Death is the touchstone of our attitude to life. People who are afraid of death are afraid of life. It is impossible not to be afraid of life with all its complexity and dangers if one is afraid of death. This means that to solve the problem of death is not a luxury. If we are afraid of death we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks; we will spend our life in a cowardly, careful and timid manner. It is only if we can face death, make sense of it, determine its place and our place in regard to it that we will be able to live in a fearless way and to the fulness of our ability. Too often we wait until the end of our life to face death, whereas we would have lived quite differently if only we had faced death at the outset.
There is a patristic injunction, constantly repeated over the centuries, that we should be mindful of death throughout our life. But if such a thing is repeated to modern man, who suffers from timidity, and from the loss of faith and experience which prevails in our time, he will think he is called upon to live under the shadow of death, in a condition of gloom, haunted always by the fear that death is on its way and that then there will be no point in having lived. And death, if remembered constantly and deeply, would act as a sword of Damocles for him, suspended over his head by a hair, preventing the enjoyment of life and the fulfilment of it. Such an approach to the saying must be rejected. We need to understand mindfulness of death in its full significance: as an enhancement of life, not a diminution of it.
Most of the time we live as though we were writing a draft for the life which we will live later. We live not in a definitive way, but provisionally, as though preparing for the day when we really will begin to live. We are like people who write a rough draft with the intention of making a fair copy later. But the trouble is that the final version never gets written. Death comes before we have had the time or even generated the desire to make a definitive formulation. We always think that it can be done tomorrow. ‘I will live approximately today. Tomorrow is when I shall act in a definitive way. It is true that things are wrong, but give me time. I will sort them out somehow, or else they will come right of themselves’. Yet we all know that the time never actually comes.
The injunction ‘be mindful of death’ is not a call to live with a sense of terror in the constant awareness that death is to overtake us and that we are to perish utterly with all that we have stood for. It means rather: ‘be aware of the fact that what you are saying now, doing now, hearing, enduring or receiving now may be the last event or experience of your present life’. In which case it must be a crowning, not a defeat; a summit, not a trough. If only we realized whenever confronted with a person that this might be the last moment either of his life or ours, we would be much more intense, more much attentive to the words we speak and the things we do.
There is a Russian children’s story in which a wise man is asked three questions: What is the most important moment in life? What is the most important action in life? And who is the most important person? As in all such stories, he seeks everywhere for an answer and finds none. Finally he meets a peasant girl who is surprised that he should even ask. ‘The most important moment in life is the present – it is the only one we have, for the past is gone, the future not yet here. The most important action in this present is to do the right thing. And the most important person in life is the person who is with you at this present moment and for whom you can either do the right thing or the wrong’. That is precisely what is meant by mindfulness of death.
The value of the present moment may be realized when someone dear to us has a terminal illness and, more particularly, when we are aware that he or she may be dead within minutes. It is then that we recognize the importance of every gesture and action, then that we realize how slight the differences between what we usually consider the great things in life and those which are insignificant. The way we speak, the manner in which we prepare a tray with a cup of tea, the way in which we adjust an uncomfortable cushion become as important as the greatest thing we have ever done. For the humblest action, the simplest word, may be the summing up of a whole relationship, expressing to perfection all the depth of that relationship, all the love, concern and truth that are within it.
If only we could perceive the urgency of every moment in the awareness that it may be the last, our life would change profoundly. The idle words which the Gospel condemns (Matt 12:36), all those statements and actions which are meaningless, ambiguous or destructive — for these there would be no place. Our words and actions would be weighed before they are spoken or performed so that they might be culminating point in life and express the perfection of a relationship, never less.
Only awareness of death will give life this immediacy and depth, will bring life to life, will make it so intense that its totality is summed up in the present moment. Such precisely is the way in which the ascetics fought against mindlessness, lack of attention and carelessness, against all the attitudes which allow us to miss the moment of opportunity, to pass the other person by, not to notice the need. One of the chief things that we are called upon to learn is awareness – awareness of our own self and of the other person’s situation, an awareness that will stand the test of life and death. All life is at every moment an ultimate act.
–Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003)