Every Orthodox monk knows that step six of the Ladder of Divine Ascent is the Remembrance of Death. Many monasteries maintain ossuaries like the one pictured in the photo above in order to keep the knowledge of death ever present.
Reading about the remembrance of death and attempting to put it into practice can provide some benefit, but it is a bit like learning to ride a bike by sitting on the couch and reading a book. A friend of mine spent a few years volunteering for hospice care and sitting for long hours with people who were expected to die within the next twenty–four hours, coming face-to-face with death many times. In some ways I envied his fortitude, though in reality I wasn’t really prepared to face it that directly. Maybe I should admit that I was too slothful to step out of my little box and do the same.
When I first read the diagnosis I felt sick to my stomach. I got the notification in my email that a test result had been submitted and logged into the patient portal to look at the result. I’m not sure how many times I read that diagnosis with all its medical jargon and puzzled over those words. There was a short phrase embedded on that page that was hard to argue with, “The morphology and staining pattern are diagnostic of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.”
I found myself trying to believe that it was just a lump in the armpit and that it was probably just stage 1 cancer that could be cured with a few shots of localized radiation. I found myself looking for alternative therapies on the internet, drinking green smoothies, eliminating sugar and white flour, and just generally being careful about everything I ate. I looked for alternatives to chemotherapy, but even the naturopath I talked to told me this was my best chance. Then I got my PET scan results.
You don’t really understand what the remembrance of death is until you come face to face with it. I’m not even sure I understand it yet and I’ve come closer to it now than I ever have been. Have I admitted to myself that I might not make it through this?
Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov) said, “A monk should remember every day, and several times a day, that he is faced with inevitable death, and eventually he should even attain to the unceasing remembrance of death.” My disease has brought me a lot closer to this state, but I must admit that I do not yet have unceasing remembrance of death. Maybe I’m in denial. I still find myself looking for alternative cures on the internet and thinking this is just another mountain that I will climb and overcome.
Saint Ignatius continues, “When we forget about death, then we begin to live on earth as if we were immortal, and we sacrifice all our activity to the world without concerning ourselves in the least either about the fearful transition to eternity or about our fate in eternity.” It is for this reason that I feel that I must, though it is a struggle to do so, give thanks unto God for this mountain that will help me to become more familiar with that fearful transition.
May I be like Saint Porphyrios who said this about his cancer: “I’m in great pain, but my illness is something very beautiful. I feel it as the love of Christ. I am given compunction and I give thanks to God.”