Memento Mori: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
The untimely death of Rachel Held Evans has struck many of us, especially those of us who knew her. It goes without saying that this is not the time to enumerate those points in her numerous writings or speeches on which we agreed or disagreed. Instead, it is a time to remember and to mourn and to give thanks to God for the life that she lived among us. It is also a time to remember the husband and two small children who she left behind and to pray that God will give them comfort and strength in this time of loss.
The sorrow at her death seems to be amplified by the fact that she was only 37 years of age. I have grown use to the death of many of my friends and mentors. Many, if not most, were older than myself and had lived long and full lives. The loss, while real, is expected. It seems to rest within the natural order. The death of someone so young and vital seems to somehow break that natural order. We can only view that death as a tragedy.
Yet, I would suggest that this is a profoundly modern idea. For centuries, the average life span was short. Wars, disease, plagues and natural disasters took their toll across entire populations. Death was very much seen as a part of life. For centuries of the Christian era the prospect of death, was part of the spiritual journey of a believer. “Memento mori” – “Remember that you will die” – was recognized as a vital part of Christian theology in the medieval and early modern era. It could be expressed in art, as a saint contemplated a skull resting on a shelf or table. While for most of us today this is a foreign concept, the theology behind the art should, I think, still inform our lives as Christians.
Memento mori – “Remember that you will die” – seems out of place in the modern era. Today, many funerals are cast as “celebrations” of the life of the person who has died, replete with videos, favorite songs being sung or played and, occasionally, the release of balloons as a climax. We seem to want to push death aside or veil its finality. For more than a thousand years, this was not the case. Vestiges of this long history remain. We experience it on Ash Wednesday when ashes are placed on on forehead in the form of a cross and we are told, “Remember O Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Yet the contemplation of one’s own death was not a matter of morbid fascination, but rather a gauge by which one was to live one’s life. It was the recognition that this life was transient and limited. It was the realization that life was to be lived, and lived to the full, in the light of a greater reality… the reality of Christ and his kingdom.
In the light of this greater reality and the transient nature of our lives, what we do here and now matters. How we conduct ourselves with others matters. The love that we show to others matters. The way in which we speak to each other matters. The service we perform, the kindness we express, the faithfulness we exhibit… it all matters. It matters whether you are given 37 years of life, or whether you are given 97 years of life. In numbering our days, we may gain the wisdom to know that what we do here and now matters.
In the many tributes to Rachel Held Evans that I have heard and read, her writing has been mentioned, but almost in passing. Most comments have been about who she was as a person. There are reflections on how she stood with the marginalized and those who had suffered abuse, even when it cost her popularity with many in her original base of support. She never lost the sense of where she had come from in the evangelical world, yet she was also willing to go beyond that world. Her life, while short, made a difference in others’ lives.
So, now we commend her to God, the author and finisher of her faith. Although we grieve for her family and friends, as well as for our own sense of loss, we mourn in the assurance that when she asks the question, “Lord, when did I see you hungry… or thirsty… or a stranger… or needing clothes… or sick… or a prisoner?”, she will receive the answer, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
She had learned, in a short life, to number her days and gained wisdom…
“O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our sister Rachel. We thank you for giving her to us, her family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”