Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Memento Mori

Yesterday I introduced a series that will run on Wednesday’s for the next while, on the wonderful examination of conscience the Pope offered the Roman Curia just before Christmas. You can read yesterday’s post for my full reasons for doing this; let me just reiterate here that we can best hear this talk as an examen for ourselves, rather than the common social media take on it, which was to see it as some kind of power struggle in the Vatican with us as spectators/cheerleaders for one side or the other.

The Pope, speaking of the Curia as a body, used the image of diseases afflicting a body, identifying fifteen such diseases. This ‘body’ image is important, as I think the sins he highlights are especially things that enter into social groupings, be it a workplace like the curia, a parish, a family, a book club even. When human beings get themselves organized for this or that purpose, these are the typical pitfalls. Here is the first disease:

The disease of thinking we are “immortal”, “immune” or downright “indispensable”, neglecting the need for regular check-ups. A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body. A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable!

It is the disease of the rich fool in the Gospel, who thought he would live forever (cf. Lk 12:13-21), but also of those who turn into lords and masters, and think of themselves as above others and not at their service. It is often an effect of the pathology of power, from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the image of God on the face of others, especially the weakest and those most in need. The antidote to this plague is the grace of realizing that we are sinners and able to say heartily: “We are unworthy servants. We have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10).

This puts me in mind of my dear old dad, long since died, who when we as children were kicking up too big of a fuss for his tastes, getting a bit too rambunctious, would look around the table with mock solemnity and say tempus fugit, memento mori! Time flies – remember death. He claimed it was the Lemieux family motto, but I’m afraid none of us ever quite believed him.

To live with an insensibility of death, a refusal to come to grips with the simple fact that within a hundred years (and for most of us, considerably less than that) we are all going to die, is not a virtue. It is not morbid to contemplate one’s own mortality; it is the very picture of radiant psychological and spiritual health to be able to do this peacefully. That’s why the monks used to sleep in their coffins and surround themselves with skulls and the like—life is short and eternity is forever.

When death is something we put far from our minds and hearts (because of fear, of course, and this is wholly understandable), we fall into all sorts of calamitously wrong attitudes. Mindless impenitence—the loss of awareness that with death comes judgment, and that we must give an account of our choices to the One who sees all. This is that refusal to be self-critical, to realize that our lives are at best partial and incomplete, that none of us have the fullness of wisdom and virtue, and that all of us are called to a deep humility of spirit in this world as the best possible preparation for the next one.

And out of that loss there is getting caught up in the pursuit and exercise of earthly power in various kinds—all the little games we play to climb the ladder, a ladder which leads precisely nowhere and makes us unhappy in the end. “You can’t be any poorer than dead,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, and the contemplation of death is a wonderful antidote for the rather ludicrous and pathetic pursuit of riches and ambition in this world. Death is the great relativizer, the great leveller that brings us starkly up against our own poverty, our own common share in the human condition of need and want.

And so, as we get older we do indeed turn into our parents, and this is not the first time I have had occasion to notice that I have essentially become my dad. So I say to you,tempus fugit – memento mori. Remember death, and may that remembrance make us all a bit gentler, a bit humbler, a bit more mindful of the call to love and serve today, for it may well be our last, and at any rate our days are numbered, and in the end of it all, love is all that matters.

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