St. Walburga obtained permission some years ago to revive it in our monastery.)

St. Benedict believes that death should never take a Benedictine entirely by surprise.  In Chapter 4 of the Rule, “The Tools of Good Works,”  he tells us “Day by day remind mind yourself that you are going to die” (RB 4:47). That verse has grown famous in an older translation:  “Keep death daily before your eyes.”  Pictures of Benedictine refectory tables with a skull before the abbot or abbess, and rumors of coffins in place of beds in Benedictine sleeping spaces have, unfortunately, offered a creepy distraction from what St. Benedict intended.  (You would find neither at the Abbey of St. Walburga if you were to come into the nuns’ enclosure. Sorry to disappoint you!)

Fact is, most of us have already had at least a glimmer of the mortality lurking in our bones.  Many have had much more than a glimmer.  St. Benedict’s point is not to grow a bed of morbid thoughts around the prospect of our death but rather to attend differently to our lives by stripping off the illusion that the fountain of youth is there in the medicine cupboard, the pantry, and the workout room,  if only we would choose to eat right, take supplements, and run, run, run.  Taking care of ourselves physically is certainly a Christian responsibility, but its purpose is to live fully, not to live endlessly.

In RB Chapter 4, only one of the tools of good works is to keep death before our eyes.  The other seventy-three provide directives on how to live richly and deeply against that backdrop.  Several years ago, whenever one of us said to Father Julian Stead, OSB, our summer chaplain, a monk of Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island, and a man already well along in years, “See you later, Father,”  Father Julian would reply, with a twinkle in his eye, “Let’s not be presumptuous.”  He knew, as St. Benedict knew, that later is now.  Those among us, including myself, who belong to the Procrastinators’ Guild, may like to recall the Guild motto, supplied by our patroness, Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day.”  Father Julian, along with St. Benedict, reminds us that tomorrow may very well be another day, but possibly not for us. 

As is often said, all we really have is the present moment.  The present does indeed gather into itself the wisdom garnered through past experience and the liveliness inspired by future hope, but it is, indubitably, NOW.  And how fortunate we are to recognize that our present moment has a name, and that name is Jesus Christ.  Once upon a time, a writer friend asked me to describe in writing  the experience of praying the daily Offices.  Like many writers, I tend to be at my most honest with pen or keyboard at hand, and I found myself writing a short, and very bad, poem about all the distracting  “thens” that crowded in from past and future to the point that sometimes the psalmists could no longer make themselves heard.  I threw the poem away, but I remember that the refrain, in which God was the speaker, went something like, “You are only now, but I am Always.”  Very consoling, isn’t it, to realize that the Always is indeed there in every now, as promised:  “I  will be with you always” (Matthew 28:18)?  The present moment is never obligation or burden or straitjacket.  The present moment is always the relationship with Christ that grounds our lives.

St. Benedict, heir to the monastic tradition of unceasing prayer, wasn’t asking us to be morbid when he told us to keep death daily before our eyes. And not just any death.  Ours.  Rather, he was asking us to be wise:  know your reality, cherish it, live it fruitfully right this minute, growing in your awareness that Christ is with you in this little here and now, making you ready, and through you making your world ready, for that day when “now” will open out into the “forever” we anticipate joyfully in the Solemnity of All the Saints, named and unnamed, and All Benedictine Saints, among whom we are already enrolled, rather like a child enrolled by its parents in the college of their choice as soon as the child is born.  St. Bernard tells us that those who have gone ahead, both those on the next stage of preparation and those already arrived, are beside us as our cheering section because they, too, want us to join them when the time comes.  

Keeping death daily before our eyes is a way of appreciating here, appreciating now, in all their layers and textures because we know that a glorious “then” they will become in Christ, our Always.

©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga