Memento Mori

by Rev. Vicki Joy McClure, MAPM, BCC

December 2008

Rev. Vicki Joy McClure

In my experience as a hospital chaplain, I face almost daily the reality that we are born, we live, and we die. Yes, it is a built-in condition of human existence that our lives flicker up and are quickly extinguished.

My daily practice of letting go helps me to be more present to those who are dying, as well as to those whose loved one is dying. I often find myself rehearsing silently, “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about me. Just be an anchor for those who are being tossed in this storm.” I work on getting my own anxieties out of the way so I can be fully present as a compassionate strength to those whom this experience is about.

May I tell you a story about death from the Buddhist tradition? One day, Krsa Gautami was plunged deep into grief by the loss of her baby boy who had died just when he was old enough to walk. Unable to accept the fact of her son’s death, Krsa wandered through the streets pleading for medicine to cure her little one.

A kind stranger looked at the child’s eyes and saw that he wasn’t sick; he was dead. “Alas, I have nothing to help,” he said, “but I know of someone who can give what you need. Go to Sakyamuni, the Buddha, just now residing in Banyan Park.”

Krsa went in haste to the Buddha and asked for a cure. Lord Buddha, Ocean of Infinite Compassion, looked upon the grief-stricken mother with kindness. “You have done well to come here for medicine. Go into the city and get a handful of mustard seed. It must be from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend.”

Krsa then went from house to house with her story and request; and, in pity, the people offered her all the mustard seed she needed. Then Krsa would ask: “Did a son or daughter, father or mother, die in your family?” The inhabitants of every house told her of many loved ones who had died.

The bereft mother suddenly realized that Buddha, in his compassion, had sent her to learn the truth of impermanence.

Whether it be the Death with a capital “D” that is the great letting-go, or one of the smaller losses that come with each change in our days, without practice we most often respond with a stunned or stubborn resistance when it knocks upon our door, or even a neighbor’s door.

The expectation that we should have some control over the chances and changes of this life is a lovely waking dream and may serve well as a mechanism for coping. Yet we, as public servants and students of Life, owe it to ourselves and those we serve to embrace the realities of impermanence and, yes, death.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, there is a practice called Memento Mori, which literally means, “Remember that you will die.” It is a practice of looking at life with the awareness of the impermanence of it, recognizing that this life isn’t just about “me,” but that it is full of complexities that encompass many others. It means seeing this short, but precious moment against the vast horizon of That which does not change.

It means approaching life from the humble realization that it ends, and assessing the cost and impact of each present behavior from the perspective:

“One day, maybe this one, I will die.”

And then adding:

“So how, then, do I want to live?”

What would happen if, instead of resisting, we responded to change and chaos and loss with open arms and a sense that this might be medicine for cure? What if, while not ignoring the fear and grief, we opened in trust to something bigger?