St Benedict tells us to remind ourselves that we are going to die. But more than that: he exhorts us to face this reality every day. For much of the world, this is something abhorrent, the greatest taboo. It would seem that such thoughts make us morbid, depressives, defeatists, ignorant of the rich world of opportunity.
But the opposite is the case. Benedict included this passage in his Rule for Monks because he knew that it helps us to live our lives fully. It puts us – and our way of life – into some kind of real context.
The reason why much of the world repels the thought of death is because it cannot face it. We cannot even say that someone has died; instead we say passed, or moved on. But when we strip away everything else, that is what we will do: we will die to our mortal bodies, to this life on earth. Those of us who have been with a loved one when they die will know some of the great pain of sensing that, at the moment of death, the essence of that person has ‘gone’, that person leaves us for a place we cannot access.
In a very real way, recognizing the reality of our finite nature shows up another reality: that of our daily life, our selfish side, our love of money and objects, our lack of pro-action towards those who are desperately seeking the kind of help that we can realistically offer. It shows up the fact that we are living in a bubble, of sorts, a bubble in which commerce is king; where we moan about the television adverts yet continue watching them, where we are disgusted at the angst on social media yet participate in it, where we feel trapped in the cycle of commerce yet make ourselves comfortable in that place, where we continue living the lives we do because that is the bubble we live in. It is self-fulfilling. So we avoid the issue of death, rather than bringing it out into the light. We pretend to be on another plain and, when death faces us, many are simply not prepared.
When we remind ourselves that we are going to die, we are grounding our way of life into the foundational truth common to all humanity: that our life is temporary. Through this grounding, Benedict is asking us into a new beginning involving all the core characteristics of being human. When we Christians recognize the concretely pilgrim nature of our existence, selflessness comes more naturally, compassion for our fellow creatures makes more sense, and time – that most elusive of friends – becomes more precious. We are less likely to live stagnant, immobile lives, to lean on commerce as our cathedral of life, to be fearful of getting old, to quantify success by the chattels we accrue. To quote a Scripture passage used by St Benedict in his Rule, ‘Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you.’
We are all submerged in the cycle of birth and death. First of all, we have a dialogue with nature, which becomes an annual reminder of all things changing, of the finite nature of indescribable beauty. We learn through this that nature is a cycle, that life continues after the winter months, that birth and death play out now and through all eternity as a most fundamental treasure of natural architecture.
It may not be convenient – it may hurt us – but we are part of this extraordinary dialogue. We view the cycle of nature not from without, but from deep within its core. But we so often separate ourselves from the truth of death because it seems too much for us to face. Part of the glory of a tree in blossom is it’s fragility: as stunning as her blooms are, we know that it doesn’t last long. We, too, are part of that cycle, because our lives on this earth will not be for ever.
Benedict’s exhortation to remember that we will die is an attempt to make those blooms as extraordinary, as life-changing, as community-based and as selfless as possible. Extraordinary, because that is what life is. Life-changing, because we are called to reinvent, to reappraise, to reconvert. Community-based because we are nothing in this world if not sharers. Selfless because real life teaches us that we impact on others and have a choice about how to impact; our decisions have a bearing on those around us. He is asking us to own our own truth, to ground it into the truth of God’s creation. He is asking us to trust God, who made humanity within the midst of all creation and sanctified it by the blood of His Son.
Rooted to the truth of our own fragility, we become enabled in the ways of love, because we know that love is the only action that lasts forever. When we look at our body at night in bed, and remind ourselves that it will not always be, and that one day our physical matter will be part of the earth, we can cling to the ways of love and make our lives eternal. We can be happy that we are part of that cycle, knowing that we are a real and active part of God’s eternal action of love. And being a part of it, we too are eternal, far beyond the bubbles we have made for ourselves, beyond the same-old daily life we live, beyond the outermost boundaries of our human understanding.
Recognizing our finite nature challenges us to accept ourselves as we are. It challenges us to believe or, at the very least, to embrace our not-knowing. How can we experience the death of a loved one and know exactly what happens to them? How can we face our own death with full acceptance and lack of fear? Nobody knows. Even Jesus wept at the death of his dear friend Lazarus. It is a thing of faith, of mystery. And the groundwork for faith is accepting that there is a level of understanding and life outside the boundaries of human experience.
