Memento Mori: You are Dust and Shall Return to Dust

“Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment.” (CCC 1007)

William Michael Harnett, “Memento Mori”, 1879, Cleveland Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons
William Michael Harnett, “Memento Mori”, 1879, Cleveland Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons (photo: Public Domain)

Many years ago, I belonged to a book club named for the protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly. We called it the IJR Society; in addition to reading books, articles, and encyclicals, and watching movies, we shared potluck dinners. Those monthly meetings are cherished memories. My husband and I made several close friends because of the IJR Society. The founder of the group died on the Feast of the Presentation 14 years ago; it was never the same and we stopped meeting.

One of our selections was Memento Mori, Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel. Muriel Spark was a convert to Catholicism from Scottish Presbyterianism and started writing novels after joining the Church. Her most famous novel is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, made into an award-winning movie in 1969. (Remember “Jean” sung by Rod McKuen?) Memento Mori, however, was Spark’s first great success as a novelist.

The characters in the novel, all in their seventies, begin to receive phone calls with the brief message: “Remember you must die”. Memento Mori. They each respond to this statement differently: with fear, anger, resignation, even acceptance. The plot of the novel is the investigation into who is making the calls; the theme of the novel is old age and death. Dame Lettie Colston reacts with increasing paranoia, disconnecting her phone and secluding herself in her home. She rejects the advice of a Catholic convert, Jean Taylor, who is confined to her bed in a nursing home: "It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die," she says. "It is best to form the habit while young." Through the depiction of several characters in her novel, Sparks makes clear that the virtues and vices of youth stay with us as we age. We don’t become angels just because we get older; we have to work at becoming saints through God’s grace at every age.


Remember That You Are Dust

Since I was born and raised in a Catholic family—my late father joined the Church when I was in junior high but he had always supported my mother as they took us to Mass and sent us to Catholic schools—I’ve been able to remember that I must die all my life. After all, I’ve heard the words of that reminder, not on the telephone, but every Ash Wednesday when the priest imposes ashes on my forehead. I have been reminded that I am dust and unto dust I shall return since childhood.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered another habit to form while young, at least relatively so; remembering that we may grow old or become very ill before we die. My mother is confined to either her bed or her wheelchair in a skilled nursing center; her dementia is progressing and I have seen how her life has been more and more limited by age and weakness. She is well cared for and she is completely dependent upon that care. The local Catholic parish brings her Holy Communion and I pray with her during every visit, but because of her dementia and immobility, her spiritual life may be more limited.

I’ve also come to understand that in illness, there can be pain so intense that it’s almost impossible to pray, to do anything but cry out “Help me, Lord!”—which is of course a prayer more intense than any that we’ve memorized or extemporized before. That’s when we need others to pray for us.


Spiritual Preparation

We prepare for retirement and old age financially and practically, saving money, making investments, buying insurance, and even moving to retirement housing with a rising scale of assistance. I wonder if we shouldn’t take some time to prepare for retirement and old age spiritually, to think about how we’ll pray, attend Mass, and maintain our spiritual lives. Who will pray for us when we can’t? Have we developed the right virtues and tamed our vices?

Just a few years ago, I began to study St. Thomas More’s “Tower Works”, especially the spiritual treatises and meditations he wrote about Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden (The Sadness of Christ) and His Passion and Death. Thomas More had been forced into his retirement home: the Tower of London. He knew that he would never leave the Tower alive. He had always prepared for a happy and holy death by trying to live a happy and holy life.

As Thomas Cromwell and others tried to convince him to take the Oath that Henry VIII demanded after he broke away from the universal Catholic Church and the Vicar of Christ, they also tried to get him to say why he would not take the oath.   He protested that he was beyond that now: “I had fully determined with myself, neither to study nor to meddle with any matter of this world, but that my whole study should be upon the passion of Christ and mine own passage out of this world.”   When they reminded him that his monarch had the power of life and death over him, More replied: “And I am dying already, and have since I came here, been divers times in the case that I thought to die within one hour, and I thank our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when I saw the pang passed. And therefore my poor body is at the King’s pleasure, would God my death might do him good.”

St. Thomas More offers us an extraordinary example of one who had formed the habit of remembering that he must die, that he was dust and would return to dust. Although her Lady Lettie was a fictional character, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori gives us an example not to follow and a warning to prepare for death—and old age or illness— through faith, hope, and love, not with paranoia and anger.