The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
In my catechism class this week, I was teaching about the saints, and my students all wanted to find out which saint’s feast day fell on their birthday. One girl said, “My birthday’s November 2. What feast day is that?”
“Oh, that’s All Souls Day! It’s when we pray for the souls in purgatory,” I answered.
Disappointed, she replied, “That’s…kind of morbid.”
I can understand her reaction—it’s hard to get excited about reflecting on death, especially as a kid on your birthday. It’s a topic that most of us avoid thinking about, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. But there has long been a Catholic tradition of meditating on death, not as some kind of penance or self-imposed misery, but rather as a way to transform our fear of death into hope in the Resurrection.
Memento mori—“Remember your death”—is a refrain to keep us grounded amid the distractions of this world. Thinking about death does not seem appealing to us, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Death is an inevitable reality, and it’s not something we can control. But if we approach it from a perspective of Christian hope, deeply rooted in the promises Christ has made to us, we will begin to see that we don’t have to be so fearful of death. It is more of a beginning than an ending, an obscure mystery that only begins to make any sense to us when we see it through the lens of the Gospel. Meditating on death is itself an act of hope: that as we look more deeply into this mystery, there will be more to discover than bleak, existential materialism. There will be redemption and rebirth.
Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a young sister with the Daughters of Saint Paul, has been keeping a ceramic skull on her desk for the past year as a reminder of death and tweeting about Memento Mori each day. She says:
Death, I think, is a very, very unpleasant topic, especially if you don’t believe in God. When I was an atheist, it was something I definitely did not want to think about because it’s the annihilation of the self. But for people of faith, it has a totally different dimension. We’re able to think about the reality of death and how it’s been transformed by Jesus.
Meditating on death not only lessens our fear; it also increases our sense of urgency to answer the callings God has given us. We are called to become saints, and we have no time to waste. We can go forward to carry out this calling filled with joy, not with fear, confident that if we are united with Christ in death, we will also be united with Him in resurrection.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
1. Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill / PD-US
2. Jakub Schikaneder, All Souls Day / PD-US