“Memento mori” is a Latin phrase that means “Remember death.” In a Roman triumph, the general victorious in some war rode in a chariot with a slave who constantly whispered in his ear, “Remember that you are mortal.” The Roman Stoics embraced this same idea. Epictetus, for example, once said, “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
In other words, reflecting on your own death should be liberating. You should be motivated to work toward your goals before you die as death could come at any time—say, in a car wreck or because of a massive heart attack. If you would live a fulfilled life, work toward fulfillment this very day. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you should do today.
And reflecting on death should help you keep those New Year’s resolutions. If you want to lose weight or be more organized or become a less angry person, remember your death. You have limited time to fulfill your resolutions.
But, is there a practical way to remind yourself that you’re mortal? Yes! Modern Stoics have come up with the idea of a memento mori calendar, on which you mark off each week of your life while viewing future calendar weeks that run to age 80 or 89 or whatever. You’re supposed to ask yourself whether you made progress toward your life goals in the week you’ve marked off. If not, you’re supposed to look at your estimated date of death, but remember that you may only have a few weeks (or days) left to change yourself or accomplish something.
I’ve purchased my own memento mori calendar. Starting January 1st, I can easily look back at each week and ask myself whether I’ve written a blog article or progressed in my study of Ancient Greek or lost a couple of pounds of weight. I can ask myself whether I’ve become a more peaceful and compassionate person. I can ask myself whether I’ve become a better Quaker.
Friend, if you too would like to become a better Quaker, perhaps you should consider keeping a memento mori calendar.
~ Richard Russell
Hoist a tree from trenches
toll a bell for peace
where foe on foe advances
fill with love the breach
sing the common carols
share the food from home
let games replace the perils
and kindness set the tone
~ Bob Elmendorf
All who do not believe know there is light
shining in even the most desperate,
wandering from their path in darkest night
to search for the gardens of the Hesperides.
Each who is lost will find a guide
carrying a basket woven of rushes
to hold the golden apples inside
plucked from branches a warm wind brushes.
The far stars ache for your return,
a candle yellow in the window.
Even the oldest heart will burn
for a hearth of coals among the meadows,
always rising beyond your farthest reach
threaded by streams whose pools have much to teach.
~ Bob Elmendorf
As a self-check cashier at Walmart, I’ve discovered how easy it is to steal from my employer. Customers can simply pretend to be scanning items, holding their “purchases” just far enough from the scanner to keep it from reading the bar codes and registering prices. Or there’s “double scanning”: i.e., holding two canned goods together in one hand but just scanning one code as both cans are hurriedly sacked. Or, if multiple identical items are being scanned, use the scanner gun to scan one item multiple times but not as many times as there are items. If you don’t get too greedy, the odds of being caught are low since cashiers are over-busy watching many machines and helping customers with genuine problems.
When weighing produce, select from the register produce menu a cheaper fruit or vegetable than what is actually being weighed. For example, put on the scale expensive Envy apples but select cheaper Delicious apples as the product. Or, “forget” to scan with the gun larger items like cases of water or boxes of Pampers in the bottom of the shopping cart. If the door monitor notices that the water or Pampers isn’t on your receipt, just say, “Oh, I forgot to scan that” and go back to a self-check station to add the missing item to your bill. If the door monitor has left for a break and the cashier is distracted, choose the riskier (but more lucrative) option of simply not paying and walking out of the store with your stolen items.
An article on the Business Insider site anecdotally confirms my analysis of the problem, which—according to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon—may lead to higher prices and store closings. Well, Quakers may regret the replacement of human workers with machines, but no Friend would advocate stealing as a way of protesting automation or helping the poor, who aren’t the majority of thieves anyway. Most thefts probably come from people who are relatively well-off but feel deprived in comparison to those who have even more money or prestige.
Perhaps losses from theft will become so high that Walmart will bring back more human cashiers to individually check out Quakers and non-Quakers alike (but I wouldn’t count on it).
~ Richard Russell
The following quote is from Paul Tillich’s sermon “Salvation,” found in his book, The Eternal Now:
What should salvation mean to us? It is certainly not, what popular imagination has made of it, escaping from hell and being received in heaven, in what is badly called “the life hereafter.” The New Testament speaks of eternal life, and eternal life is not continuation of life after death. Eternal life is beyond past, present, and future: we come from it, we live in its presence, we return to it. It is never absent—it is the divine life in which we are rooted and in which we are destined to participate in freedom—for God alone has eternity. Man should not boast of having an immortal soul as his possession for, as the letter to Timothy says: God “alone has immortality.” We are mortal like every creature, mortal with our whole being—body and soul—but we are also kept in the eternal life before we lived on earth, while we are living in time, and after our time has come to an end.
~ submitted by Richard Russell
As I review my life, certain memories have to do with religion or with my faith journey. Possibly the first of these memories is a children’s Bible picture book. I can still see how God was pictured in the book as an old man with a flowing, white beard, sitting on a golden throne and surrounded by animals and birds. This naïve, anthropomorphic image of the Deity is regularly attacked by atheists like Richard Dawkins. Of course, mature Christian and Quaker theists worship a God that is Spirit, not some cosmic superhuman.
