The Memento Mori; Life as Passing Shadow
By John Taylor; 2009 July 30, Kalimat 17, 166 BE
What is the central fact of our existence? Surely it is this: life is temporary. We are here for a very short time and then we die. No matter which direction we turn, there the Grim Reaper stands, staring us in the face. This distressing reality is something both believers and unbelievers can agree upon. Life in this world is ephemeral, like a passing shadow, as the Psalm puts it,
"What is man, that You care for him? Or the son of man, that You think of him? Man is like a breath. His days are like a shadow that passes away." (Psalms 144:3-4, WEB)
In times past there was a wise custom of keeping a skull by one's desk or bedside to remind the viewer that death is imminent. This was called a Memento Mori, a standing reminder that life is temporary, that whatever you do it is not lasting, and death will intervene. I do not keep a skull; instead, I collect short quotations on this theme that I have come across in my reading. Let me share some of my collection today.
The above verse from the Psalm points out that life is a mere "passing shadow" compared to the sunlit highlands of reality. Plato made this the basis of his theory of the nature of justice. In the Republic he told the of myth of the cave or den. Here slaves are permanently chained to face a wall. Having seen only the wall during their whole lives, they mistake the reflected shadows for reality. They do not see that a fire is behind them, and that men and objects moving between the fire and the wall are creating shadows.
"And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?"
"And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?"
"No question, he replied."
"To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images."
According to this parable of the sun as the Good, the only reality is what the sun illumines directly. A just person, then, is the reverse of what we think, that is, a meticulous observer of shadows on the cave wall. To be faithful to a projected image of an image is mere imitation. Justice is not shadows of reality, it is the sun that illumines the world outside the cave. Transient shadows are all we see in this temporary existence.
"Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away." (Ps 144:4)
The Qu'ran carries the metaphor of the sun of the Good further. Just as a worshipper raises her arms and lowers her head to the ground, so the sun rises and sets, and our shadows shorten and lengthen during the day. If humans do not pray, they neglect to pay tribute to a Being that even lower material objects pay obeisance to and revolve around, as if in prayer.
"We will show them our signs in the horizons and in themselves, that it may become clear unto them that this is the truth." (41:53)
For Baha'is, our most impressive Memento Mori is permanently enshrined in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha'u'llah's Most Holy Book, or Book of Laws. You can read what He says about it (pages 33-34, paragraphs 39-41) for yourself, but in my understanding the divine Lawmaker is clearly saying that religion itself is both cause and effect of the Memento Mori. Here God addresses humanity, saying in part:
"Rejoice not in the things ye possess; tonight they are yours, tomorrow others will possess them. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Informed. Say: Can ye claim that what ye own is lasting or secure? Nay! By Myself, the All-Merciful, ye cannot, if ye be of them who judge fairly. The days of your life flee away as a breath of wind, and all your pomp and glory shall be folded up as were the pomp and glory of those gone before you. Reflect, O people! What hath become of your bygone days, your lost centuries?" (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, pp. 33-34)
Baha'u'llah was probably thinking of the Memento Mori that motivated the sacrifices of His life, a miniature play about the Turkish Sultan Salim that He had witnessed in youth. This satiric piece of theatre told of a great king standing in all his power and splendour in an ornate court. On a whim, the Sultan declared war. His order was carried out and soon an entire army was arrayed, complete with cannon volleys and cavalry charges. However, when it was all over, the puppet master packed the entire cast of characters away in a small chest.
Abdu'l-Baha also placed great emphasis on this theme. In a Tablet tto a woman believer He reminded her of the same central fact of every examined life.
"O thou esteemed (or dear) maid-servant of God! All that thou hast looked upon -- even the dominion of Victoria, the Queen of England -- is but an image on the water and a mirage of phantasms! That which is a reality and is eternal and everlasting is the love of God, is the knowledge of His Highness, the Forgiver, is the spread of the perspicuous religion of God, the uplifting of the Word of God, and the diffusion of the lights of the guidance of God!" (Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets, Vol. 1, 186-187)
Baha'u'llah, in an early work, makes another point about how the uncertainty of life can corrupt us. This lesson is part of the message of Ecclesiastes,
"Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better? For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" (Eccl. 6:11-12, KJV)
Such is life, a bang followed by a whimper. The evident futility of all we aim to accomplish makes it all a doubt wrapped in an impious enigma. Without reflection and the devotional life, lingering doubts creep in about whether effort and sacrifice will ever bear fruit. Uncertainty about the value of our efforts and the fairness of our place in life prompts us to act unjustly. This, Baha'u'llah points out, is a lesson of history.
"But as these people failed to turn wholly unto God, and to hold fast to the hem of His all-pervading mercy at the appearance of the Daystar of Truth, they passed out from under the shadow of guidance and entered the city of error. Thus did they become corrupt and corrupt the people. Thus did they err and lead the people into error. And thus were they recorded among the oppressors in the books of heaven." (Javahir, para 55, p. 41)
How often it happens that what should motivate us to devote time and effort to religion only makes us worse. The only way to escape the corruption of worldly presuppositions is to take your skull, or whatever Memento Mori you happen to have, in hand and contemplate what is soon to come. Such is the advice of all the Holy Ones, including Abdu'l-Baha.
"This life will surely pass away like unto a fleeting shadow and the gay trappings of this earthly existence will soon be rolled up. The cup of bitter death will be borne round and the fire of anguish and despair will be set ablaze. The foundation of human life will crumble and this clamorous outcry and tumult will be hushed to silence and stillness. Rejoicings will cease and pleasures will come to an end. The souls will set out empty-handed on their journey to the next world, compassed by intense grief and anguish. Of the contemplations of bygone days, of the former life of comfort, joy and power not a single vestige will be left. Utter perdition will prevail and everyone's grievous loss and deprivation will be laid bare." (Abdu'l-Baha, Fire and Light, p. 21)