Memento Mori: Remembering Death and the End of the World

Today I would like to share with you a guest post from Michael Petrow. Michael is a student of Origen, a spiritual director, and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!

Do you think THE END IS NIGH..?

What about your end? 

I have to admit, a lot of my old conservative friends are laughing their asses off right now, as they are cleaning their guns, double checking their bug out bags, and sitting comfortably on years of toilet paper and supplies in a well secured solar powered living space. The “Preppers” were right in a way, weren’t they?

Growing up in a sect of Christianity that was very “rapture” focused, then migrating to a school of psychology that recognized that our cultural myth was breaking down, and that with it, our culture itself might follow into collapse, I still later found myself in contemplative circles that focus on Post—Doom spirituality. There seems to be a consistent message in all circles: It’s the end of the world AS WE KNOW IT. 

So imagine my shock when I read the words below from my Alexandrian teacher Origen, who wrote them 17 centuries ago. He insisted that we should stop obsessing about the end of the world…Or at least change the way that we do it. He writes: 

They who listen to the Gospel more deeply do not worry about the general end of the world, whether it will come suddenly or all at once, or only bit by bit. Rather they think only about this, that the end of each individual comes without him knowing the day or hour of his death… I also know another end of the just person… for the one to whom the world is crucified, another end of the world has already come about; for the one who is dead to worldly things, the weekdays have been skipped, and the Day of the Lord has come, on which the coming of the Son of man to his soul takes place.

Is Origen saying “Hey don’t think about the end of the world, just think about death instead?”

Well this felt timely when I first read it. Immediately these words gave me pause because I remember reading study after study that suggested that Americans are completely obsessed with the apocalypse (as well as Hellfire and Divine Judgment.)

I also couldn’t help but remember that I had read study after study suggesting that Americans are in total denial about death and their own mortality. We hide from it every way we can.

So I had to wonder, is there some kind of connection between these two things? Because Origen seems to be suggesting a complete inversion of that scenario.

Is it possible that some obsess about the end of the world as a way to project and avoid their own secret fear of death? Or is it just easier to imagine the entire world ending than to consider that my departing from it solo? Or my own world ending? And how does that leave our culture situated to deal with the present pandemic?

It seems that Origen suggests that we focus on our own mortality… not fun or easy… but he then seems to suggest this will take us back to focus even more on the spiritual death(s) that we are asked to die in this life (have you been there?) …and from their our eyes are opened to the wholly different resurrected life that we live on the other side of dying before we die…  These deaths free us from the mass illusions and hypnosis of our culture. 

They also allows us to face death soberly and without fear. From that place of freedom, I think we then turn around approach issues of cultural crisis or collapse from a wholly different vantage point of clarity. Otherwise we simply project our own ignored fears and un-mourned grief onto every cultural crisis (and humanity has know quite a few.) 

We live in a particular unique moment in time in which we are both being forced to consider death and loss on a scale most of us haven’t before, AND we are experiencing the death of a very great deal of what we know as normal in our culture.

And it is very easy for people to instead get lost in apocalyptic pronouncements that God is judging the world for political, sexual, or religious grievances, or that Mother Nature has decided to fight the polluting destructive virus of humanity with a virus of her own.

But Origen asks us to see it all differently, to see through those perspectives to the big picture, the cycle of death and restorative resurrection, and connect it intimately with our very small picture. We need people who have already died, and been resurrected, who can then help us learn to face the possibility of the impending death of many of our neighbors, and of our familiar way of life on top of that.

How do you think this pandemic is going to shift the way that we think about both “the end of the world as we know it” and how we face our own mortality? How are true contemplatives supposed to live death and resurrection for the people around them? How do you try to live this way?

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