Monday, February 28, 2011

"The Most Essential of All Spiritual Disciplines"

“David is dead,” my wife said. “His parents want you to speak at the funeral. They’re burying him tomorrow.”

I had spent the day taking my kids to a local fair. We had been riding kiddie roller coasters, braving gravity-busting wheels, and digesting cotton candy. It was late at night by the time we got home, and the funeral—a three hour drive away—was scheduled to take place in about thirteen hours. It was difficult, as you might imagine, to shift gears so suddenly.

The funeral was a particularly sad one, in that David died young and in prison. He poked heroin into his veins once too often, and on a particularly fateful occasion, the HIV virus was clinging to the needle.

I struggled through the service, but was helped by the classic Christian writers who have taught me that even tragic deaths can teach us valuable truths—negatively, if not positively. In fact, these writers urge us to use death by extracting the message out of each one, thereby making death our servant.

The great seventh century Eastern Orthodox writer John Climacus called the remembrance of death the “most essential of all works” and the most helpful of all spiritual disciplines. John of the Cross, a medieval writer who coined the now famous phrase “Dark Night of the Soul” was fond of drawing pictures of skulls and literally ate his soup out of a plugged skull to remind himself that death was imminent.

More importantly, Scripture itself teaches us to keep the reality of death in mind: “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2b NIV).

The Passion Filter
Among other things, the ancients saw the remembrance of death as a filter for our passions. Pascal wrote, “To render passion harmless let us behave as though we had only a week to live.” Notice the practical element in Pascal’s teaching: remember death to take the heat out of sinful passions.

Climacus joined him in this counsel: “You cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last…The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a saint.”

Thomas à Kempis argued that the remembrance of death is a powerful force for spiritual growth in general:
"Didst thou oftener think of thy death than of thy living long, there is no question but thou wouldst be more zealous to improve. If also thou didst but consider within thyself the infernal pains in the other world, I believe thou wouldst willingly undergo any labor or sorrow in this world, and not be afraid of the greatest austerity. But because these things enter not to the heart, and we still love those things only that delight us, therefore we remain cold and very dull in religion."

18th century Anglican William Law adds, “Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem great things to us whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business than the losing of a feast.”

The ancients also portray the remembrance of death as a comfort and as a help to keep our priorities in order. They suggest practical ways that we can incorporate the remembrance of death into our daily spiritual disciplines. For more on this, check out Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey, now available from Harvest House books.


  1. Very surprising. Very Good. Best cure for narcissism too. MGR

  2. This is probably why when somebody is given just a little time left to live, they start doing what it really matters, they start to fully live, knowing their time is short!

    Wonder what we would achieve if we were to live like this everyday.

  3. Dear God give us understanding. We stand at eternity's door so unaware at the gravity of what is before us.

    Thank you Gary.