“Keep Death Before Your Eyes Daily”

Mark Thamert, OSB, recently wrote this letter to his brother monks, family, and friends, and now shares it, slightly abbreviated, with Pray Tell readers.

In chapter 4 of Saint Benedict’s Rule for monasteries, our patron followed the spirit of other ancient monastics and did not try to suppress thoughts of death and last things. Benedict says simply, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.”

Early monks regarded such meditation on death as a way to live daily life more fully and in a detached way. Many stories tell of an open and uncomplicated attitude when it came to death.

Here is a story from the desert fathers before the time of Benedict: “News spread that an elder father lay dying in the desert of Skete. The brothers came, stood around his deathbed, clothed him and began to cry. But he opened his eyes and laughed. And he laughed again, and then again. The surprised brothers asked him, ‘Tell us, Abba, why do you laugh while we cry?’ He spoke, ‘I laughed at first because you fear death. Then I laughed because you are not ready. A third time I laughed because I am going from hard work to enter my rest – and you are crying about that!’ He then closed his eyes and died.”

Saint Benedict probably knew this story and others like it. While acknowledging natural fear and anxiety in the face of death, these ancient stories also make room for a surprisingly joyous and positive experience in the process death and dying.

ThamertIn April two and a half years ago I was having some discomfort eating breakfast a few days in a row. A week later I met my new oncologist who broke the news to me that I had cancer, explaining that about 40% of folks with stage two stomach cancer would still be alive five years after such diagnosis.

A January 16 CT scan revealed that various cancers have spread quickly to several areas in my body. It’s time to think in terms of weeks and days instead of months. It’s time to let go of chemo and its harshness. It’s time to say good-bye.

For the past two months I have been in the care of a wonderful team of palliative caregivers. In helping me envisage the final chapter of my life, the head physician of the team said, “Tell those close to you that you love them. Make amends with folks as appropriate. Plan meaningful events and projects each week that give you something to look forward to.” That has been life-giving advice.

In all of this, I am also grateful. I believe that Benedict and the monks who lived in the centuries before him knew that keeping death in mind daily would paradoxically help monks and all fellow humans live richer lives now. Looking at this process in a simple, head-on way can release the hidden anxieties and help us to surrender to the mystery that Christ has promised us. It is a time to feel deep gratitude for the life we have been given, for the friends and family we love and who extend their love so freely.

I am especially grateful for the community of monks and colleagues who surround me, the wonderful teaching career and prayer life that have given my life so much meaning through the years. If I occasionally have tears like the younger monks in my opening story, it is because I do feel a profound sadness in letting go of a life that has so much meaning here and now.

I am sad about saying good-bye to the monks of this community, to my last group of students, to family members and close friends. But this sadness comes with a belief that there is certainly more life, much more life to come.

Fr. Mark Thamert, OSB, joined Saint John’s Abbey in 1974 and taught in the German department of Saint John’s University. His translation from German of The Rule of Benedict: An Invitation to the Christian Life by Georg Holzherr, OSB, was recently issued by Liturgical Press.

10 comments

  1. I think keeping death before one’s eyes daily is one of the very most important spiritual virtues in Christian life. A very impressive text and I wish Father Mark all blessing.

  2. Indeed memento mori. If I am told I have stage III or IV cancer, I will contact various hospices run by religious orders. There’s no use in spending millions of dollars to live an extra three months. It is better to take those three months in spiritual preparation for one’s personal parousia.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      —I would caution against making such choices in advance. Every case is unique. A close friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor that had spread to his liver) in the fall of 2011. At certain points of his chemo treatments, he’ll slow down a bit, but nearly six years later, he bikes, runs, goes kayaking; basically, if he didn’t tell you, you’d have no way of knowing he had metastatic cancer. It may yet do him in, but for now he’s planning his retirement, not his funeral.

  3. St. Francis de Sales has a similar saying: “Live each day as if it were your last.” I add: “Because it might be.” The wisdom of Sts. Benedict and Francis de Sales is a good reminder for me and for all of us. As yesterday’s Gospel also proclaims, new life will rise out of the death of our mortal bodies, where “life is changed, not ended” (Preface for Christian Death I).

  4. Not sure if it’s a Benedictine story – this reminded me of the three monks – young, middle-aged, and elderly – having breakfast. The young monk asked the other two what they would do if they learned the world would end within the hour. The young monk said that he would go to the chapel to pray and ask forgiveness for his sins; the middle-aged monk said he’d make brief phone calls to those he loved to tell them he loved them; the elderly monk paused, and said, “I would finish my breakfast.”

  5. A wise Rabbi was asked one day by some worried disciples: “When is the best time to repent?”
    The Rabbi looked, and smiled at them, and he said: “The best time to repent is the day before you die!”
    His disciples were greatly relieved and cheered, and they began to turn away.
    Then one of them, thinking more deeply, stopped for a moment and turned back and said, “But Rabbi, I could die tomorrow!”
    “That’s right,” said the Rabbi, smiling.

  6. Death too is a gift. We leave the body behind and triumphantly enter our heavenly abode.

  7. Perspective and balance. I think death gives us the mirror in which to evaluate who we are, who we have become, and as equally important, who we are about to be. We generally root our lives in linear time, in terms of today and tomorrow, when the next event will be and how much time do we have to get there, and so on.

    The day I retired, I tossed my watch (yes, I know our phones have clocks in them) and have increasingly begun to embrace cyclical, non-linear time, This is the heartbeat of the Liturgy, a timeless, ever-recurring loop of the only ontologically important events in life, the mysteries of birth, continuum and transformation.

  8. Mark Thamert responds: I agree entirely. Live life to the max. Respect the uniqueness of each person’s journey. Don’t assume an early funeral! Celebrate life!

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