Generations of Benedictine monks around the world have been living by one rule for more than 1500 years: to have death at all times before them.
I’ve often repeated the truism about living each day as if it were my last. I understand it. I appreciate it. But do I do it? Nope! It really never did much for me. If I were to shuck my mortal coil today, for example, I’d be leaving the house untidy, the garden path half-cleaned, a bevvy of blogs half-written. If I knew today was going to be my last day on earth I wouldn’t be bothered about any of those. I wouldn’t be paying bills or balancing my accounts, or sorting my invoices for my accountant. If I knew today was going to be my last day on earth, I’d have had an extra slice of cake at the cukraszda this morning. I’d have broken out the expensive bottle of bubbly that I’ve been saving. I’d have skipped to the last chapter of the Keith Calder book I’m reading. I’d have thought about making phone calls but I doubt I’d have made any; I’ve never liked saying goodbye. I would have spent some time updating my will though – I’d hate to leave a mess behind me for someone else to sort.
But keeping death before me at all times … there’s something different in that.
You might say I’m splitting semantic hairs here, though, and maybe you’re right. But I read the two things very differently. Living each day as if it were my last smacks of preparedness. Keeping death before me is about living the moment. I wrote earlier this week about Br David Steindl-Rast and his 2017 interview with Oprah. Steindl-Rast was born in 1926 Vienna. A quarter Jewish, he was raised Catholic. In his interview, he spoke of living during the War.
[…] you have to live in the present moment, because the bombs are going left and right, and in every other way of your life is in danger. This living in the present moment, that is what gives you joy in life. As I read this sentence in a little book called The Rule of St. Benedict, according to which the Benedictine monks live for 1,500 years now. We read it only because we wanted to do something spiteful against our Nazi teachers and we knew they didn’t want us to read that sort of thing. That sentence, “To have death at all times before you,” that stopped me deeply. And then when the war was over, it came back to my mind and I thought, “Well, that’s why we were so joyful.” You know? Because we had death before our eyes. We had to live in the present moment. We had a wonderful youth. I wouldn’t want to trade it against anything with all the hardship.
I was in a reflective mood coming back from the Island. it was one of those lovely crisp autumnal days that wants so desperately to be back in summer. It was 19 degrees. The sun was shining. The air was still. I was feeling inordinately included. The powers that be had added new signage about the birds and flowers found on the island and the text was in both Hungarian and English. Given that German is usually the preferred second language in this part of the world, I was rather pleased.
I got to thinking about feeling involved, about being part of a community. And while there’ll never be a time when I’m one of the locals, I felt I’d taken a tiny step in that direction. Completely irrational right? It’s not as if they put up those signs with me in mind. But the local shopkeeper had a big hello for us as we passed him and his wife out for their constitutional and a couple of the nénis, my fellow Sunday congregants, had a wave and a smile for me, too. I felt very much of the moment.
Driving home, we spotted a patch of sunflowers in full bloom. It’s nearly November, way past their bedtime. Earlier this summer the sunflowers in that field had drowned in stagnant water after days of heavy rains. Across the road, a field of corn had suffered a similar fate. The smell of rotting vegetation was pervasive. The fields still haven’t dried out. The crops were never harvested. And yet there, in one little patch, the flowers have bloomed again. They’d faced death and come out the other side. Such resilience.
I was brought up to the refrain that there are worse things in life than death. It holds no fear for me. Studies say that the human body will do its damndest to hang on to life – I’m not so sure I’d put up a fight if the quality was questionable. That said, I don’t know. Thankfully, I’ve not been in that situation. I do know though that I’d not hang on to life out of fear of death. It would have to be some other reason.
I’d been thinking about death earlier as we’d walked through the neighbourhoods of nearby Zalakaros, cracking through the fallen leaves, marvelling at the colours. Dead leaves adding so much beauty to the world. Death in all its colours. I’d read that New Zealand had legalised euthanasia for those terminally ill with less than six months to live. They call it ‘assisted dying’. Others call it murder. I doubt they’ll ever reach a middle ground. The BBC did a fairly detailed piece outlining the anti-euthanasia arguments – it makes for interesting reading. Me? I’d like to have the choice.
So, there you have it. Some random thoughts on death and autumn and the Benedictine monks. A little insight into the tangents my mind travels on a regular basis. This week, I’m grateful that I can still engage (and entertain) myself with my musings.