How do we knock on the door of this mystery? How do we accept our unknowing in a prayerful, life-changing fruitful way? The answer lies in what might be termed ‘falling through the cracks of nature’. Every day we are faced with opportunities to see our own fragility and that of others, and to look at the beautiful works of nature as they wax and wane. Letting these things make an impression on us is what I mean by ‘falling through the cracks of nature’. We all interface with these clues to our own not-knowing and not-being-in-charge, but do not necessarily see them on the level that will make us into better people. Benedict’s statement is all about finding that new level within the world around us, starting with ourselves. When we come face-to-face with our own dead wood – our inabilities, our life-changing illnesses, our fears – we have the opportunity to fall through these experiences to a new level, a place where we can relate to the cycle of nature, accept that we are not ultimately in control, and yet make the decision to do the best we can with what we have been given.
So too with our dialogue with nature itself: with the animals we share the world with, the plants and trees of the garden that teach us so much about the arresting wonder and fragility of God’s creation. We can fall through those cracks and see there something of ourselves. These works of creation are not philosophers, neither do they understand the works of creation. No, their glory lies in their ability to do what they were created to be. And they do this work without halt or complaining, from one century to the next. Are we able to accept that we, too, do not fully understand?
So too when we have to deal with the darkness in other people’s lives: the bad attitudes, the anger, the dominant aggression of bullying, the passive aggression of ‘adult sulking’ and making people suffer in small ways. All of these things are brick walls that cut off God’s work of grace, but they also provide a window into the brokenness of the perpetrators, their own dead wood, their own sin, their own inability to live like Christ. Whilst these things are wrong and need concretely addressing, we can on some level fall through the cracks of these relationships and, rather than seeing an aggressor, see a broken person, someone who needs healing.
At the root of this action of falling through the cycle of nature, to see what God is perhaps asking us to see, is compassion. A gardener is used to accompanying beautiful specimens on the journey of life and death, but if that gardener didn’t care, if there was no compassion, no empathy, it would be a meaningless journey. It’s the same with people: we only grieve so bitterly because we loved so much. And we can say the same for ourselves (for Jesus said we should love ourselves): we fear death only because we wish to cling to life, it means something to us.
We are taught, then, to be compassionate, to use all that we see with our eyes and hear with our ears as a way into compassion. And compassion is a going-out-of-one’s-self thing, it involves relating on a profound way with another, whether that is a partner or a photo of a stranger.
In Christ’s world, there are no exceptions to the giving of compassion. None, whatsoever. Jesus regularly outraged people by giving compassion to those who ‘shouldn’t’ be given it. This is just one scriptural message to the hardened heart of mankind, a message that warns us against placing ourselves as judges over others. Simultaneously it asks us exactly what Benedict is trying to instil in the heart of his monks: it is telling us to realign with the important things in life, and to make love (i.e. compassion) the first commandment.
Love has found its way into the most terrifying aspect of our human existence, which is death. Love found its way in through Jesus. He has conquered not only His own human death, but all death, and ours personally, and we can now live in the sure hope of resurrection from the dead, trusting that love surpasses all things, even death itself.
Death is very close to us all. Ask any A and E doctor or nurse, and they will testify to the fragility of life. Nobody plans to go to the emergency room. We are as fragile as the flowers of the field. Benedict knew that we must use the truth of our fragile condition as a means into beginning a new kind of life. This sometimes means a daily decision to live a new life. And that life is one of love, because love is the only action we can make that will bring us into the fullness of eternal joy. The murmurs of our immortality are all around us, God has planted them as seeds around our temporary field; as we watch these things grow, accompanying the cycle of nature through the highs and lows of life on earth, we ask for the grace to see something there, a mirror of ourselves and of God’s plan. We ask for the grace to accept our human condition, to embrace our not fully knowing, and to see in all things – especially the things that we are sometimes frightened of seeing – the beginning of eternal life.