Thursday, July 06, 2006

memento mori

I came across a new phrase the other day -- memento mori. It translates from Latin as "remember you are mortal". The phrase came up in an article I was reading last week and then again in my current book -- Brad Thor's Blowback. I haven't read Thor's work before but I needed something a little more suitable to a long week-end and so far he has not disappointed.

I'm intrigued by the concept of memento mori. Apparently it shows up in art quite a bit. Thor writes that in ancient Rome when a returning General took his victory parade through the city a slave would walk by his side whispering "remember you are mortal, remember your death". Macabre on the surface perhaps, but I think that we would do well, I would do well, to remember that we're not here forever.

Last week I was thinking about how as humans our 'finiteness' defines us. We are fundamentally limited -- not in potential, but in time. I was reminded of a friend of mine who was on Phi Phi Island when the tsunami hit. He spent hours and hours helping to get people to safety and reached a point where he couldn't lift his arms. He had nothing left to give. Walking back to where he was staying people called out to him and he had to walk by them and it tortured him. But he was empty, he had already given everything he had and more. He had reached the edges of his strength, the horizon of his endurance. And yet the guilt was there even though he had nothing in the world to feel guilty about. Finite cannot apologize for failing to reach infinity.

Reminds me of Blake's lines, often quoted:

To see a world in a grain of sand, And Heaven in a wild flower, To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.

Maybe that's simply the reality of being finite, that yearning to reach out towards the infinite. Perhaps it's what draws us to beauty and ultimately to faith. I think so often we try to outrun our mortality, our limitedness, in trying to look younger, move faster, cram more into the day. I don't think denying finiteness is the way to go. Memento mori could prove a much more effective way to redeem the hours.

1 comment:

Englers said...

I commented to Alvin the other day how well you write. His response was "that's because she's a writer." Thanks for sharing your gift.
-de