Vanity of Vanities

Why do the saints always meditate upon death and encourage others to do the same with such insistence and enthusiasm? It seems kind of morbid. In case you haven’t come across this peculiar resolve of the saints, here are a few examples: “Suppose yourself to be on your deathbed, in the last extremity, without the smallest hope of recovery” (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to Devout Life, Part I: 5th meditation, Of Death). “Many die suddenly and unexpectedly (…) In the morning, consider that you may not live till evening, and when evening comes, do not dare to promise yourself the dawn” (Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, Ch. 23).  “Behold that corpse lying on the bed, the head fallen on the chest, the hair disordered and bathed in the sweat of death, the eyes sunken, the cheeks hollow, the face of an ashy hue, the tongue and the lips the color of lead, the body cold and heavy” (St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Preparation for Death, Cons. 1). Traditionally, discalced Carmelites kept a human skull in their cells to remind them of death. The saints are so alive, so full of joy, so fruitful in their apostolate. Why this morbid practice of the meditation of death?

It’s obvious that saints don’t want us to become obsessed with death. The goal of their strange proposal is quite different and almost paradoxical: meditation on death can teach us to love life. Why? It’s like a wakeup call. The realization of the inevitability and unpredictability of death can help you to value your life and change your heart.

1. Death is inevitable. God has given you free-will, and with your free-will, you can make all sorts of choices. But you cannot choose to live forever. Death is inevitable. The inevitability of death should not lead you to depression. If it does, that’s quite worrisome, because it means that you have very little faith. Death means an encounter with the Lord, which should cause great joy. It also means personal judgment before him, which may cause fear and trembling, especially if you are unprepared. This experience of a deep desire to see the Lord face to face and dread of personal judgment is normal in the life of a Christian. The closer one is united to the Lord, the more ardent the desire to see Him, and the further one flees from the Lord, the more terrible the dread of encountering Him. Either way, meditation on death is helpful. The former will grow in the yearning to see God’s face and to love selflessly, while the latter will be vigorously spurred on to change his conduct.  

2. Death is unpredictable. It could be tonight. You could just not wake up. You could get in a car accident the next time you’re in a car. You could get struck by lightning. You could get a strange virus that leads to a sudden death. Only God knows when you will die and how. But, again, this should not lead you to anguish. It should lead you to change: now. Right now. Make the decision, once and for all, to love God and to love your neighbor. When you meditate on the unpredictability of death, seemingly insurmountable obstacles to being good (your fear of ridicule, the attachment you have to your plans, miserly calculations of the effort you’re willing to make) suddenly seem trivial. The motivation you couldn’t find before somehow comes naturally. 

Ask yourself seriously: When Christ’s gaze falls upon me and penetrates me unto my very bone-marrow, will He be pleased with what He sees in me? Will He be able to rejoice in me, for whom He has shed His blood? If you want to present yourself before Him worthily, in garments washed in the blood of the Lamb, in beautiful robes for the wedding feast, love Him with all your heart, all your strength, all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. A good confession is helpful too. Meditation on the inevitability and unpredictability of death and judgment should help you to do all of this. Don’t be afraid to meditate on death.