On the Remembrance of Death
By St. John Climacus,
Taken from his work; The Ladder of Divine Ascent
As thought comes before speech, so the remembrance of death and of sin comes before weeping and mourning. It is therefore appropriate to deal now with this theme.
To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one's departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour. Fear of death is a property of nature due to disobedience, but terror of death is a sign of unrepented sins. Christ is frightened of dying but not terrified, thereby clearly revealing the properties of His two natures.
Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death.
Tin has a way of looking like silver but is of course quite distinct; and for those with some dl scernment, the difference between natural and contranatural fear of death is most obvious. You can clearly single out those who hold the thought of death at the center of their being, for they freely withdraw from everything created and they renounce their own will.
The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a
saint. And yet not every desire for death is good. A habitual sinner prays humbly for death, but the man who does not want to change his ways may, in sheer despair, actually long for death. And there are some who out of conceit consider themselves to be dispassionate, and for a while they have no fear of death, while a rare few hunger to leave by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Some, because they are puzzled, ask the following question: "If the remembrance of death is so good for us, why has God concealed from us the knowledge of when we will die?" In putting such a question, they fail to realize how marvelously God operates to save us. No one who knew in advance the hour of his death would accept baptism or join a monastery long before it, but instead would pass all his time in sin and would be baptized and do penance only on the day of his demise. Habit would make him a confirmed and quite incorrigible sinner."a
When you are lamenting your sins, do not ever admit that cur which suggests that God is soft‑hearted toward men. (Such a notion may on occasion be of help to you when you see yourself being dragged down into deep despair.) For the aim of the enemy is to divert you from your mourning and from that fear of God which, however, is free from fear.
The man who wants to be reminded constantly of death and of God's judgment and who at the same time gives in to material cares and distractions, is like someone trying at the same time to swim and ‑to clap his hands.
If your remembrance of death s clear and specific, you wi1l cut down on your eating; and if, in your humility, you reduce the amount you eat, your passions will be correspondingly reduced.
To have an insensitive heart is to be dulled in mind, and food in abundance dries up the well of tears. Thirst, however, and the keeping of vigils afflict the heart; and when the heart is stirred, then the tears may run. Now all this may sound disgusting to the gluttonous and unbelievable to the sluggish, but a man pursuing the active life will try this course and the experience will make him smile, whereas the one who is still casting about him will become even more depressed.
The Fathers assert that perfect love is sinless. And it seems to me that in the same way a perfect sense of death is free from fear.
There are many things that the mind of a man leading the active life can do. One can think about the love of God, the remembrance of death, the remembrance of God, the remembrance of the kingdom, the zeal of the holy martyrs, the remembrance of the presence Of God as described in the saying, "I saw the Lord before me" (Ps. 15:8), the remembrance of the holy and spiritual powers, the remembrance of death, )judgment, punishment, and sentence. The list begins with the sublime and ends with that which never falls.
This is what an Egyptian monk once said to me: "If it ever happened that I was inclined to offer some comfort to this carcass of mine, the remembrance of death that had been so firmly established in my heart would stand before me like a judge; and a wonderful thing even if I wanted to push it aside, I simply could not do so." Another monk, this time an inhabitant of the place called Tholas, would go into an ecstasy at the thought of death, and when the brothers found him they had to raise him up and carry him, scarcely breathing, like someone who had fainted or had suffered an epileptic fit. And I must certainly tell you about Hesychius the Horebite. All his life he was careless and he paid not the slightest attention to his soul. Then a very grievous illness came on him, so that he was for a whole hour absent from the body. After he had revived, he begged us all to go away at once, built up the door of his cell, and remained twelve years inside without ever speaking to anyone and taking only bread and water. He never stirred and was always intent on what it was he had seen in his ecstasy. He never moved and had the look of someone out of his mind. And, silently, he wept warm tears. But when he was on the point of death, we broke in and we asked him many questions. All he would say was this: "Please forgive me. No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin." It astonished us to see the blessed change and transformation that had taken place in someone hitherto so negligent. We buried him reverently in the cemetery near the fort;46 and, some days later, when we looked for his holv remains, we could not find them. Such had been the marvel of his repentance that the Lord demonstrated to us that fact that He accepts those who wish to make amends, even after the most prolonged negligence on their part.
Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it a bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity. The saint mentioned above proved this. Men like him unceasingly pile fear on fear, and never stop until the very strength in their bones is worn out.
We may be sure that remembrance of death, like every other blessing, is a gift from God. How else can you explain the fact that often we can be dry‑eyed and hard at a cemetery, yet full of compunction when we are nowhere near such a place?
The man who has died to all things remembers death, but whoever holds some ties with the world will not cease plotting against himself.
Do not search about for the words to show people you love them. Instead, ask God to show them your love without your having to talk about It. Otherwise you will never have time enough both for loving gestures and for compunction.
Do not deceive yourself, foolish worker, into thinking that one time can make up for another. The day is not long enough to allow you to repay in full its debt to the Lord.
Someone has said that you cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last. Even the Greeks have said some such thing, because they describe philosophy as meditation on death.
This, then, is the sixth step. He who has climbed it will never sin. "Remember your last end, and you will never sin" (Ecclus. 7:36).