Lesson 3: Mindfulness of Death and How that’s a Good Thing
“Unable to curb my curiosity, I had a peek inside. It contained a coffin, made of crude wooden planks. From sheer shock, I ran out of his little shelter as fast as I could.”
– Everyday Saints by Archimandrite Tikhon
The monk had a coffin as a bed to remind himself that every day was a practice run for the day of his death. Every choice we make in this life prepares us for either heaven or hell. We are instructed by the Church fathers to be mindful of death, but what does that really mean? How does a person live that way, with joy, in our modern society?
Mindfulness of death does not require a coffin; it represents a mindset that heaven is our real home that we are as the early Christian so firmly believed just passing through, in the world yet not of the world.
When my seven year old daughter, Mary Evelyn, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she understood that unless there was a miracle, she would die. She lived almost nine months after the diagnosis and in that time she transformed everyone around her while God prepared her for heaven. While undergoing painful and frightening cancer treatment, she still lived with great joy and brought love to everyone and put others before herself. Especially the last few weeks of her life, she was very sensitive to any unkindness. She repented over the slightest “bad thought”. We taught her to pray when she felt she needed to repent. One day she came home from second grade and told me she had thought 26 bad thoughts that day. She cried as she confessed them to me. They were all simple things that I might think any day without feeling bad about it at all. Hearing her confession has made me more sensitive to being kind to others, even in my thoughts. She was becoming holier as she got ready to go to heaven and it was happening in a very natural and beautiful way. If more of us could live with such love for others we would experience more heaven on earth.
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.
– Met. Anthony Bloom
Spending time with a terminally ill child was both gut wrenching and peaceful. Gut-wrenching because I lived with the constant fear of losing her and because of my helplessness as I watched her suffer physical pain and losses; but it was peaceful because she showed me how to slow down and really live. Things that often sidetracked us in our lives no longer mattered, but simple beauty like stars, a walk in the woods, basking in sunshine, tea and cookies, these simple ways we lovingly spent time together became the most important. Especially towards the end, each moment with her was a gift from God. I treasured them and stored them in my heart. If only we saw each other that way more often. Each person you are with is someone that God loves, but how seldom we remember that when we are annoyed with them!
God is love–always, everywhere, for every person no matter their faith, practice or attitude. We are either in a state of receiving that love, through the sacraments, prayer, worship, study of scriptures, study of the fathers, teaching of the faith to others, and service to others, or we are busy with other things that please us but do not please God.
When we are born, our life begins on earth, but it also begins in eternity because we will live forever. We told Mary Evelyn that God had given her life and nothing could take that away from her. As we grow more Christlike, our lives reflect more and more of that immortality and more and more of that Love. In this way, we are already experiencing heaven on earth.
Death is never the end. The good we have done continues after us and bears fruit in the lives of others. Unfortunately, the corollary is also true: we can also leave a legacy of evil.
– Met. Anthony Bloom
What will your legacy be? Be intentional about your life and leave a beautiful legacy. Look to the lives of the saints for inspiration, be present with the people you are with and tell the bad thoughts to go away. Mindfulness of death is also mindfulness of the closeness of heaven.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Think of the life of a saint. What fruit did his or her life bear that still affects you?
- Think of ways you want your life to be beautiful. One way is by loving others. Think of something kind you can do for someone in your family this week. Next week, share the story with us and let us know what that person did.