Memento Mori: How to Remember Death in Prayer
You are going to die. I'm going to die. We're all going to die. Well, this is off to a good start. No, I'm not being a negative nancy, it's just a fact. Today, thoughts of death are avoided at all costs. But throughout history people, particularly Catholics, have kept death closer in mind. There's even a Latin term for it - "memento mori."
Let's talk a bit about memento mori and how remembering not just your own death but those who have died is healthy for your spiritual life.
What does Memento Mori mean?
Memento mori is a Latin term that means, "remember your death." While mindfulness of death is present in many ancient cultures, the phrase itself relates to Roman times. After a victory, Roman generals would have a "triumph," a massive celebration in Rome.
While the general rode amongst the cheering crowds in his chariot, a slave rode with him. The slave's job was to whisper in the generals ear to remember his death. These glories would fade. The general was still mortal.
Is Memento Mori Catholic?
While the phrase itself may not have been born of a religious sense, it was adopted by early Christians as a tool to remind the faithful that worldly pleasures are fleeting.
The concept of remembering one's mortality became quite popular in the medieval church and it's not hard to see why. People then were dying a lot thanks to the plague.
Throughout Europe in churches and sacramentals, you might find imagery of the angel of death, skulls and other symbols related to the concept of memento mori. However, from the late 19th century onward, these symbols came to be seen as macabre. Death fell out of fashion for Catholics.
In the thirty-three years I've been alive, I can't recall hearing much preaching on "the last things" at all. However, remembering memento mori has seen a bit of a resurgence lately (at least on social media) thanks to Sister Theresa Aletheia, a nun in the Daughters of St. Paul.
Why it's Important to Remember Death
It's easy to see why something like memento mori wouldn't be fashionable today. In a hyper-materialistic society our focus is on living as long as possible, buying as much as you can to be as comfortable as possible. Suffering is inherently bad and must be avoided at all cost.
We often live as if there will always be a tomorrow, and we put off improving the state of our soul. However, nobody can avoid the four last things - death, judgment, heaven and hell.
Rather than pushing the concept of mortality far out of mind, Catholic should reserve a place for it. Here are a few simple ways to incorporate memento mori into your spiritual life:
- Pray for the poor souls in purgatory: Once a popular devotion, this too has fallen out of style. After death, many souls must end up in purgatory. Your prayers for them can help them advance into the beatific vision.
- Visit your relatives in the cemetery: There's a special indulgence for this during the first 8 days of November, but you can do it anytime. Visit the cemetery and pray for your loved ones and the souls of the faithful departed.
- Meditate on your own mortality: Remember your own death in prayer, meditate on the state of your soul and the last four things.
The Rosary and Memento Mori
We're encouraged to pray the rosary daily, and you can incorporate the spirit of memento mori into your rosary. Meditate, with each Hail Mary, on "the hour of our death," knowing that we don't know when this will come and we must prepare. With each our father, concentrate on "whom art in heaven," knowing that this is the final destination we seek.
Meditate on the presence of life and death throughout the mysteries, from the joy of birth in the nativity to the suffering and death on the cross.
To help you incorporate memento mori into your prayer life, I've made a special rosary dedicated to it. Carry this with you, especially during November when the feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day remind us of mortality.