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St. Alphonsus’ Memento Mori

August 1, 2017


One of my all-time favorite spiritual writings is by today’s saint, Alphonsus Ligouri. The book in English is entitled “Preparation for Death”. While this certainly might sound a bit dark, I have come to find that the wisdom of the ancient adage “Memento Mori”, or remember death, can act as an invigorating call to daily virtue and courage. We often forget that death awaits no man’s schedule or has perfect timing. We forget that when we lie down to sleep each and every night we have no assurance that we will wake up in the morning. This is a universal principle that all people’s must respect. However, the reality of death is something that we try to avoid on an almost daily basis.

Ancient philosophers used to carry around skulls to remind their students of the impending end that we all must face and in a certain way this book has done something similar for me. Now, before you think that this is some sort of sadistic, nightmarish scenario, imagine for a moment how different life would be if you took each and every moment seriously. Imagine that each time you embraced a family member or a friend, you kept in mind that this might be the last time. To me, and I hope to all of you, this is actually quite freeing. It urges me to live a full life of love, laughter, and virtue.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, the immortal elves are actually jealous of men for what Iluvatar, the creator of mankind, called a gift. That gift was death. The elves understood that death freed men from the fate of the rest of the world. Men were able to freely live their lives on their own terms. Immortal elves, on the other hand, were bound to the destiny of the world and its sorrows. However, men were envious of the immortality of the elves, which led many down a dark path toward worshipping the world, the flesh, and possessions. Death was considered a gift because it illumined the daily lives of the men who understood that time is not unending. It made the lives, loves, and beliefs of men ever more important and only the things worthy of their draining moments were given due attendance.

Alphonsus Ligouri, along with many saints, understood this to their core.

I’m reminded of the many stories of saints who died with a great radiance about them and a smile on their face. It seems to me that a happy death could be the greatest gift one could ever receive. Yet, a happy death is one that must be prepared for. It takes an entire shift, or conversion of heart, to begin to see death as a friend and not the enemy, yet numerous saints were able to accomplish this change of heart. There is a certain evangelical moment available to us in offering the gift of a happy death, not as a brandishing of fear for people to change their ways, but rather as a moment of hope. All men and women know that death awaits each and every one of us. This unspoken universal reality can act as a bridge of trust for the man who can offer a glimmer of hope in a seemingly dark moment. No one enjoys discussing the possibility of death, yet it is always around us. Perhaps what we can learn from St. Alphonsus is that within that small moment of a reality check we can bring light into the darkness, hope into the fear, and most importantly the resurrection Christ offers into a moment of seeming doom.

As a reflection for today, let us hear from St. Alphonsus Ligouri himself on the value of time:

We are told in Holy Scripture to be careful of time, which is the most precious thing and the greatest gift that God bestows upon living man. The Pagans even understood the value of time. Seneca observed that “the value of time is priceless.” But the saints have much better understood it. S. Bernardine of Sienna says, that one single moment of time is of very great importance, because at any one moment a man may, by one act of contrition or of love, gain the Divine grace and eternal glory. Time is a treasure which can be found in this life alone; it is to be found neither in heaven nor in hell. This is the lamentation of the lost in hell, “Oh, that an hour were given.” They would give anything for one hour in which they might be able to remedy their ruin, but this hour they will never have. In heaven there are no tears; but if the blessed could weep, this would be a cause for lamentation, that they had lost any time during this life in  which they might have acquired greater glory – for such time they now can never have.

And you, my brother, how are you spending the time? And for what reason do you put off until tomorrow that which you can do today? Remember that the time which is already past away is no longer yours: the future is not in your power; the present time alone you have for doing good. St. Bernard warns us saying, “Wherefore do you presume upon the future, O miserable one, as if the Father had put the times in thy power.” And St. Augustine asks, “Do you reckon upon a day, who canst not reckon upon an hour?” How canst thou promise thyself the day of tomorrow, if thou knowest not whether one more hour of life will be thine? St. Teresa thus concludes, and says, “If thou art not ready to die today, thou oughtest to fear lest thou shouldst die an unhappy death!” (Preparation for Death, p. 78-79) 

Let us remember today the great message of St. Alphonsus, that death is surely imminent, but that must be a message of great hope and a fire within us to live each and every moment in grace, virtue, and love.