Media vita in morte sumus — in the midst of life we are in death. This antiphon is attributed to the Benedictine monk Notker I of Saint Gall, who died in 912. Legend has it that the musician and poet wrote it when he saw construction workers building a bridge hover over an abyss. Most likely, however, the hymn is much older and originated in France around 750. It expresses an important Christian idea that was understood for many centuries and that we have sacrificed on the altar of modern culture — that death is about life.
Different from Notker, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “At death, the world does not alter but comes to an end” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus 6.431), which implies that “death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death” (6.4311). This modern position is the opposite of the Christian view, which has always seen death not as the end of life because, in the words of the Latin Requiem Mass, vita mutatur, non tollitur — life alters, it is not taken away. If eternal life does not start at death but continues the life we have led on this earth, death is indeed in the midst of life, and temporal life ought to prepare for death. But do we still understand this? More precisely, do we still live death?
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Today the Church celebrates All Saints’ Day, or in an older language, All Hallows’ Day. Tomorrow it will celebrate All Souls’ Day. The first solemnity commemorates all saints known and unknown, and the second reminds us of the departed faithful who have not yet been purified and reached heaven. All Saints is an old feast going back to the fourth century, and since the seventh century has been celebrated in all of Christendom.
But we are about to lose its meaning, and one of the reasons is Halloween. As a billion-dollar secular event for children, Halloween now has absolutely nothing to do with remembrance of the dead and celebration of the saints. One may, of course, brush Halloween off as just another show we put on for the kids, and there may indeed be little harm in that. But in the mind of the people, it largely overshadows, and has perhaps supplanted, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Once upon a time, All Souls was about placing candles on the graves of family members and about praying for their release from purgatory. Is it still?
Both All Saints and All Souls are important occasions for reflecting on death and its location in the midst of life. The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed places our own lives in a continuity of generations that is the fabric of culture. All Saints makes us conscious of those who have given examples of great virtue, not least the many whose lives were crowned by their deaths. There are few things more indispensable to believers; indeed, there are few topics more central to Western civilization. The ars moriendi was not only for Cicero at the center of his philosophy; according to Plato’s Apology and Phaidon, Socrates, in considering the death sentence passed against him and after drinking the cup of hemlock, didn’t regard death as a problem but was concerned with whether one has led a good life.
We have lost the art of dying, which we should develop throughout our lives. We have pushed any thought of death far away from us, and when faced with the inevitable, we have sanitized it. Most people no longer enjoy the dignity and comfort of dying in their homes surrounded by a family that is willing to listen and to share, to appreciate and give thanks, and thus to celebrate the life of the dying person. We leave death to the professionals.
This may be a relief for relatives, particularly for younger ones, but it also keeps them unprepared for their own departure. Much greater piety is displayed in the Attic steles on display at the National Archeological Museum in Athens. These tombstones always depict two persons — one departing toward death and the other remaining behind. In the faces of the latter one can read the perennial questions: Where do you go? Will we ever meet again? By portraying death as the hinge between generations, they symbolize continuity.
St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have died singing God’s praise. St. Thomas More gave his executioner a piece of gold. Mozart died over the writing of his unfinished Requiem, reaching as far as the passage Lacrimosa dies illa (“that tearful day”) in the Dies irae. Blessed Karl of Habsburg, the last Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, and last King of Jerusalem, on his deathbed in exile in Madeira summoned his son Otto to show him, in the former monarch’s own words, “how one dies as a Catholic and as an Emperor.”
Testimonies to the art of dying are abundant — hagiographies are indeed full of them. But do we still want to listen and learn? Even though some of us may have retained it, as a culture we have lost the art of dying that even the pagan Greeks knew well. This is what the two feastdays should be about. Instead, even theology too often ignores — or worse, trivializes — death by relegating it from dogmatic theology to a matter of merely pastoral concern. No longer do “progressive” theologians speak about the last things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. And yet these things lie at the center of our humanity.
Reevangelizing our culture also means rediscovering these two solemnities and their true meaning. Both feasts together place death again where it belongs — not at the margin but in the midst of our lives. Eschatology is mystery and yet reality, and it is a centerpiece of our culture. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was himself a rather tenuous Catholic, gave this thought expression in his poem Schlußstück (“Final Piece”), with clear reference to the old antiphon:
Der Tod ist groß.
Wir sind die Seinen
Wenn wir uns mitten im Leben meinen,
wagt er zu weinen
mitten in uns.
Death is great. / We are in his keep / Laughing galore. / When we deem ourselves deep / In life he dares weep / Deep in our core.