“Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” – Rule of St. Benedict, 4:47
You’re going to die. Me too. So how should we live?
St. Benedict, the man from 4th/5th century Nursia, Italy who organized monastic communities devoted to prayer, wrote in his famous Rule: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” (4:47). I don’t usually have too much trouble reminding myself that I will die. I think of death–especially near the end of my morning run. For me, the bare fact of death isn’t what’s most pressing. Yes, I’ll die. But more importantly, I will live. Now what?
It turns out that how we understand what (if anything) happens after death says a lot about how we live. This is why Benedict prefaces his statement by saying that we must “live in fear of judgment day” (4:44). It’s a bracing reminder that we will all, as the apostle Paul puts it, “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). We will render an account of our lives.
But so too “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18), and Benedict goes on to write “never lose hope in God’s mercy” (4:74). To know that we will die is to become profoundly aware of the ways that God shows us his mercy in the midst of life. Each moment is open to God’s mercy.
The biblical vision of God’s mercy runs deep. In the Old Testament, we read that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). In the Apocrypha, the book of Sirach we read: “God’s mercy is as welcome in time of distress as clouds of rain in time of drought” (35:26). In the New Testament, Paul writes that we are to clothe ourselves mercy (Colossians 3:12). “Blessed are the merciful,” says Jesus, “for they shall be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Forgiveness and mercy are linked. Jesus taught we cannot worship unless we learn to forgive. We cannot pray without forgiveness. We cannot follow him without forgiveness. Cain’s son Lamech may have dreamed of 70-fold vengeance, but Jesus taught 70-fold mercy.If we seek him, God shows us great mercy, and we’re called in turn to live lives of mercy. Maybe that’s key to living well and truly. We’re going to die. But seek and accept God’s mercy. Show mercy to others. You see, mercy is gift, and mercy points to the way that all life, every moment of it–even the hard parts and the struggles–is gift.
To be aware of our need for mercy awakens something in us. Author and attorney Bryan Stevenson, who as a young law student got involved in helping people wrongfully convicted by the criminal justice system, writes in his book, Just Mercy: “When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us” (p.290).
It seems to me that mercy is what allows us to face death–and life. Where do you need to claim God’s mercy for yourself? Where do you need to show mercy to someone?