Several years after joining the convent, I decided to take up the practice of regular meditation on death. As a reminder to meditate on my death, I acquired a small ceramic skull for my desk. I was inspired by Blessed James Alberione, the founder of my religious order, the Daughters of Saint Paul. He kept a skull on his desk as a memento mori to remind him of his death. Every day I would simply look at the skull on my desk and remember that death could come at any time. Then I would bring to prayer any thoughts or feelings that this practice would bring up. These simple, short, daily meditations gradually changed my outlook, actions, and attitude. It plunged my life into its greater eschatological context and gave me a renewed sense of direction, fervor, and love for God. With time, I gradually began to look at the skull on my desk and instead of seeing a grim symbol of death, I began to see heaven.
You may be wondering, “So, how exactly does one go about remembering death?” The answer is simple; this practice really is not complicated. What makes it intimidating is not what it involves but what it brings up, as well as the required regularity. Meditation on death is not helpful if done irregularly. There is a reason Saint Benedict urged his monks in his Rule to “keep death daily” before their eyes (4.47). It makes no sense to prepare every once in a while for death and the afterlife. The entire point of the practice is that death could come at any time. So, it’s necessary to remember this regularly.
But what does one do exactly when meditating on death? No formula for the perfect meditation on death exists. And how you do it from day to day will vary. But here is one way you could go about it. First, think something along the lines of, “I could die at any time. I could die today, I could die tomorrow. Am I ready?” Second, imagine yourself on your deathbed or dying suddenly. As you think about death’s inevitability and imagine it, allow your mind to penetrate the reality, not just to think about it in a detached way. Third, after you use your mind to think about this reality, it is also important to lift your heart in prayer. Whatever comes up during your short meditation on death, bring it to God for some time. Listen to what he has to say in response to any anxiety and fear that you might experience. During your time of prayer, you could imagine yourself beneath the Cross, looking up at Jesus. This helps to connect the reality of your personal death with the reality of salvation. For this reason, meditating on death is intrinsically connected for the Christian with meditation on all of what are traditionally called the “Last Things”—death, judgment, hell, and heaven.
Unfortunately, the practice of meditating on death and the afterlife has fallen out of favor in recent years. While it used to be common practice to meditate on the Last Things, it is much less common today. I understand why people avoid thinking about the Last Things. For me, the thought of meditating on death and hell especially was intimidating. For this reason, it is important to remember that, for the Christian, prayer is key when meditating on the Last Things. We do not just meditate on the dark abyss of death as the end. Jesus Christ died for our sins, saving us from death. In the Christian context, the light of Christ streams through the darkness of death and fills it with the hope of heaven.
To help people to integrate this practice into their lives, I have written and compiled a prayer book that can help you to begin this hope-filled changing practice: Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things. With the support of prayer, I hope you take up the practice of meditating on the Last Things. This time-tested tradition, encouraged by Scripture and the saints, has the potential to change your life like it did mine. Try it for a month or two! Discover how this regular practice can inspire and prepare you to meet God face to face in heaven.
By Sr Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP