Friday, January 30, 2009

Is Benedict Morbid?

Day by day remind mind yourself that you are going to die. RB 4:47

In our culture death has become the ultimate obscenity, the one thing that we refuse to look at, talk about, or admit the reality of. It’s too bad. By refusing to look at death we are prevented from really living.

Benedict’s statement in chapter four of the Rule, “The Tools of Good Works,” is startling and rather repugnant in our culture. Remind ourselves that we are going to die? No way! We want to focus on how to prevent death, we constantly read articles on how medicine is going to keep us from dying. How horribly morbid to remind ourselves that we are going to die!

The reality though is that there is a tremendous liberation in reminding ourselves that we are going to die. When we remind ourselves every day that we are going to die it becomes easier to see what an incredible, ephemeral gift life really is. Our life is only a gift, not an entitlement, not something we deserve to have on our own terms. Our life is to be enjoyed, appreciated and used wisely here in this moment because the next moment may not come. If we look at life this way perhaps it becomes easier to focus on who we are in this present moment and less on what we have to accomplish before we die. Our being, rather than our doing, becomes a matter of gratitude rather than pressure to accomplish or to cling tightly to our expectations of what life should be.

Perhaps this is one of the gifts of a monastery, especially in this day and age. As most monastic and other religious communities decline in membership and the average age continue to increase, we worry about our corporate death, as well as the death of individuals. Perhaps, though, this is actually a gift. If we remind ourselves that not only will each of one of us individuals die, but some day our monastery will also die. Although some monasteries continue for many centuries, there will come an end. So what happens when we remind ourselves daily of that reality?

Perhaps it means that all of us, corporately and individually, are freed from the onerous task of worrying about survival. If I have to keep focusing on what I need to do as an individual or a community member in order to eek out a few more years for myself or the monastery I’m not really living, I’m only surviving, I’m merely existing. I’m simply holding on because I am afraid to die, not because I have a reason to live.

The daily reminder of death on the other hand is a call to rejoice and dance before God. All I have is this moment given to me by God, this moment to use my gifts and talents to bring about the Reign of God. If I know and accept and embrace the fact that I am going to die then I can be about the task of living, I no longer have to use all my energy on denying and avoiding death. If death is a constant reminder then the present moment becomes the moment of God’s grace and presence. This daily reminder becomes a liberation if I don’t have to cling tightly to life then I may be able to loosen up and simply revel in the joy of this day. Carpe diem!

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