Saint Benedict exhorts his monks to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” In the original Latin, the phrase is: “Mortem cotidie ante oculos suspectam habere.” As one of my friends would likely ask if reading the phrase in English or Latin: “What is that all about?”
The idea of keeping death before one’s eyes, number forty-seven of the seventy-four “Tools of Good Works,” in chapter four of the Rule of Saint Benedict, is not intended as a morbid or dreary thing, but something realistic and giving perspective to everything else in life. If life is perceived as the acquisition of fame, fortune, beauty and the like, one only needs to be reminded of something the American evangelical preacher Billy Graham used to say, that he had never seen a U-haul trailer in a cemetery!
Italy’s great Saint Francis of Assisi was unafraid to call her “Sister Death,” convinced as he was that the journey to everlasting life could only be made with Sister Death as a companion. Many today view death as the ultimate evil, but Saint Francis chose, along with the best of Catholic theology in general, another way, embracing death as something so close as to be called “Sister.”
All of us, the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, will one day breathe our last and pass from this life to the next. Ancient peoples viewed the passage as requiring material goods, so they included supposedly useful items in the burial place for the passage from this life to the next. Christians, while by no means downplaying the importance of burial and respect for the dead, have never viewed it as something that requires other than “self,” the body and soul, to accomplish.
The catacombs of Rome are many and extensive. They can be visited today and are fascinating on some levels and very ordinary on other levels. They were intended as underground places to bury the dead, so they are stark, damp, a little spooky perhaps, but visited by many in the course of every year. Innumerable important early Christian martyrs were buried in the catacombs, and they remain a place of fascination and devotion.
Though the catacombs are mostly thought of as places for Christian burials, we know that people of many different religions were buried there beginning in the second century A.D., until around the fifth century. The catacombs were created largely because of overcrowding in the cities, hence a shortage of space and the high cost of land. There was also a general prohibition of burying within the city limits.
In pagan practice prior to the second century, the most common way to treat the deceased was by cremation, after which the ashes of the dead were placed in a pot or urn and placed in a columbarium or common burial place. From the second century on, burial of corpses became more common and bodies of the wealthy were often placed in elaborately carved sarcophagi. Christians also favored the burial of bodies rather than cremation, and thus the expansion and importance of the catacombs.
The Roman catacombs are subterranean passageways with rectangular burial niches on either side of the passageways. They are also important places of early Christian representational art, depicting biblical passages and lives of the saints in fresco and sculpture, as well as glass medallions. The sculptures and medallions, as well as the bodies of those buried in the catacombs and the stone or marble coverings of the niches have mostly been removed over the centuries, but the wonderful art on the walls and ceilings of the catacombs largely remains intact, giving a glimpse of life, culture and how death was viewed in the ancient world, pagan, Jewish and Christian.
The word “catacomb” means “next to the quarry,” from the fact that the first Roman catacombs were dug on the outskirts of Rome, by the site of a huge quarry. The vast underground cemeteries were made outside the city because Roman law at that time prohibited burial within the city. Christians who were persecuted and put to death could nonetheless honor their dead and decorate their graves following Christian customs and symbols, such as the cross and the Good Shepherd, since not that many visited the catacombs.
With the Edict of Milan of the Emperor Constantine in the year 313 AD, persecution of Christians ended and they could begin building churches and acquire land without fear of confiscation. Even so, the catacombs were used for burial well into the fifth century. With the barbarian invasions beginning in the eighth century, the catacombs began to be looted and relics were removed and placed in churches within the city or carried off to other lands.
Eventually the catacombs were abandoned and even forgotten for centuries. Of the more than sixty catacombs of Rome, consisting of hundreds of kilometers of passageways, today only five are open for visiting: San Sebastiano, San Callisto, Santa Pricilla, Domitilla and Sant’Agnese. A visit to at least one should be a part of every pilgrimage to Rome. Though they are on the outskirts of Rome, most of the catacombs can be reached fairly easily by bus from the city of Rome.
When pondering Saint Benedict’s admonition to “keep death daily before one’s eyes,” it can be said without a doubt that Benedict knew well that no one escapes death. Sometimes at funerals I look around and think that all of us present, honoring and praying for a recently deceased, will also be “deceased” one day. The Catholic liturgy for funerals and burial of the dead expresses it so well, I believe, with the little phrase, “life has changed, not ended.”
I recently attended the funeral of a Benedictine nun at the monastery of Santa Lucia (Lucy) high on a hill at Trevi, in Umbria, not far from Spoleto, Foligno and Assisi, a couple of hours by train from Rome. Trevi is another “marvel of Italy” that has to be seen to be believed, a beautiful medieval hill town with a Benedictine monastery as part of the hillside panorama.
Sister Anastasia Cevolani, OSB, of Trevi was almost eighty-two years old when she died on July 4th this year. One of the monks of our curia Sant’Ambrogio, who had known Sister Anastasia for many years, was trying to get to see her before she died. Sister had been ill for some days, but alas, we monks only arrived in the afternoon of the morning that Sister Anastasia died. Nonetheless, we were able to attend Sister Anastasia’s funeral Mass on the morning after her death. Being buried so quickly, she was not embalmed or cremated, but clothed in her Benedictine habit and set in a simple wooden casket, placed in front of the altar in the monastery church.
Immediately after Mass, the burial of Sister Anastasia took place at Trevi’s cemetery, in an area reserved for the Benedictine nuns of that town. We monks also participated in the simple burial ceremony. The monastic community of Santa Lucia, a number of family and friends were on hand as well. It was a “perfect sendoff” to eternal life!
Though I did not know her, two things struck me about Sister Anastasia. First, according to the memorial cards distributed at the funeral, her baptismal name was Zoe, the Greek word for “life.” Secondly, her monastic name was Anastasia, the Greek word for “resurrection.” Mamma mia, as the Italians would say, what perfect names to live and die with! Life and resurrection! I presume, with such names, and as a contemplative Benedictine, Sister Anastasia likely “kept death daily before her eyes.”
Sacred Scripture teaches us that life is short; “seventy years or eighty for those who are strong,” as one of the Psalms tells us. As such, life should be taken seriously, remembering that we will all face death, not with dread, but with a certain expectation. Life and death are sometimes compared to a piece of woven cloth or a tapestry, made up of many threads intertwined over time. So too is human life completed more and more with each passing day. “My life has been a tapestry,” as Carole King sang so poignantly decades ago, and maybe still is singing.
All saints and martyrs of God, pray for us, that we may not fear death, but even see her as a Sister.