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Learning from a Thirteenth-Century Monk, or On the Imminence of Death

October 19, 2008

This morning I was reading Psalm 49 devotionally and was struck by how it described the end of human life in such stark terms – “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (v.12). Now the same psalm also declares in no uncertain terms that those who follow God have a hope beyond the grave (v.15, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me”), but we should not let this diminish the emphasis on death in the psalm. We all shall one day die and our bodies shall return to dust. Christians of a previous age understood this better than we, I fear.

For example, during the Middle Ages almost half the population was younger than fourteen years old because life expectancy was around 30 years. Half of all children died before they were seven years old, and unexpected catastrophes such as the plague or a famine could easily wipe out about a third or even a half of a city’s population. I am grateful for the advent of modern medicine and technology that have greatly improved the human condition. But alongside the blessing of these modern advances in human well-being, there is a significant payoff. Because we do not live as close to death as did previous Christians, heaven and hell seem farther off and therefore less real. We live daily with the illusion of our own immortality and as a result the judgment and life that is to come do not significantly factor into our decisions.

St. Francis with a Skull

A common occurrence that you may have noticed in art from the church’s past is the presence of a skull subtly placed alongside images of the great followers of Christ who have gone before us. The image here of St. Francis is a prime example. A human skull was commonly included in pictures of St. Francis not because he had a morbid, unhealthy interest in death, but in order to serve as a stark reminder of our mortality and the coming judgment. Am I suggesting that we should begin including skulls in our home décor? Well, one Christian leader I know has done so. Whether or not we follow St. Francis in this specific practice, let his example remind us to walk with a daily awareness that from dust we came and to dust we shall return. With this knowledge may we pray with Moses, the man of God, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 21, 2008 6:25 am

    Good meditation, Matt. I actually try to blog about death and dying occasionally, precisely because thinking about death is so willfully neglected in our culture.

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