26 February 2010

The Study of Death


Among the instrumenta bonorum operum, or ‘tools of good works’, listed in Chapter 4 of St Benedict’s Rule, we read, Mortem cotidie ante oculos suspectam habere. [1] The RB 1980 renders this as ‘Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die’, [2] while Justin McCann, OSB, is a bit more literal: ‘To keep death daily before one’s eyes.’ [3]

It is of course a common theme in ascetic literature. Today, I read in St Ephraim the Syrian, ‘Blessed is he who ceaselessly remembers the day of his departure and strives to be ready and fearless in that hour.’ [4] Just yesterday, in the Ladder, I reread Step 6, the chapter on ‘remembrance of death’. [5] There, St John Climacus writes:

4. As of all foods, bread is the most essential, so the thought of death is the most necessary of all works. The remembrance of death amongst those in the midst of society gives birth to distress and meditation, and even more, to despondency. But amongst those who are free from noise, it produces the putting aside of cares and constant prayer and guarding of the mind. But these same virtues both produce the remembrance of death, and are also produced by it. [6]

Although St John uses the phrase μνήμη θανάτου, ‘remembrance of death’, throughout this chapter, when he is alluding to the teachings of Plato at the end, he uses the philosopher’s phrase, μελέτη θανάτου, ‘study of’ or ‘meditation on death’:

It is impossible, someone says, impossible to spend the present day devoutly unless we regard it as the last of our whole life. And it is truly astonishing how even the Greeks [that is, the pagans] have said something of the sort, since they define philosophy as meditation on death [μελέτη θανάτου]. [7]

St John Damascene too uses the latter phrase in the third definition of philosophy in the ‘Philosophical Chapters’ of his Treasury of Knowledge:

Philosophy, again, is a study of death [μελέτη θανάτου], whether this be voluntary or natural. For life is of two kinds, there being the natural life by which we live and the voluntary one by which we cling lovingly to this present life. Death, also, is of two kinds: the one being natural, which is the separation of soul from body, whereas the other is the voluntary one by which we disdain this present life and aspire to that which is to come. [8]

Several years ago I chose the second of these phrases as the more poetic, when I wrote some lines in the midst of intense grief for the sudden death of good friend whom I was to have sponsored in Baptism:

The study of death has become a cool garden.
I visit it in the shade of dusk,
I sit there under the stars before sleep,
I rise before dawn and am drawn to that still place,
And in the repose of late morning and afternoon
I watch the sunlight on the flowers and pray.

I’m not at all sure that I was speaking then of the conscience of one’s own mortality that the Fathers teach, but certainly, the prolonged experience of grief afforded me a kind of objectivity. After a week or so, it was as though I was able cooly to reflect on what I was going through, and I found a peace there for which a garden seemed the fittest metaphor.

For more on the memento mori theme, including a translation of the inscription on the fresco above, see this very early post (originally written for the presumably less educated audience of my old MySpace blog), as well as this one on a poem by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), from Helen Gardner’s charming anthology of The Metaphysical Poets for the Penguins Classics. John Sanidopoulos has also blogged on the subject (here), including a lengthy passage or two from the Phaedo.

I close with the opening lines of the famous sequence formerly attributed to Notker of St Gall, with Cranmer’s translation from the Book of Common Prayer:

Media vita in morte sumus
Quem quærimus adjutorem nisi te, Domine?
Qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris.

In the midst of life we are in death;
of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased?


[1] St Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict in Latin & English, tr. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.), p. 28.

[2] St Benedict, RB 1980: The Rule of St Benedict in English, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB, et al. (Collegeville, MN: 1982), p. 28.

[3] St Benedict, McCann, p. 29.

[4] St Ephraim the Syrian, A Spiritual Psalter, or Reflections on God, ed. St Theophan the Recluse, tr. Antonina Janda (Libertyville, TN: SJOKP, 1997), p. 164.

[5] I have been rereading the Ladder for Lent in accordance with this useful schedule, posted here by Esteban Vázquez (who is apparently too attractive for his own good).

[6] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 66.

[7] St John, p. 69; cf. the Greek in Κλῖμαξ, 9th ed., ed. & tr. Archim. Ignatios (Oropos, Greece: Holy Monastery of the Paraclete, 2002), p. 139.

[8] St John Damascene, Writings, tr. Frederick H. Chase, Jr., Vol. 37 in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 1999), p. 11; cf. the Greek in Άπαντα τα Έργα, ed. Ignatios Sakales, Vol. 109 in Greek Fathers of the Church (Thessaloniki: ‘Gregory Palamas’ Patristic Publications, 1991), p. 32.

2 comments:

The Ochlophobist said...

amongst those who are free from noise

What a superb phrase.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, of how many today can that honestly be said?