My husband’s brother died today. He was very sick, so it was no surprise, but it was still a jolt, and a reminder that death comes to us all. We never know when it will come, so we must work at all times to be prepared.
The saints call this, “remembrance of death.” St. Ignaty [Brianchaninov], speaking to monks (although all should take this to heart, whether monastic or lay), said it this way:
A monk should remember every day, and several times a day, that he is faced with inevitable death, and eventually he should even attain to the unceasing remembrance of death.
Our mind is so darkened by the fall that unless we force ourselves to remember death we can completely forget about it. When we forget about death, then we begin to live on earth as if we were immortal, and we sacrifice all our activity to the world without concerning ourselves in the least either about the fearful transition to eternity or about our fate in eternity. Then we boldly and peremptorily override the commandments of Christ; then we commit all the vilest sins; then we abandon not only unceasing prayer but even the prayers appointed for definite times—we begin to scorn this essential and indispensable occupation as if it were an activity of little importance and little needed. Forgetful of physical death, we die a spiritual death.
On the other hand, he who often remembers the death of the body rises from the dead in soul. He lives on earth like a stranger in an inn or like a prisoner in gaol, constantly expecting to be called out for trial or execution. Before his eyes the gates into eternity are always open. He continually looks in that direction with spiritual anxiety, with deep sorrow and reflection. He is constantly occupied with wondering what justify him at Christ’s terrible Judgment and what his sentence will be. This sentence decides a person’s fate for the whole of eternity. No earthly beauty, no earthly pleasure draws his attention or his love. He condemns no one, for he remembers that at the judgment of God such judgment will be passed on as he passed here on his neighbours. He forgives everyone everything, that he may himself obtain forgiveness and inherit salvation. He is indulgent with all, he is merciful in that indulgence and mercy may be shown to him. He welcomes and embraces with joy every trouble or trial that comes to him as a toll for his sins in time which frees him from toll in eternity. If the thought comes to him to be proud of virtue, at once the remembrance of death rushes against this thought, puts it to shame, exposes the nonsense and drives it away.
What significance can our virtue have in the judgment of God? What value can our virtue have in the eyes of God to Whom even Heaven is impure? Remind and remind yourself: “I shall die, I shall die for certain! My fathers and forefathers died; no human being has remained forever on earth. And the fate that has overtaken everyone awaits me too!” Do not fritter away the time given you for repentance. Do not rivet your eyes to the earth on which you are a momentary actor, on which you are an exile, on which by the mercy of God you are given a chance to change your mind and offer repentance for the avoidance of hell’s eternal prisons and the eternal torment in them. Use the short spell of your pilgrimage on earth to acquire a haven of peace, a blessed refuge in eternity. Plead for the eternal possession by renouncing every temporal possession, by renouncing everything carnal and natural in the realm of our fallen nature. Plead by the fulfillment of Christ’s commandments. Plead by sincere repentance for the sins you have committed. Plead by thanking and praising God for all the trials and troubles sent you. Plead by an abundance of prayer and psalmody. Plead by means of the Jesus Prayer and combine with it the remembrance of death.
These two activities—the Jesus Prayer and the remembrance of death—easily merge into one activity. From the prayer comes a vivid remembrance of death, as if it were a foretaste of it: and from this foretaste of death the prayer itself flares up more vigorously.
It is essential for the ascetic to remember death. This remembrance is essential for his spiritual life. It protects the spiritual life of the monk from harm and corruption by self-confidence, to which the ascetic and attentive life can lead unless it is guarded by the remembrance of death and God’s Judgment. It is a great disaster for the soul to set any value on one’s own effort or struggle, and to regard it as a merit in the sight of God. Admit that you deserve all earthly punishment as well as the eternal torments. Such an appraisal of yourself will be the truest, the most salutary for your soul, and the most pleasing to God.
Frequently enumerate the eternal woes that await sinners. By frequently docketing these miseries make them stand vividly before your eyes. Acquire a foretaste of the torments of hell so that at the graphic remembrance of them your soul may shudder, may tear itself away from sin, and may have recourse to God with humble prayer for mercy, putting all your hope in His infinite goodness and despairing of yourself. Recall and represent to yourself the terrible measureless subterranean gulf and prison which constitute hell. The gulf or pit is called bottomless. Precisely! That is just what it is in relation to men. The vast prison of hell has many sections and many different kinds of torment and torture by which every man is repaid according to the deeds he has done in the course of his earthly life. In all sections imprisonment is eternal, the torments eternal. There insufferable, impenetrable darkness reigns, and at the same time the unquenchable fire burns there, with an ever equal strength. There is no day there. There it is always eternal night. The stench there is insupportable, and it cannot be compared with the foulest earthly fetor. The terrible worm of hell never slumbers or sleeps. It gnaws and gnaws, and devours the prisoners of hell without impairing their wholeness or destroying their existence, and without ever being glutted itself. Such is the nature of all the torments of hell; they are worse than any death, but they do not produce death. Death is desired in hell much as life is desired on earth. Death would be a comfort all the prisoners of hell. It is not for them. Their fate is unending life for unending suffering. Lost souls in hell are tormented by the insufferable executions with which the eternal on of those rejected by God abounds; they are tormented by the unendurable grief; they are tormented there by most ghastly disease of the soul: despair.
Acknowledge that you are sentenced to hell for eternal torment, from that acknowledgment there will be born in your heart irresistible and mighty cries of prayer that they will incline God to have mercy on you, and He will lead into Paradise instead of hell.
You who consider yourselves deserving of earthly and heavenly rewards! For you hell is more dangerous than for flagrant sinners because the gravest sin among all the sins is self-opinion, self-confidence—a sin of the spirit invisible mortal eyes and which is often covered with a mask of humility.
The remembrance and consideration of death was practised the greatest of the holy Fathers. Of Pachomius the Great the author of his life says that he ‘maintained himself constantly in fear of God with the remembrance of the eternal torments pains which have no end—that is, with the remembrance of unquenchable fire and the undying worm. By this means Pachomius kept himself from evil and roused to the better.’
From The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, by Bishop Ignaty (Brianchaninov), translated from the Russian by Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), pp. 66-78.
May his memory be eternal! And may we all keep the remembrance of death in our minds and hearts.