In ancient Rome, military generals returning victorious from war were ceremoniously paraded through streets in a chariot in a great celebration as they ‘inhabited the praise of the people.’ But behind the general, in the same chariot, a slave was placed whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear sobering words that served to protect him from the delusions of grandeur that inevitably come to those who find themselves at the center of human praise: Memento mori.
“Remember to die.”
It seems like an odd reminder, considering the fact that none of us have much to say in the matter, and all of us will certainly prove equal to the task when the occasion presents itself. But of all the facts of life, death turns out to be perhaps the easiest to forget. Or perhaps all of life is oriented toward one long attempt to forget about death, because the moment we become aware of death is the exact moment we become aware of a uniquely human desire: not to die.
Life begins with a desire to eat, to drink, to touch and be touched, but one day we wake up with the desire to be gods, that is, to not die. But since that desire proves to provide little practical counsel for the day-to-day task of being human, we busy ourselves with lesser desires in a pursuit toward satisfaction, expanding our kingdoms, our influence, our bank accounts, our progeny, willfully forgetting that all we value as treasure today the moth will value as food tomorrow. And eventually, even the moths will die. But we insist on willfully forgetting what we know to be true–that nothing less than immortality could possibly satisfy the most basic longing beneath all the rumblings of the human experience that drive us ‘to distraction from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). Where, after all, are the limits of our desire? When, after all, has anyone ever found enough? When has the satisfaction of desire not given birth to yet another, even if the it is simply the desire to remain satisfied, the desire not to die.
So we live our lives as though we will live forever, often using people likes steps on a Babylonian towers on an infinite trajectory, aimed squarely at nothing less than exactly ‘more’—in all its arbitrary finite forms. But ‘more’ turns out to never be ‘enough’. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The human soul is a bottomless pit, grounding our appetites in a boundless, formless void. We are not like the burning bush Moses met on the mountaintop, whose fire did not consume; we are like every other fire burning up the world. So with every met expectation we discover an unmet expectation that lies deeper in the gut, farther from the heart.
“To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God“: that is Paul’s implicit diagnosis in the form of prescription. But the God-sized love we were created to be filled with has been has been infected with our love of so many lesser things. As the deer panteth for the water so my soul panteth after you, O God, and also after you, O sex, and you, O power, and you, O approval, O praise, O just about anything to distract me from the eternity God has stubbornly placed in my heart, in order that I won’t find anything this side of eternity more than temporary satisfaction (Eccles. 3:11)—in order that I might eventually become dissatisfied with temporary satisfactions. Until then, our pursuits will continue to tear us in two opposite directions, driven by two geometrically opposed loves. We love to be loved by God, but we also love to love our sin.
Every particular sin has the same genealogy. Every sin is begotten of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. The Bible calls such desires temptations and attributes deception to the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but, ultimately, to pride. Pride always feels like freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power: the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. That’s why, for example, the will that sacrifices one’s lusts in order to love only one wife leads to far more satisfaction than the will that sacrifices one’s wife to go lusting after to some other man’s wife—more satisfaction for all parties involved, I might add. Just imagine the family Christmas photos in either scenario twenty years down the road. There’s far more satisfaction in short-term sacrifice than there is in long-term regret.
But the will to power, as Nietzsche called it, pursues an indefinite future without ever finding rest in the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now, instant gratification, not grandkids and gratitude. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the soul’s appetite for enough, for fullness, for God.
This becomes more practically obvious as life in the body ages with the body. Eventually embodied life begins to feel like an endless pursuit of escalating goals, with each step up the ladder revealing more clearly only how high our Infinite desire truly is, and thus how low human striving gets us. Every promise turns out to be only half full because we are always left at least half empty. Youth are naïve; their step-grandparents are bitter. All are forgetful. To remember to die in the light of eternity begins by letting our desires die in the light of today.
Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our essential reminder—the story of the God who became a backseat slave to whisper into the front of our chariots: Memento mori. The season of Lent, beginning today, is our annual pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations to forget rise to the surface with the serpent who seduces us to rise up in war against our mortality. If you are the Son of God, pursue pleasure! (cf. Lk. 4:3) Pursue power! (Lk. 4:6-7) Pursue praise! (Lk. 4:9-11). It is the temptation of Son of God, because the Son of God became Son of Man. And this is the temptation of every man, woman, and child: the lust of the flesh (good for food), the lust of the eyes (delight to the eyes), the pride of life (desired to make one wise), indeed, the forbidden fruit—to be as gods—not to die (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Gen. 3:1-7).
And so we enter the desert today, where we confront the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, fashioned after the forked shape of that tempter’s deceptions. We desire God, yes, but we confess too our other desires, splintering forth from the divisions in our soul. We do have a passion for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, but we confess there are other gasoline passions. We desire God’s will, but we confess we never desire “not my will.” We never desire to let ‘my will’ die, and so live into the eternal will of the Father.
And so we must return to the desert fast to search ourselves for areas of amnesia, reminding our obstinate wills to die, to remind ourselves of the direction we are all headed, lest we continue to chase empty upward promises that only push the deeper side of the soul out to the surface, thinning it out, so that life just becomes a series of unexamined actions and reactions, like a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42), leaving us in the end like a cicada shell clinging to that forbidden tree.
By moving through this somber season of self-examination we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us. Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need for the life of faith than this kind of reflection, which inevitably leads us into repentance, since herein we discover no small attempt in our heart to rise up as gods—to live by pleasure alone, power alone, pride alone. Only then can our Good Friday Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need—salvation from ourselves. We must remember to die, lest we succeed needing no life other than our own. Only then can we be properly prepared to utter the truth of our Sunday Morning confession: “I am crucified with Christ—nevertheless I live!”
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
~ Son of God, Son of Man
- Of course, all creatures instinctively desire to survive, but only humans desire not to die. That is to say, only humans can conceptualize death as such and in so doing cannot avoid, if even only for a flinching moment, contemplating their own death. Human consciousness is plagued with eternal dimensions. We can travel in our minds beyond ourselves, modeling universes and genesises and apocalypses. But when when we try to travel into the dark void of non-being, of our own non-being, we indeed discover “a bourne from which no traveler returns” (Hamlet). We become aware of the judgment this world is under, for we know that end of my consciousness is for me the same as having never had a consciousness, and that is the same for me as there not being and never having been and there never going to be anything at all (cf. Jenson, On Thinking the Human). And since there is no life apart from consciousness, the inevitability of death leads to the absurd conclusion of a pure and utter negation of being as such.