It was St. Benedict who said, “Keep death always before your eyes.” He said it because we are not naturally inclined to think of our death, even though we can’t escape it. Blessed John Henry Newman, in his sermon “The Lapse of Time,” explains that our primary work is the salvation of our souls, and teaches us how returning our attention to death can aid this work.
Newman asks his readers to imagine “a soul thus casting off the world, and cast off by it.” The soul journeys into an unknown world with objects he has never seen before. How important time will be to that soul, Newman says. Before the moment of death there was still time to change his destiny, still opportunities to choose good or evil. Now, time has stopped and there is nothing we can do for our souls. We may think that this dreaded reflection can be put off, that death is far enough away for us to wait until we get closer to it. But death can come for us at any time. We are not promised one more minute, much less years:
“Every morning we rise we are nearer that grave in which there is no work, nor device, than we were. We are now nearer the grave, than when we entered this Church. Thus life is ever crumbling away under us. What should we say to a man, who was placed on some precipitous ground, which was ever crumbling under his feet, and affording less and less secure footing, yet was careless about it?”
As opposed to those who are spiritually asleep, our reflection should wake us to the truths of who we are and what we were made for. Death is not the end of life, because our life on earth is but the “seed of eternity, yet we suffer ourselves to go on, year after year, hardly using it at all in God’s service, or thinking it enough to give Him at most a tithe or a seventh of it, while we strenuously and heartily sow to the flesh, that from the flesh we may reap corruption.”
If this is not enough to wake us, Blessed Newman asks us to think on our past. How many sins we have piled up, that though past will not be forgotten, but will be written down and will testify against us at our judgment? “What would a man give, any one of us, who has any real insight into his polluted and miserable state, what would he give to tear away some of the [pages of sins] there preserved! For how heinous are the sins therein written!”
Newman urges his listeners to say with the thief on the cross, “Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into thy kingdom.” We can do nothing to erase our sins or to merit God’s mercy, but only “beg Him to bear us in mind in mercy, for his Son’s sake to us some favor, not according to our deserts, but for the love of Christ.”
In the end, our reflection of death should place us securely in the hands of God, even while we remain in the uncertainty of the present. We must accept the paradox of doing all that we can, and then relying entirely on God:
“Those whom Christ saves are they who at once attempt to save themselves, yet despair of saving themselves; who aim to do all, and confess they do nought; who are all love, and all fear; who are the most holy, and yet confess themselves the most sinful; who ever seek to please Him, yet feel they never can; who are full of good works, yet of works of penance.”
If we reflect on our death and it shakes us, then we have done well. If it moves us to repentance, even better. And if it leads us to surrender ourselves daily to Him, how much peace we will find in His Presence.