On the freeway near my home is a rather somber flashing sign that updates travelers on the number of traffic deaths for the year. It is certainly sobering to see the number rise each week. At the beginning of last year the number was zero. By the end of 2015, it was 556.
The purpose of the sign isn’t to ruin your day. It’s to make you drive carefully—to wear your seatbelt, to think twice before you drive while drunk, or even more relevant recently, reconsider before you text and drive. After all, 556 people thought they would make it safely home, but they didn’t. Don’t take any foolish chances, the sign warns us as we speed down the highway.
Remembering Your Death
The traffic sign isn’t actually all that innovative, it simply borrows a page from the book of Catholic spirituality—Memento Mori, or remembrance of one’s death. Far from being merely depressing, the thought of death can be quite motivating, and that motivation can be put to good use.
You see, while most of us would rather not admit it, there is one undeniable fact we must face—sooner or later, we each will die. And yes, that includes you. I don’t know how, or when, or what the cause will be. But you will die…and so will I.
There is a long tradition of Memento Mori in Catholicism, and the saints constantly speak of the importance of meditating on the unavoidable fact of death. This exhortation is not out of a kind of macabre obsession or morbid fascination. Rather, the saints thought about death because it helped them live a better life.
Here are five benefits to reflecting on the fact that you will die.
1. Use of Time – Time is a precious resource. A moment, once possessed, can never be recaptured. Moreover, what we do with our time will last for eternity. Time is also extremely limited in quantity, and none of us knows exactly how much we have. We could live another 20, 30 or 40 years—or we could die on the way to work this morning. We simply do not know.
These considerations should motivate us to use our time well and not waste it on frivolous activities that have no benefit. That isn’t to say that we can’t relax, enjoy ourselves or have fun, but true wisdom keeps these things in moderation and does not seek a life of pleasure at the expense of one’s soul.
2. A Holy Fear – Read Matthew 25:31-46. This passage should strike a holy fear into your heart, for we will all be judged on our works. Many like to claim the name of Catholic or Christian. Maybe they have a rosary hanging from their rear view mirror. Yet, substantively, if you look at their lives, there is hardly any difference between them and a wordly person who does not know God.
We are not saved by faith alone. Scripture is quite clear that we will be judged not by what we believed, but by what we did. How terrifying it would be to hear the words, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into eternal fire…”
Are you living in such a way that you can be confident that Christ will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Your life proves what is in your heart. Live well so that you can die well.
3. Live with no regrets – How would you live today if you knew it was your last day on earth? Would you live any differently if you knew you would die tomorrow? My guess is that you would.
Yet, the truth is, today could be your last day alive. You really could die tomorrow. You simply don’t know. So examine your life in light of eternity. Are you living with purpose or drifting aimlessly? Are you putting off something that you know our Lord is calling you to do?
To the world, living with no regrets often means seeking your own interests over those of others, of seeking maximum pleasure in the time that we have. Yet, this is an empty and vain philosophy. To live with no regrets is to give our lives to Jesus and to others. This is the only life that matters. For in eternity, we can only keep what we have first given away.
4. A Legacy of Love or Pain – Each of us leaves behind a legacy interpersonally. Sometimes that legacy is one of pain and broken relationships, of bitterness and resentment and spite. Yet, in many cases that legacy is one of love and warmth and joy.
Everyone you leave behind will remember how you treated them. Do you love your wife? Do you invest yourself in your kids? How do you treat your parents, your siblings, your friends, even your enemies? How will they remember you? Reconciliation is also a matter to consider: Are there broken relationships that you could mend before you die? Don’t delay to do it. Forgive and seek forgiveness. Your grudge does not matter in the grave.
On our death bed, we can either be surrounded by those who love us, or we can die alone because we have driven everyone away. We can be remembered with tears of sorrow or with a sigh of relief. How do you want to be remembered?
5. Sainthood – Life is short. Eternity is long. In the end, there is only one thing that is really worth living for—holiness. Many are under the impression that holiness is boring, and that sanctity isn’t worth the pursuit. But holiness is not boring. A saint is the human person supernaturalized and transfigured—filled to overflowing with the Divine life of God. How exactly is this boring?
Our culture is obsessed with superpowers and superheroes. In the past, society was fascinated with saints. There is a correlation in that, deep down, we know that there is more to the human person than meets the eye. We are capable of extraordinary things by God’s grace, and the call to holiness is a call to a supernatural life. No, perhaps you will not do miracles or levitate—but you can know God and participate in his Divine nature as far as is possible for a creature. And that’s a miracle in itself! There’s only one thing worth living for: sainthood. Don’t waste your life. Be a saint.
Live as a Dying Man
Life is a gift. Death is inevitable. Don’t waste the most precious of all gifts going nowhere fast. Don’t fritter away your days chasing gadgets, pleasure, promotions, or any number of other things that don’t matter. And if you’re tempted by these things, call to mind the inescapable fact of the grave.
Live for eternity. Love Jesus, love others, forgive and be forgiven, give sacrificially, be humble, pursue the supernatural life of sanctity. Anything less is a waste of time.
In short, live as if you were a dying man. Because you are.
PS: Check out these Memento Mori rosaries complete with skulls.
Also, check out the super intense Capuchin bone crypt chapel. It would be hard to think of anything but death in such a place!