By Patrick Frazier, Franciscan University
Every year when Fall officially arrives, we all have an idea of what the season will bring. The leaves changing color, the air getting colder, pumpkin spice-flavored products are becoming more available in your local stores. And of course, Halloween being right around the corner, bringing with it all the spider webs and skeletons you can imagine. However, there are some people who will keep just a touch of that macabre décor year-round, and I am one of them. If you were to look at my desk, you’d see among all the LEGO mass dioramas, Totus Tuus memorabilia, vintage Bionicles, and saint peg dolls, a most peculiar item: a small, ceramic skull.
Now, you might think this is an odd choice of item to have on a twentysomething’s college desk. Well, his choice is something that gives a small connection to the great theologians of old. It’s part of a practice called Memento Mori, a Latin phrase meaning, “remember your death.” The main idea is to have some small object around your home or place of work to remind yourself of the fact that you too, will one-day face death. Such objects can range from a skull to a tombstone; some might argue that even a cross can serve as a reminder of death. An author that I read once wrote that he owns a pocket watch that is made to tick in time with his heartbeat, specifically so that he will remember that his own time is going to run out one day. Even some of the saints were in on Memento Mori. St. Jerome, the priest best-known for the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, is often depicted with a skull on his desk. St. John of the Cross, co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites and author of Dark Night of the Soul, is also shown with a skull nearby. This is because, in Catholic iconography, a skull near a saint shows their wisdom and prudence. That prudence and wisdom is no doubt connected to their remembrance of how they would eventually come face to face with God.
Here at Franciscan, there’s even a household that adopts Memento Mori as a pillar of household life, but I personally was introduced to the subject by Sr. Theresa Alethia, a Pauline sister who bought a small skull, placed it on her desk, and tweeted her Memento Mori-inspired thoughts for a year. This had such a profound impact on her that she was even inspired to create a Lenten devotional on the subject of Memento Mori. Sr. Theresa suggested to all of her social media followers that they adopt the same practice, getting a small Memento Mori for their desk, and seeing in what small ways their life would change. So I went alone, found a decent decorative skull, bought it, and made my desk a lot more morbid.
Having had that skull on my desk for nearly a year, I can see why Sr. Theresa recommends the practice of Memento Mori. That small trinket of the inevitable end really does make me stop and think about what I’m doing and why, a whole lot more than I used to. I look at it and I think to myself: Is getting into apolitical argument with some stranger online worth it? Should I really keep putting off writing thatpaper? I should sit down and read that book I’ve been meaning to. Ultimately, dear reader, I want to extend the invitation to you to give Memento Mori a try. I’m not suggesting you turn your workspace into a latter-day Roman catacomb, obviously. There’s a lot of practices I recommend against going overboard on, and this is chief among them. But speaking from my own experience, Memento Mori’s kind of changed my life. We as Catholics have always reminded ourselves that, in the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, “the world is thy ship, and not thy home.” And as reminders of that go, there are few more profound than Memento Mori. Give it a try; I promise you, it will change the way you look at life, the universe, and everything.
Edited by Christopher Centrella