Do We Live in the Truth of Our Mortality?

by Mark Votava

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One day I will die.  I will not live forever.  This is a sobering fact of life and one that helps me live more fully in the present moment.  It is hard to keep death before my eyes in a culture of entertainment.

As I have watched many action movies in my life, it seems I have become numb to all the death, killing and violence within them.  I see so much death being acted out in movies that I do not really think death is real – so I evade it, deny it and pretend that I am above it in everyday life.  But this is not reality and keeps me in my own fear of death.

What will happen to me as I die.  I do not really want to think about it.  Maybe I will experience shame, fear, guilt or joy.  Will it be a terrifying experience or will it be an experience of wonder, mystery and peace?

The truth is that I am afraid to die.  Many people might lie and say that they know exactly what will happen after death, but nobody knows what life will be for us after death.  It is unknowable.  Even if someone believes in heaven no one knows exactly how we will experience it.

But thinking about death often could help us to live more freely.  I do not like to think about death, but it is a good thing for me to do in a culture that denies it.  This is not authentic, truthful or honest.

Thinking of death often has been a Benedictine monastic practice for hundreds of years.

Macrina Wiederkehr notes, “In the rule of St. Benedict we are asked to keep death daily before our eyes…” 

Keeping death always in our attention sounds kind of morbid, but it’s actually liberating for our souls.  When we are not afraid of our mortality we become more human.  I think this happens because we start living more honestly and authentically.  Keeping death before our eyes strengthens us to have a better perspective to live relationally in the place we live.

We consider the words we speak more carefully.  We become more sensitive to our locality.  We have solidarity with our environment.  We see the beauty in life.  We long for the collective good.

The Benedictines have a lot of wisdom to share with us after so many years of practice.  Thinking of death often cultivates the mystical imagination within us in everyday life as the body of Christ.  This is a powerful practice if we can handle looking into what is real within ourselves.  The mystical imagination does not fear keeping death before us in our everyday lives together in the parish.

Sara Miles states, “…we are all going to die.  That these busy lives, full of eating and drinking and buying and talking on our cell phones, are going down to the dust.  That despite the lies of the culture, the fantasy that money or objects will keep us alive, we mortals are just mortal and connected to one another through that raw, fleshy fact.”

We are only alive if we can face death in everyday life.  We are only alive if we use our life to live.  The status quo does not like to face death.  The status quo wants to pretend that there is no reality of death for us.

We are too strong and healthy for that.  We are too independent.  We are too young to be thinking about that.  This is only what people do when they are senior citizens.  How do we truly know that we are alive?

Benedictine David Steindl-Rast says, “The fact that you are not dead yet is not sufficient proof that you are alive.  It takes more than that.  It takes courage – above all, the courage to face death.  Only one who is alive can die.  Aliveness is measured by the ability to die.  One who is fully alive is fully able to die.  In peak moments of aliveness we are reconciled with death.  Deep down within us something tells us that we would die the moment our life reached fulfillment.  It is fear of death that prevents us from coming fully alive.”

What keeps us from coming fully alive in our mortality?