I have always believed that we should make the best of every day. One never knows when one’s last day will be. The pandemic has made death impossible to forget. Each day when I awaken in the morning, I say thank you to the One on High for another day of the gift of life. But how does one capture the idea that life is finite and because time flies by that we should live each day as if it were our last?
I was intrigued by a recent New York Times article about Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble titled “Meet the Nun Who Wants You to Remember You Will Die.” Before Sister Theresa entered the convent in 2010, she read a biography of the order’s founder, a 19th century Italian priest. It was his custom to keep a ceramic skull on his desk, as a reminder of the inevitability of death. This inspired her to acquire a skull for herself. In 2017 Sister Theresa made it her mission to revive the practice of memento more, a Latin phrase meaning “remember your death.” The idea is to intentionally think about one’s own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.
Sister Theresa now has many followers on social media, and people from all over the world send her skull mugs and rosaries and share photos of their skull tattoos. Teachers have even incorporated the concept of memento more in their curricula.
To some this idea of keeping a skull close by might seem morbid. But death is a fact of life and trying to suppress the thought of death or run away from it is part of our death-denying culture.
The practice of regular meditation on death is a venerable one. In the 6th century Saint Benedict instructed his monks to “keep death daily before your eyes.” But the practice is not uniquely Christian. Mindfulness of death is a tradition within Buddhism, meant to cultivate meaning and focus. Skeletons, clocks and decaying food are recurring motifs in art history.
Jewish tradition invites us to think about our mortality long before our own deaths. The tradition of writing an ethical will—a letter to one’s children and descendants expressing the deepest principles and most important actions we hope they will carry on—demands that we anticipate and accept the fact that our life span is finite. The idea of an ethical will may have been inspired by the Biblical story of how the biblical patriarch Jacob delivered his wishes orally to his children and grandchildren who gathered around his death bed.
There is a Talmudic parable (Shabbat 153a) that Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, “Repent one day before your death.” When his disciples expressed puzzlement about how one can know the day of one’s death, Rabbi Eliezer answered, “All the more reason, therefore, to repent today, lest one die tomorrow.”
Traditional Jewish liturgy contains a prayer for each new month of the year. One of my favorite contemporary interpretations of this prayer is found as a meditation before the announcement of the new month in the Silverman Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook:
O heavenly Father, the approach of another month reminds us of the flight of time and the change of seasons. Month follows month; the years of one’s life are few and fleeting. Teach us to number our days that we may use each moment wisely. May no day pass without bring us closer to some worthy achievement. Grant that the new month bring life and hope, joy and peace to all Your children. Amen.
Let us all rededicate ourselves to really appreciating life: “Teach us to number our days that we may use each precious moment wisely.”