By Maria Sermersheim
Perhaps you will think me morbid, but I think a little reminder of death is always refreshing. It is not foreign to our Catholic tradition to have a healthy appreciation for “memento mori,” remembrance of death. Some saints used to keep a skull on their desks to keep mortality always before their eyes. So, when I attended a welcome party for a wedding and a couple of toasts introduced the theme of death, my companions and I heartily cheered, “Zu Tode!” (To death!). To those who live without Christian hope, it certainly sounds macabre and very unfit for a wedding celebration; but in the context of our Christian faith, those words are a simple and strong profession of hope and devotion.
The most beautiful of the toasts was short and sweet, given by a bridesmaid who was recently married herself. She told the couple that the best advice she could give as a newlywed was to “remember that you will die.” She did not elaborate too much; but in my own reflection, I could think of several reasons for that advice – one being shared by St. Teresa of Avila. The saint wrote that a nun who remembers that she might die at any moment is sure to subdue her will in everything to God; she would spend each hour as if it were her last, laboring for the Lord, and that is a sure way to sanctity. I suspect that the constant awareness that death may surprise us would similarly prompt a married couple to cherish and love each other more selflessly and generously, always aware that the person vowed to them is a temporary gift.
Hearing the clock ticking is not the only result of meditating on death. Death also warrants the same disposition of dependence on God that is essential for true, deeply sacrificial love. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) wrote in his book, “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life,” that in the confrontation with human mortality, “man is forced to face the fact that existence is not at his disposal, nor is his life his own property.” Just so with love, “the soul’s true nourishment … [which] is not something we can produce for ourselves.” Death and love place us in situations of utter dependence; places in which we can either grasp angrily (and futilely) for control, or we can rest in the peace that we will receive our daily bread from our Father in heaven. Even if it seems stale and tasteless in the moment, God knows better than we do what is necessary for the purification and magnification of our souls. Thus, “it is in the transforming acceptance of death, present time and again to us in this life, that we mature for the real, the eternal, life.” As we grow in trusting God, we grow in saintliness, and the bitter trials of love and death—if given to God with open hearts—will earn sweet rewards in the life to come.
Following the practice of many saints, let us think about death in order to love well. In friendship, at work, in family life, and in every situation, let us love more because each hour may be our last. When we lose those who are dear to us, or when our hopes must die and our hearts are broken, let us rely ever more on God, the only one who can satisfy every desire and restore us in communion. May every day and every death (whether literal or metaphorical) increase our love and bring us closer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was pierced for each of us.
Cheers to happy couples everywhere this wedding season! May you have many joyful years cultivating faith, hope and love, remembering that you will die.