Perhaps my parents gave me the Bible picture book, but they weren’t religiously observant. What little religious education I received came from my grandparents. For example, one summer—about the age of 11 or 12—I stayed with my paternal grandmother, who lived in the Los Angeles area. She enrolled me in the Vacation Bible School of a local Church of the Nazarene. My class had a Bible verse memorization contest, which I won by memorizing a truly prodigious number of biblical verses. I then recited those verses in front of the church congregation and was pleased by people’s obvious delight in my accomplishment. After all, Nazarenes believe that the Bible “inerrantly reveals the will of God.” So, anyone who can recite verses from memory must be—well—doing God’s will.
From 1955 on, we lived near my maternal grandparents in Monahans, Texas (near Odessa-Midland). These grandparents were Southern Baptist, and I attended quite a few church services in their company. I particularly remember the hymn, Just as I Am, which was regularly sung at the close of the church service while the pastor invited people to come to the front of the auditorium and profess Jesus as their personal Savior. In his eagerness to save souls, the pastor would have Just as I Am sung repeatedly—again and again and again—until I wanted to scream, “Stop! Let’s stop church and go home!”
Well, these early exposures to religion didn’t convert me. By the time I enrolled in U.T. Austin as a college freshman, I was a confirmed atheist, having been corrupted by an early interest in Science and Astronomy. However, I was too “nice” to say, “Buzz off!” when various members of Campus Crusade for Christ began evangelizing me. I still remember the look of anger and disgust on a CCC member when I finally said something like, “I’m sorry. I’m just not a believer.”
I also remember the quandary my atheism caused me when I was considering whether it was possible to avoid the draft by applying for conscientious objector status. According to the law of the time, such status could only be granted to applicants who believed in God and objected to military service on the basis of their religious faith. I was too principled to claim a C.O. exemption by lying about a belief in God, and I well remember various conversations in which friends tried to convince me that it was possible—even for an atheist—to have an “expansive” belief in a Higher Power.
Following graduation from college, I fell into a long dark period; but I have a vivid memory of hope being restored when I read a passage from Paul Tillich’s sermon, You Are Accepted (included in Tillich’s book, The Shaking of the Foundations). Years later I had a similar experience when I randomly pulled from a library shelf a copy of Jessamyn West’s Quaker Reader. When I read West’s brief excerpts from the writings of Isaac Penington, I remember thinking, “This is it. This is the Way. This is the Path.”
During these same dark years, I also had what I believe to be a genuine, mystical experience. On a hike to the South Ridge in Big Bend National Park, I watched cloud shadows drift over the mountains below me and felt a sense of profound oneness and unity with Nature. I sat so still for so long that animals started coming near me—insects, squirrels, birds, and the like. Remarkably (to my mind), I saw a swirling “tornado” of insects that reminded me of the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites toward the Red Sea and freedom.
I started coming out of my depression and self-imposed isolation when I began studying Spanish. At first a mere distraction, Spanish soon became an obsession. When you study a foreign language, you are learning more than words and grammar. You are learning a culture, and an important part of the culture of Peninsular Spain and Latin America was Catholicism. I distinctly remember being attracted to Catholic spirituality, with its saints, candles, and ceremonies.
In the 80’s I began seriously traveling along a religious path. I went to a couple of Quaker meetings in Austin while enrolled in graduate school at the University of Texas. I even gave vocal ministry while attending my first meeting. I don’t remember the content of my message, but it must have been an echo of Penington because a Friend near me muttered, “Penington.” Unfortunately, no Friends welcomed me or talked to me. After the rise of meeting, they sought out their customary conversation partners and ignored the newbie in their midst. Nor was I greeted when I attended a second meeting. Perhaps I should have been more aggressive in seeking out these Friends. I was still very shy, almost a recluse.
I also attended masses at the U.T. Catholic Student Center. What a difference! From the first moment, various Catholic students talked to me and invited me to participate in Catholic Center activities. I ended up converting to Catholicism, at least in part because of the warm reception from the Student Center’s priest and his young parishioners.
Father Jim, the Director of the Center, was a character. He went skinny-dipping with the college kids and even smoked pot with them. (I didn’t participate in either activity.) He was young, charismatic, and a gifted homilist. He baptized me with a half-gallon of water despite my doubts about a literal Resurrection. Father Mike, his associate, was gay but refrained from actively engaging in homosexual liaisons. He kept his priestly vows and even resigned from the CSC to protest Father Jim’s unprofessional activities.
As I reflect on this blog article, I realize that there are innumerable “religious memories” that I could include—my church marriage to Zoila or my daughter Gabriela’s baptism, for example. However, blog posts are (mostly) short, and I don’t want to wear out the reader or myself. I DO want to mention the collection of pleasant memories I now have that are centered around Old Chatham Monthly Meeting. I could easily fill a dozen pages with details of the people and events that have made New York seem like a second home. (But I won’t.)
~ Richard Russell
This blog was set up to post content of interest to Old Chatham Quaker members and attenders. Posts related to one's own personal spiritual journey, reports based on interviews with others, and reflections on Quaker-related topics are welcome. Posts by individuals are personal expressions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Meeting as a whole.
Guidelines for posting on website blog:
Submit to member of Communications committee; committee has editorial oversight over all content posted on the Meeting website.
Be respectful of the nature of vocal ministry given in Meeting for Worship or other settings and any private conversations about spiritual matters.
Cite source of any image or other external content submitted.