Memento Mori: Cultivating a Mortal Imagination

Last night, President Obama invited our grieving nation to begin a healing conversation that might lead us beyond politicized rhetoric toward a more perfect union. Many of us were touched and comforted by his words as he memorialized those killed and looked forward to a better—though still imperfect—future for our country.

In challenging us to reform and renew our dialogue, he called for the empathetic exercise of imagination:

“As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

I was a particularly struck by his use of the phrase “moral imagination,” a phrase familiar to me from my work in college student development. Faculty and staff challenge college students to imagine the consequences of their nascent beliefs. As these young women and men continue to think through the implications of their positions, their moral imaginations gain facility and strength.

I keenly remember the morning of September 11, 2001 when I was just beginning my junior year of college. Our entire campus community gathered together and spent hours in prayer, reflection, and grieving. Never had I seen our college united to such a degree. Not just on our campus, but around the country and the world people suspended their religious and political disagreements to try to collectively make sense of a senseless situation.

The sense of community formed by 9/11 was sturdy, lasting for months, even years after the attack. But the bonds that hold our nation together have been eroded in recent months. As political debates became increasingly frenzied and polarized in the late months of 2010, many wondered just how far the violent rhetoric would go. The tragedy that happened in Tucson on January 8 afforded us a moment to stop, come together, and reflect about what is really important in our lives and the life of our country.

Why is it that although we are so often divided in our living, death has the power to unite us?


In all your works, remember your very end, and so you will not sin, unto eternity.”Ecclesiasticus 7:40

Lazarus was made famous when Christ went to his tomb, where he had been buried for four days, and miraculously raised him from the dead (see John 11:38-44). In Orthodox and Catholic tradition, he is believed to have lived for thirty years after his revivification and to have become the first bishop of Cyprus. According to some, Lazarus laughed only once in his second life. Upon seeing a man stealing a clay pot, he chuckled to himself and remarked, “Clay stealing clay.”

Orthodox spirituality often revolves around the subject of “mindfulness of death.” We are exhorted to bear in mind that any moment could be our last. This emphasis is not unique to Eastern Christianity. Western Christians will recall the refrain from Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent
Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Writing to an audience of austere desert monks, St. John Climacus urged his brothers to remember death and thereby avoid sin:

“Some inquire and wonder: ‘Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial for us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?’—not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation. For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death would he approach baptism and repentance. From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 6.9)

This and other passages from The Ladder of Divine Ascent are standard fare for Orthodox during the Lenten season. During the forty days that precede our Paschal celebrations, we take time to reflect on our mortality, repent from our sins, and seek forgiveness from one another. There is a particularly moving liturgical service called Forgiveness Vespers that marks the beginning of Lent. During the service, members line up around the sanctuary and ask forgiveness of each one present, one by one. “Forgive me, brother. Forgive me, sister,” we ask. “May God forgive us both,” comes the reply.

Though this service unfolds with moments both profound and awkward—the six-year-old girl and the Greek-speaking yiayia have done nothing to offend me—I am amazed to see each year that there is hardly a dry eye in the church. We experience a profound sense of community when we acknowledge our wrongs, consider our own shortcomings, and remember that we know not the hour or day of our death.


Whether we consider the example of desert monks or modern Christians marking the Lenten season, it is interesting to note that Christians past and present have found a sense of community in considering their common end. Other State of Formation contributing scholars have discussed the role that death plays in forming community amongst people of other religious and non-religious traditions (see Ian Burzynski and Jenny Replogle’s excellent posts). As with religious and non-religious traditions, so too with our nation. Death has the power to capture our attention.

I believe that it is not a coincidence that our president was able to challenge us to expand our moral imaginations during this time of national grieving and reflection. It is precisely because our imaginations are so keenly aware of the reality of own mortality, and the mortality of those we love, that we are able to empathize with one another. With death in mind, we are better able to imagine the pain, loss, joy, or convictions of others.

President Obama’s healing words captured our mortal imaginations. We recognized “our own mortality” in remembering the lives of the deceased—Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman, and Christina Green—and we were reminded “that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame—but rather, how well we have loved—and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.” May we all renew civil and sustained conversations with our neighbors—much like the ones we are so fortunate to have here at State of Formation—in the weeks and months ahead.

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7 thoughts on “Memento Mori: Cultivating a Mortal Imagination

  1. Excellent and thoughtful piece Oliver! May I repost on my FB page?

  2. Thoughtful and provoking post—and I love the Lazarus anecdote.

    I suspect there is more than simple wordplay connecting the notions of “moral imagination” and “mortal imagination”. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that mortality could be a primary (the sole?) impetus for morality: without death (or destruction, or finitude), the notion of morality is meaningless. If I don’t have the power to kill (or maim, or damage, or…), then what moral weight does my decision not to hold?

  3. Interesting suggestion, Dan. I confess that I did not think about any connection beyond mere word play when I was writing this piece. But you may very well be on to something.

    Christian spirituality is often concerned not just with the mortality of others, but with one’s own mortality. Many spiritual writings (both biblical and extra-biblical) talk about “death to self” (see for example Matthew 16:24-25)—referring of course to the death of one’s will and egotistical desires. Take, for example, this saying attributed to Abba Antony:

    “Therefore, my children, let us hold to the discipline, and not be careless. For we have the Lord for our co-worker in this, as it is written. God works for good with everyone who chooses the good. And in order that we not become negligent, it is good to carefully consider the Apostle’s statement: I die daily” (see I Cor. 15:31).

    Is death to the “self” the highest good for Christians? So, to consider your example: is the moral weight of the decision not to kill based on the recognition of the mortality of the other, or the mortality of the would-be killer’s ego?

  4. Stumbled across an article about Steve Jobs today that recounted this bit from a commencement speech he gave at Stanford in the wake of his cancer diagnosis:

    “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’s 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’s 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, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” (See for the full article)

    1. That quote really struck me too. From my experiences as a teacher, I see a lot of individualism. In my first year, I realized that my students have no real memories of 9/11 happening, because they were too young. None of them remembered (and only a few had ever heard of) the Oklahoma City Bombing, which also profoundly shaped our country. These tragedies, especially 9/11, were the first times I really felt a sense of ownership and connectedness to my country. On 9/11, sitting in the library, and feeling like the whole world had stopped–even though I didn’t “know” any of those people–I felt truly American for the first time. Sure, I had sang songs about my country before, and pledged to the flag, but only because I was taught to, it had become empty ritual for me.

      These tragedies bring us to face our own mortality, and they have the opportunity to band us together. I don’t know if anything else has quite the same power. They are pivotal moments in our cultural narrative, reminding us that we are part of something bigger. Sometimes, I think America has lost the power of its narrative, of inviting people to LIVE in it, instead of just talking about it…we rediscover it in these moments.

      To make a sidepoint–I’m also reading a book right now on the loss of teenagers to the historic, living Christian faith. Something else I’ve been witness to for quite some time. I think this too is part of a loss of narrative. What is the Christian narrative that we should be inviting our students into? This is a huge part of what I’m trying to do with my Bible class this year…I only hope it doesn’t take a similarly weighty tragedy for them to own it.

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