Remember Death. Remember Joseph.

During one of my moves from one state to another I diligently sifted through the many boxes of “stuff” I had accumulated through the years to decipher what was coming with me and what was going to be donated or thrown out. This was one of those milestone moves where everything I possessed needed to go; however, a move where not everything needs to go with me. One such box I pulled down from the top shelf of the closet. There was a fine layer of dust on the brown cardboard lid. In black marker on the top and side was written ‘Momentos’. It must have been at least four years since I touched this box. I pulled it down and set it carefully on the ground. This was a moment to savor as I could not recall what I had put in this box. It was time to take a break from the sorting to open this up and see what was oh so memorable.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I sat Indian style in front of the box and carefully lifted the lid.  There were many object sitting in there. The first object was a round candle. It was nearly burned to its end. The pattern was black and white Ying and Yang symbols. I smiled. This candle was bequeathed to me by my retreat leader while on a Kairos retreat in the mid-1990s. At the end of the 3-day silent retreat he gave me the candle. I did use it afterwards for my daily prayer sessions up until the wick burned out. At the time I couldn’t throw it out. It had so much meaning. I placed it in this box to hold onto the meaning and memories that it held. And so on went the contents of the box full of moments from my life — small gifts given to me by my family members, items saved from high school, college dances, and events that held and continue to hold a special memory and place in my heart. 

Uncovering those momentos, those reminders of something special, those valuable moments in life, reminded me of a popular phrase in the history of the Catholic Church — ‘Memento Mori’, Latin for ‘Remember Death.’ I was first introduced to it through studying the various religious painters of Spain and Europe; many a Saint was shown in religious poses with a skull nearby. It became all the more real when I visited the Igreja de Sao Francisco in Porto, Portugal. This Church of the Franciscans is beautiful. When you descend to the lower level you enter the catacombs, where  rest the remains of the Franciscan order as they await judgment day. Entering the crypt a profound silence surrounded me and a slight eeriness.  There was row after row of tombs in the wall with the names and numbers of each deceased monk. In the next room they were in the floor. It was a somber reminder of where we are headed. I am sure that was and is the point for anyone that walks through the doors of the church.

Tombs, Igreja de Sao Francisco in Porto, Portugal. Photo Credit: Brian Rademacher
Tombs in Igreja de Sao Francisco, Porto, Portugal. Photo Credit: Brian Rademacher

Despite this constant reminder in the Middle Ages, I am also consoled by the devotions that grew throughout the ages to petition advocates in heaven and prayers written as meditations to help us prepare for that next leg of our pilgrimage. This makes sense because, as reads my devotional prayer book, “At the hour of death man is subject to untold suffering and anguish. At that supreme moment, every Christian must undergo a terrible trial, upon the final outcome of which depends eternal joy or endless woe.”

No greater advocate can we have other than the most holy St. Joseph, who has the honor of being the Patron Saint of the dying. Catholic tradition teaches us there are three reasons why St. Joseph has this most venerable title: 

  1. He is the foster father of the Eternal Judge, who can refuse him no request.
  2. He is terrible to the demons; the Church calls him the Terror of demons and Conqueror of Hell.
  3. His own death was most beautiful, for he died in the arms of Jesus and Mary.

‘A Prayer for a Happy Death’, ‘Petition for Our Dying Moments’, ‘Litany of St. Joseph for a Dying Person’, and ‘Prayer for a Heavenly Crown’ are just a few prayers available for us to invoke St. Joseph. Including any of these prayers into a prayer session would be extremely efficacious. We will ‘memento mori’ while invoking an advocate and praying that we will have sufficient graces and be a little better prepared for the next leg of our pilgrimage.

The Death of Saint Joseph by Simone Barabino, Philbrook Museum of Art, 1620

O Glorious St. Joseph, spouse of the Immaculate Virgin, obtain for me a pure, humble and charitable mind and perfect resignation to the Divine Will. Be my guide, father, and model through life, that I may merit to die as thou didst die, in the arms of Jesus and Mary. -Amen.

Prayer For A Good Life And A Happy Death

O St. Joseph, foster father of the Child  Jesus and true spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us and for the dying of this day (or of this night). -Amen.

A Short Prayer For The Dying

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