Tuesday, December 11, 2012
When Mortality Suddenly Becomes Very Real
But all of these things have really brought me to truly contemplate our own mortality. One look at the shows on television these days tells us that it is the very last thing we think about. The so-called "Vancouver Housewives" truly live as if destined to live forever; house-hunting shows feature rich young couples bickering about views of the ocean not being good enough; the list goes on and on. And that's just one window into the values of the modern world.
St. Theodore of Sanaxar, an Orthodox saint, once wrote the following:
"There is a picture depicting a man sitting and contemplating: 'Time is passing by, flying as if on wings, and three sorrows have seized me. The first, that death lies before me. The second, that I don't know exactly when the hour of my death will come. The third, that after death, I don't know where I will find myself - amidst the number of those shown mercy or amidst the condemned.' Every man must keep this picture before his physical and noetic eyes."1
The problem is, society as it stands today seems to ignore death altogether with a kind of "live-in-the-now mentality" that really translates to "live-for-the-now" in many cases. Now I don't mean that we should all suddenly about face and sit there thinking about death every second of every day. But we must accept it as a reality. If we do, and if we, from time to time, consider that we too must succumb to this fate, then death will not catch us off-guard. The feeling of mortality will not be so frightening, because we will have already gotten used to it. When death passes our own house by, we can at least open the door with a kind of calm sobriety, we can greet death in the same way that the Desert Fathers greeted their persecutors - "Friend, wherefore art thou come?"2
How can I possibly say this? I am only 29, I have had no struggles with deadly illness. Well, years ago, I went through a time in my life where I truly thought that I had a few months to live, maximum. I was terrified at the thought that I possibly had a deadlier kind of cancer, and my own mortality had been brought home to me. Death had looked in through the window whilst passing by my house.
"Man knoweth not his own end: but as fishes are taken with the hook, and as birds are caught with the snare, so men are taken in the evil time, when it shall suddenly come upon them" (Eccl. 9:12). I thought my time had come - I was terrified, haunted by thoughts of rotting in the ground, haunted by the fact that I had no peace with God, crushed by the thought of no longer enjoying the simple act of being alive.
But these very thoughts caused me to greatly consider my life as it had been thus far, to contemplate what I would if I should live, to make my peace with God, at least insofar as I knew Him then. It was, as they say, a "wake-up call".
"Take heart! This fear is the beginning of all wisdom and a path to all happiness... Prepare well for a journey because truly you are like a bird sitting on a branch and like a man standing on the shore watching the boat quickly sailing off, in which he, too, shall one day be sitting, and sailing to a strange land from which he will never return. And so, put your whole life in such order that, when death comes, you are ready and depart joyfully."3
Such wonderful words, though I think that when we really sit down and ponder upon them, some might find them more than a little bit of a downer. But this is not what I think they intend, nor is it what the great saints meant when they often said to always keep death in the mind's view, in a sense - if you ever wondered why many saints are depicted with skulls, this is why.
But what I really think it means is to keep things in perspective, take nothing for granted. Leave no good undone that can be done, and make sure that your heart is always ready for the coming of the Lord. After all, we can take nothing with us but our deeds done.
Live now, and live for Christ. I think this is the message we need to ponder.
1 - Counsels of Elder Theodore to the Sisters of the Alexeyevsky Community, I:12
2 - Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History II:3
3 - Bl. Henry Suso, Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, 21