“Keep death before one’s eyes daily” – Rule of St. Benedict 4:47.
On a chilly November evening, there wasn’t much for a 7-year-old to do in a small three-room apartment five flights above Bronx streets. So I sat on the sofa, gazing at the torchiere lamp.
The lamp had an avocado green glass shade etched all over with tiny transparent stars. I loved to look at the light filtering brightly through the stars and imagine myself outdoors under a fantastically green star-studded sky.
But that night, as the usual astral fantasy played itself out in my head, something strange happened. The light began to dim. I watched as it eerily faded, then flickered, then went out altogether, the tiny stars disappearing into an apocalyptic darkness.
The historic Northeast blackout of 1965 had begun.
In New York, traffic lights went dark, elevators abruptly stopped, and subways carrying passengers stalled underground. The outage prevented my family from tuning in to the news, so all I knew was what I could see. My world disconcertingly transformed by darkness and shadow.
The blackout was caused by a single faulty setting in a transmission line. That one fault led to a crisis that ultimately affected 30 million people and 80,000 square miles.
There is a parallel here with the spiritual life. Small sins lead to big sins, and big sins can extinguish the light of grace in our souls, separating us from God and bringing about a terrible spiritual darkness.
Certainly, a daily examination of our thoughts, words, and deeds can help us identify and target burgeoning sins before they endanger our salvation. But meditating on our sins is so … uncomfortable. It’s easier, and far less unpleasant, to adopt a “hakuna matata” (“no worry”) attitude instead of contemplating the state of our souls.
It is only natural to want to avoid thinking about disagreeable things like our failures and misdeeds. And in our all-too-human squeamishness, the “disagreeable thing” called death is to be particularly avoided.
But the ancient Romans didn’t let such qualms keep them from coining the Latin phrase “Memento mori” (“Remember death”) as a sobering reminder to victorious generals.
While a general triumphantly postured before cheering crowds, a servant would repeat in his ear “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”) In this way, the general would keep before his eyes both the transience of his success and the certainty of his own mortality.
Among Catholics, the practice of “memento mori” reminds us that death may come at any time and that we should always be prepared for it. This means that we have to be resolute in rooting out sin, even venial sin. Today’s small fault can become tomorrow’s destructive force, plunging us into spiritual darkness.
Hate to lose an argument? Pride may lead to self-obsession and ultimately to contempt of God. Binge-watch much? Laziness can grow into despair and end up as spiritual indifference.
Newspaper accounts often mention that, on the night of the Northeast blackout, there was a full moon helping to illumine the streets for homebound pedestrians. Similarly, to follow the Catholic Church – which the Church Fathers say is “like the moon” in its reflection of Jesus Christ (CCC 748) – is to allow Christ’s light to overcome the darkness and guide us to our eternal home.
Memento mori! Remember that you will die! Reflect on death, because our hope is in life everlasting.
“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” – Psalm 90:12.
“The Catholic Storyteller” is a column by Celeste Behe, a parishioner of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, Hellertown. Find her online at www.CelesteBehe.com.