John Stackhouse teaches at Regent College
in Vancouver. His most recent book is Need
to Know: vocation as the Heart of Christian
epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2014). Find
more of these columns at www.faithtoday.ca/
In painting after painting of saints in European churches, you’ll see a skull sitting on a desk, or perhaps lying near the
saint’s feet, or otherwise lurking in
the background. Why would a saint
keep such a dreadful object in view
or an artist feature it in a portrait?
The phrase Memento mori is
often supplied by the painters to
explain such unnerving tokens –
“Remember that you will die.”
We all know about the sombre
view in Ecclesiastes, which says life
is nothing but vanity or, perhaps bet-
ter translated, vapour. We work hard
all our lives, only to leave our goods
to someone else and be forgotten in
a generation or two. The Psalms and
Proverbs are full of warnings that life
is short, like a wildflower soon to
vanish without a trace.
This idea repels us so deeply that
we wrap ourselves in entertainment, comfort, work, food, alcohol,
even political or charitable work –
anything to insulate and divert us
from thoughts of our impending
death, as Blaise Pascal frequently
remarks in his Pensées (1669).
Yet we also recoil from death
because it is ugly, a sorry fact of life
as we now experience it downstream of the Fall. We were created
for eternal life, and we rightly regard death as an awful anomaly in
the good cosmos God made and
promises to restore. It is a spectre
that shouldn’t haunt us, but does.
Death does, indeed, await us all.
As the saying goes, the statistics on
death are quite impressive – one
out of every one person dies.
How then are we to walk
through the valley of the shadow
of death, fearing no evil and in-
stead trusting God to guide and
protect us in a life that will some-
how ultimately matter?
Well, “We are going to have to
learn,” as the theologian Dietrich
Bonhoeffer counsels us, “to feel
more than one thing at a time.”
Can we smile in the good mo-
ments, as they come to us from
God’s loving hand, even as we feel
the cold wind of mortality blowing
on the backs of our necks?
Are we learning to obey Jesus’
commands to keep focusing upon
what truly matters amid the swirl
of alternative messages we encounter every day?
To know what truly matters will
require good theology. “Only one
life, ’twill soon be past. Only what’s
done for Christ will last,” as the
missionary C. T. Studd put it.
But what counts as something
“done for Christ”?
We must be careful not to reverse
the relationship and conclude that
only what seems to us to last will
count as being done for Christ.
God cares about medical staff
helping patients feel better for today
even if tomorrow we know they are
going to die. God cares about cooks
preparing a nourishing and tasty
meal even if their grateful recipients
will need another in a few hours.
God cares about entertainers
brightening up an audience for even
a few minutes, after which they may
shamble off to difficult lives.
The test of what’s done for Christ,
then, is what Christ tells us in His
Word counts for Him as valuable,
what advances God’s Kingdom,
what manifests the abundant and
eternal life Christ gives us – and
Every time we fast we experience
a small death. Fasting not only gives
us opportunity to focus on God, but
also to freshly appreciate what we
have temporarily foregone.
Involuntary fasts can function
the same way, if we let them – a loss
of health, a job, a friend, a home –
each small death reminds us that
one day we will lose it all, reminds
us to enjoy what God has given us
moment by moment, and reminds
us to give our lives truly to Christ
in all that we do.
For then all that we do will count,
will persevere beyond death to everlasting reward in the world to come.
So perhaps you should put a skull
on top of your TV, or on the desk
where you make your financial
plans and pay your bills, or by the
chair where you use your laptop.
“Depend upon it, Sir – when a
man knows he is to be hanged in a
fortnight, it concentrates his mind
wonderfully,” as 18th-century
writer Samuel Johnson put it.
Memento mori – and say the
Lord’s Prayer. /FT
Death is a
the place where
jesus was crucified,
is the araMaic
word for skull
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JoHN g. sTacKHousE JR.
Remembering death in order to live