In Chapter 4 of his Rule for the monastic life, St. Benedict writes a list of the “Instruments of Good Works,” a simple yet beautiful list of 61 actions and attitudes that foster and sustain a life in pursuit of God. It is well worth reflecting upon in its entirety. Since the very first time I read the Rule, during my junior year of college, line 47 has always fascinated me. It contains a layer of meaning that is difficult for me to put into words, and which pops into my mind at the most random of times. It reads – simply – “Keep death daily before your eyes” (mortem cotidie ante oculos suspectam habere).
The most recent time that these words came back to me was while listening to a clip of the commencement speech that the late Steve Jobs delivered at Princeton in 2005. He had recently been diagnosed with the cancer that just recently claimed his life. His words echo the same profound truth that Benedict wrote 1600 years ago:
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
No doubt I will blaspheme the dogmas of our culture in stating this, but in the long run passing along that kind of wisdom may prove to be more sacred for humanity than the iPad.