A School for the Lord’s Service: Keeping Death Daily Before Our Eyes
“Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God's gaze is upon you, wherever you may be. As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father.”
(Chapter IV, the Rule of Saint Benedict)
Recently, we bought a wonderful children’s book for our kids, The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor. You know, Flannery O’Connor, for kids! This book is delightful in that it does not seek to remove death from the eyes of children, but to say that it is strange, and wonderful, and sad, and joyous all at the same time. Because we live in a society without a living hope in the resurrection of the dead, when we think about death at all, we do so mostly with foreboding. Flannery O’Connor has helped me to see death in a new light. Benedict has helped as well. He counsels his monks that one of the tools of good works is to “keep death always before your eyes.”
This takes a variety of forms in the life of the monastery. Every night, the monk is to remember in prayer that in going to bed, he might not wake up. The community’s cemetery is not out in the country somewhere far away, but right in the monastery. Very often, monastic houses will simply pile up the bones of their dead, just as another reminder that they themselves will die.
The joy of this kind of life is that the monk does not come to see himself as the sum of his failures, but as the sum of God’s love for him. There is an opportunity before every Christian, to put death before our eyes, to live in a constant desire for holiness and renewed repentance. One of the vows of a Benedictine is conversion of life. The monk does not enter the monastery to stay the same, but to be deeply changed by the grace of Jesus. Many people suffer from spiritual congestion. If they were really honest, they would say not only haven't they grown in grace, but things have gotten worse. The Benedictine Way faces that problem dead on. The time for repentance is not later, when I have the time, or when I really want it. It is now, in this present moment.
A Jesuit writer, Jean Pierre De-Caussade, speaks of this as the sacrament of the present moment. If you are looking for grace, it is not to be found far in the future, or when certain things fall into place. Grace is for right now - it is daily bread. The key, according to De-Caussade, is to surrender in every moment to the will of God. We must “set no bounds” on the will of God. We must maintain this secret relationship of love in the interior life, where heart speaks to heart, deep cries out to deep, and we are altered by the living Word of God in every moment. The surprising thing is that a thriving interior life is the best preparation for death. It is really quite simple: we do the thing now that we will spend eternity doing, living a life of worship and abandonment to God. Thus, the thought of death becomes so normal that it invades every part of life to make us soberly await it.
I have shared with many of you my desire that one day, we would have a church yard suitable for the burial of the dead. My desire is that we would have a visible reminder of the communion of saints. It is also that many Christ Church parishioners would have the ability to walk past the place where their body will someday lie in death. Think of what that would mean for us, entering into the Eucharist! Think of how freeing that would be? How much stability it would work in us?
Brothers and sisters, let us keep death daily before our eyes, rejoicing in the grace and salvation of Jesus Christ!