Memento Mori: Christian Forms of Death Contemplation for Lent — Earth and Altar (2023)

During my first year of divinity school, I experienced a prolonged existential crisis. For nearly eleven months, I’d wake in the middle of the night with racing thoughts about the nature of my existence. Under the weight of competing theories and theologies, the seemingly-solid foundation of my faith crumbled like sand beneath my feet. Every night at 3:00 am, alone on the couch, I wondered: what does all of this mean? Why are we here? Does God even exist? I could die at any moment, and what would happen next? I was contemplating deep mysteries, but I didn’t know it yet.

Nearing the anniversary of my nightly ritual, I’d had enough. Scanning the course listings that fall, I saw a new offering: “Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness.” I knew where I needed to be. For twelve weeks, we delved into the literature and practices of Christian and Jewish forms of contemplation. The sharp edges of my panic softened more and more, the way water softens rock over time: slowly.

Contemplating death, also known by its Latin title of memento mori, is the practice of “remembering that you will die.” This ancient and cross-cultural practice is embedded in many moral and spiritual traditions ranging from early Stoicism to Buddhism, Christianity, and beyond. Thinking about human finitude frames life differently, illuminating not only the mysteries of death, but also the mysteries of life. As Marcus Aurelius once said, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you say and think.”

This year, my husband and I lost a dear loved one. In the midst of death and loss, love centers itself. One consolation within the excruciating, cruel incomprehensibility of loss is to have lived and loved well. To have tended to the vulnerable things well. Remembering death – that we and people we love will die – is not morbid. Rather, it helps us prioritize what is most important.

As we approach the Lenten season, in the midst of this unfolding pandemic, Christian forms of death contemplation may offer relief and perspective for living more wisely in the midst of suffering.

Welcoming Death in Christian Meditation

Centering Prayer is a form of Christian meditation which helps the practitioner confront the fear of death, let go of the “false self,” and strengthen a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit. In my first few weeks as a student of Centering Prayer, I felt a subtle yet palpable sense of agitation as I sat in stillness. I was afraid to let go because, in the midst of an existential crisis, God seemed silent and stillness felt like a cold abyss.

Cynthia Bourgeault writes in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, “When we enter meditation, it is like a ‘mini-death,’ at least from the perspective of the ego (which is why it can initially feel so scary)…In this sense, meditation is a mini-rehearsal for the hour of our own death, in which the same thing will happen. There comes a moment when the ego is no longer able to hold us together, and our identity is cast to the mercy of Being itself.” (1) In “normal” life, our constant stream of thoughts constructs our identity. But in meditation, the knots of the ego begin to disentangle. What remains is not the ego – grasping, striving, thinking, problem solving – but rather, the true self and our “beingness” as a child of God, as a soul, held and loved.

Bourgeault writes, “For twenty minutes we have not been holding ourselves in life, and yet life remains. Something has held us and carried us. And this same something, we gradually come to trust, will hold and carry us at the hour of our death. To know this—really know this—is the beginning of resurrection life.” (2) To “welcome death” is to welcome transformation.(3)

Christian Pattern of Transformation

In Christianity, faith, not simply death, reframes life. Richard Rohr writes, “Christianity—as well as Buddhism, other religions, and natural systems—suggests thatthepattern of transformation,thepattern that connects,thelife that Reality offers us is not death avoided, butdeath transformed.In other words, the only trustworthy pattern of spiritual transformation is deathandresurrection. Christians learn to submit to trials because Jesus told us that we must ‘carry the cross’ with him.” (4) This is the Christian way: to find new life, you have to lose it first. Crucifixion precedes resurrection.

When Jesus Christ reveals to his disciples his impending death, Peter is afraid. He says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”(5)

“Losing your life,” or “dying before you die,” doesn’t open onto the abyss, death, and nothingness. Rather, it opens onto love, presence, hope, fulfillment, Christ.

Death in the Lenten Season

Lent is the season of anticipating the death of Christ. On Ash Wednesday, ashes – the ashes of palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday – are placed on the foreheads of Christians in the shape of a cross, as an expression of the forgiveness of sins and as a reminder of death. I grew up in the Catholic tradition. As the ashes anointed my forehead, the priest would say, “Remember you are dust; to dust you shall return.”

Lent anticipates the death and resurrection of Christ. In Holy Week, Christians embody grief. Sitting vigil with Christ on Holy Thursday, walking the stations of the cross with Christ and kneeling to kiss the bare cross on Good Friday, dwelling in grief on Saturday, and celebrating his resurrection on Easter Sunday with white lilies spilling from the altar and the consolation of the Eucharist.

Rachel Held Evans, reflecting on the miracle of Easter Sunday, says, “I keep thinking about the women who showed up at the tomb on Easter morning. On the days that I believe the story, I’m struck by the fact that they showed up with burial spices. They showed up ready to walk through the rituals of grief and say goodbye to their friend. That was women’s work in those days, tending to those vulnerable things. But it’s only attending to the vulnerable things that we can expect to witness a miracle.” (6) By entering into grief, loss, death – descending – can we witness the miracles of faith.


To consider death – our own and that of others – as a reality of life centers love more regularly in our lives. To remember death is to remember love. Around that light of love, we orient our actions and thoughts in Christ-like ways, the purpose of our faith.

“As we tend to the vulnerable things together, may the God of every season, the God of survival — and if not survival, then death and resurrection — bless, preserve and keep you, now and forever. Amen.” – Rachel Held Evans (7)


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