Jan 14, 2020 1072 Donna Marie Klein, USA

Keep Death Daily Before Your Eyes

An Alternative to Mindfulness

“Keep death daily before your eyes.” At first glance, these words from Chapter 4 of the Rule of Saint Benedict make many uncomfortable, if not squeamish. Most prefer to push the “last things”—death, judgment, heaven, hell—out of their minds, dismissing them as antiquated notions with little relevance to modern life.

In light of the popular culture’s devotion to the “present moment” in the movement known as “mindfulness,” the daily remembrance of a dark future event looms as a contradiction. Upon deeper reflection, this seemingly morbid directive from a sixth century text is actually an effective Christian alternative to the ancient Buddhist meditation technique and discipline that is captivating the world. The church has not spoken definitively on mindfulness but those seeking authentic practice of a Catholic Christian meditation and discipline, focused on encountering Christ in every moment, will find a time-tested guide in the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Rising from the ashes of a disintegrating and strife-torn post-Roman Empire society, Benedictine spirituality had a strong sense of the importance of coming to terms with the possibility of death, at any moment, for practical reasons. The high mortality rate underscored the fragility of life and the unpredictability of its end—Benedict himself was nearly poisoned by some unruly monks. Paradoxically, Benedict and the other early monastics also knew that keeping death in mind daily would help monks and lay people alike live life more fully and in a detached manner. The remembrance of death, and the recognition of its immanence, could eliminate the mindless pursuits and superficial concerns that had preoccupied one’s life, thereby freeing the individual to attend to the things of lasting significance—the glory of God and salvation!

The Power of “Now”

The goal of Christian life on Earth is to make every moment count toward heaven. At every instant, God gives Himself to His creatures, calling us to do His will in the ordinary matters of each day. Every thought, every word and every action is either a step closer to God or a step away from God. The direction is determined by the promptness and degree of our response (or lack thereof) to His voice. A fervent prayer, a kind word, a cordial smile, a warm thank you, a heartfelt I love you, a sincere I am sorry, a service cheerfully rendered, a duty faithfully done, a fault humbly confessed, a mistake forgiven, a judgement withheld, a gesture restrained, a murmur suppressed, gossip avoided, a worry surrendered, a sacrifice offered, a truth proclaimed, the name of Jesus praised. Each has everlasting consequences. As we work out our salvation in the community of persons and moments in which we have been placed, God alone knows how far that one prayer, that one word, that one act will influence all eternity.

Our habitual response to God’s call requires constant attentiveness to the present moment where God speaks. As Saint Paul exhorts, “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). As Jesus warns, “Stay awake, because you do not know either the day or hour when the Son of Man is coming” (Matthew 25:13). Keeping death daily before our eyes snaps us out of our complacency and heightens all of our senses, fine-tuning our ability to hear God’s still, small voice with the ear of our heart in the moment.

The Clock Keeps Ticking

For just as God uses the common things from the world to reflect His inward presence, He gives us graces in the moment to help us accomplish His will. Like the hands of a clock marking the minutes toward the last hour of the day, the grace of God moves us in each moment toward the hour of our death, when we shall pass into eternal life.

Saint Benedict was not the only prominent religious figure to value a meditation on death. Saint Francis of Assisi added these lines to “The Canticle of the Sun” before dying: “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your will!” During her “Showings,” medieval mystic Julian of Norwich prayed for a physical illness, to the point of death, to be “purged by God’s mercy, and afterwards live more to His glory,” which she did for many more years. From his “Sermon Notes,” Saint John Henry Newman preached the following: “Every morning we rise nearer to death … As the clock ticks, we are under sentence of death … Seek the Lord therefore … He is here.”

A lay Catholic who humorously expressed an appreciation of death’s swaying power was 20th-century American writer Flannery O’Connor. In “The Misfit” she wrote: “She would’ve been a good woman … if [there] had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Made for heaven, we are all misfits. Fortunately, Saint Benedict’s moderate approach of meditating on death points us daily in the right direction home!


Donna Marie Klein

Donna Marie Klein is a freelance writer. She is an oblate of St. Benedict (St. Anselm’s Abbey, Washington, D.C.).

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