Memento Mori: Moving into Lent with Marcus Aurelius

March 4, 2022

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The dark clouds of war gather ominously over Europe as a weary continent recovers from the ravages of a virulent epidemic. The year is AD 172 AD, and the most powerful man in the West has joined his legions in their latest offensive across the mighty River Danube to counter the threat of hostile Germanic tribes on Rome’s northern frontier. Frustrated with the grinding nature of the campaign, the emperor retires to his tent, the weighty affairs of state and of command having momentarily relented. He intends to take full advantage of this fleeting moment of leisure. Sighing, he turns to a sheaf of notes he has brought along with him to the front. Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, he reaches for a pen and begins to write. 

Marcus Aurelius never intended for his private journals to be published, yet the Meditations, the last major work of Stoic philosophy written in antiquity, not only survived the turmoil of the Western empire’s demise but remains a best-seller to this day. In fact, as historian Barry Strauss notes in Ten Caesars, “of all the books written during the Roman Empire, [Meditations] is second in readership today only to the New Testament.” 

For we moderns, many of the “great men” of classical times—the philosophers, poets, and statesmen—can seem inscrutable or unapproachable, not unlike the pagan gods of Olympus that they worshiped. Yet, as Strauss points out, the Meditations endure in popularity precisely because “Marcus seems less a remote and lifeless statue than someone we might know and admire. He speaks to us not as an artwork in a museum but as a counselor and even a friend.” Through his philosophical musings, we are granted an intimate glimpse into the life and mind of one of the most powerful men in the second century. What we discover is that his struggles are our struggles. Marcus candidly admits his own frailties, the petty vices that hold him back from achieving the perfection of virtue he desires. 

Marcus’ program of self-improvement is not for the timid: “You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.” If this sentiment sounds familiar, it should. The echoes of it can be heard in the popular Medieval Christian refrain Memento mori (“Remember, you will die”) and in the words the priest declares at the start of Lent, as he smears ashes on our foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

To “rend your heart” is to “die before you die” and find new life in Christ.

Marcus saw in the starkness of mortality a call to action: “No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.” Holiness, the virtuous life, is not the exclusive purview of clerics and philosophers; it is my duty and yours, and time is short! C.S. Lewis, with characteristic pithiness, clarifies the task before us in his novel Till We Have Faces: “Die before you die. There is no chance after.”

The Mass readings that bring us into Lent on Ash Wednesday reflect this unsettling urgency: “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12-13). To “rend your heart” is to “die before you die” and find new life in Christ. Dying to self is not so much a singular event but a process. And there’s no better time to work through that process than right now, for “now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

The vanity of earthly glory and the inevitability of death can easily demoralize us into apathy or paralyze us with existential dread. Marcus knew this all too well: “Do not let the panorama of your life oppress you, do not dwell on the various troubles which may have occurred in the past or may occur in the future.” He urges himself to “be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and around it the seething waters are laid to rest.” As we move into the observances and disciplines of Lent in a time of growing uncertainty and fear, when plague and war once again threaten the lives of many, and when polarization and division are pounding at the very foundations of every institution—including the Church—perhaps we would to well to heed Marcus’s advice: “When you are high in indignation and perhaps losing patience, remember that human life is a mere fragment of time and shortly we are all in our graves.” But unlike Marcus, we have the benefit of knowing that the grave does not have the final word. After Golgotha comes the Empty Tomb.

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