The above quote is the final stanza to my favorite poem, Robert Frost’s “The Lesson For Today.” The last line of the poem is Robert Frost’s epitaph, the line that goes on his gravestone. The words were so powerful and inspirational to me that I thought about my own mortality back in April, and, for an English project about Robert Frost, wrote my own epitaph for what will go on my own gravestone.
During the summer, I thought about getting a tattoo for the Latin phrase and creed of memento mori. Literally, the phrase means to “remember that you have to die,” and sometimes I waver between that definition and my own misinterpreted and distorted one, which means “live like you’re about to die.” That interpretation is perhaps just a fancier way of saying “you only live once,” but the true story goes deeper, much deeper than that. The decision to get the tattoo, in itself, was, oxymoronically, an impulse that was deeply contemplated. The actual decision to get the tattoo was made on a whim. I approached my roommate on Thanksgiving Day, and said “come with me to get a tattoo,” rushed him and myself out of our house as soon as the tattoo parlor opened the next day.
The tradition and history behind memento mori is in Latin Christian theory. Reflecting on death, in traditional memento mori tradition has been a means of considering the vanity of wordly life and worldly goods and pursuits. We can take the interpretation to mean that, as Christians, we should focus more on the holy spirit rather than gratifying the flesh. Contemporarily, that means instead of trying to please others, our jobs, as Christians, are to please God. Memento mori signals to us that we should tune our identities and our character towards the soul, rather than towards earthly pursuits. The skull, a common symbol of memento mori, was commonly used in early European Christian to emphasize “Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.”
The Latin message of carpe diem is considered, in Christian art, to be a pagan idea that made people focus on many of the worldly pleasures of life. The message of memento mori the early Christian tradition seems to be this: by focusing on death and our mortality, we can be more moral creatures.
The early Christian model of memento mori, however profound, does not mean much to me. I instead take my lesson on memento mori from Robert Frost and “The Lesson For Today,” and memento mori in that context is more practical. It means that to be be a “Christian disciplined to bend his mind to thinking of the end,” we have to be “unhappy yet polite.” That is what it means to me to live under the creed of of memento mori.
To be unhappy yet polite has been a doctrine I have lived through my whole life, because I differentiate between happiness and joy. Happiness is worldly and happiness fades. Nothing is more transient than being happy for a couple hours on one day and then proceeding to the next as if everything is wrong because you don’t have the same happiness. Joy, however, is everlasting. Joy is an everlasting happiness you can have even when all the circumstances in life are terrible. According to the pastor John Piper, joy is “a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.” Joy is much more realistic in allowing the broad range of human emotions. You can be joyful and be depressed. You can be joyful and anxious. You can be joyful and ill. You can be joyful and tired, and all these emotions are meant to be felt not despite joy, but in conjunction with joy. Joy is a good feeling in the heart and soul, not in the mind and body.
I digress, but the point is that how we view joy is also the relationship we should have with God and with others, as Christian doctrine declares the two greatest laws being to love God and love others. To love God and love others, we have to have “lover’s quarrels” with those people.
I can picture the words forming in your mind. “What? Ryan, what is this?” you may ask. A lover’s quarrel is a deeply oxymoronic term. We shouldn’t quarrel with the people we love, after all.
In the words of Reverend Sarah Brouwer at the Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church, is that in a lover’s quarrel, “The quarrel is not about winning or losing an argument — it’s a quarrel that spurs us toward working on our relationships…and making sure that they are good and honest, and eventually, whole.” To have a lover’s quarrel, and to live under the creed of memento mori, means to strengthen those relationships, and even focus much of our lives on them. Many things in life are earthly, worldly, and vane, from possessions to accomplishments to everything in between. Relationships are not. I know, for certain, if there is one thing that I will carry with myself at the end, it is those relationships, with my family, community, and God.
The last part, to have a lover’s quarrel with God, is an important message to have. Mark 1:11 is where God proclaims us as his lover, and us as his beloved. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” To have a lover’s quarrel goes two ways. God will break our world, at times. He may break us in the flesh. And sometimes, we will wrestle with our faith and be angry with him. Sometimes, we may doubt. He has his beloved children’s’ best interests at heart, but we may not agree on everything. I know for certain that I won’t agree on everything with my future wife on how to raise a child, and will not be well pleased with those disagreements. That, simply, is how most loving relationships are, and none more so than our relationship with God.
Reverend Brouwser’s sermon on the role of justice and social justice, in particular, concludes that to be just, we must engage in “God’s love and quarrels with the world.” But the part that struck out to me most in the sermon is that to minister to others means “not to afflict the comfortable,” but to “comfort the afflicted.” I believe that every person is afflicted deeply in some manner, and the more you know and love people, the more you realize how messed up they are, and the more they realize how deeply afflicted and messed up you are.
To live under the doctrine of memento mori means to have a lover’s quarrel, in all those relationships, with others, with God. I know that my greatest strength in these relationships is my ability to be open and vulnerable, and break the power of shame’s hold over our lives as we hide ourselves, as Adam and Eve did, from God and from others. As such, I will re-state my epitaph and what my tattoo of memento mori reminds me of as my life mission.
“I hold your doctrine of memento mori. And were an epitaph to be my story, I’d say: “My name is Ryan, and I loved people by trying to break the power of shame. I hope I did right by my family in the end.
Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on November 29, 2018.
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