We hear a strange reprimand from St. James today: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit’—you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.” (Jas 4:13–14). He says that instead of speaking like this, we should say, “If the Lord wills it…”
It doesn’t seem like a big deal to speak about the future in this way, but St. James is trying to tell us that the future depends on God. Even if God does not directly cause every event in life, He at least allows it to happen, and He does so for good reason. Most of us understand that almost nothing in life goes exactly as planned. At this point, I’ve taken to planning for the future with the mindset of St. James: “These are my plans, but if the Lord wills it, something else will happen and I’ll adjust.”
There is a deeper truth here, and St. James makes it rather explicit when he says that “you are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears” (Jas 4:14). This reminds me of the popular Christian phrase memento mori, “Remember that you will die.” Saints have kept this phrase in mind through the centuries, knowing that one day all of their earthly plans will come to an abrupt end.
This need not be depressing; in fact, it served as a motivator for these saints. St. Jerome, for example, is said to have kept a skull in his workspace to remind him of this truth and motivate him to do good work for the Lord. We can react to the truth of our death with despair, or we can let it motivate us to strive without ceasing to enter heaven. Death can be our destruction, translating us into the infernal kingdom, or it can be a glorious beginning, translating us into the heavenly Kingdom with God.
The attitude fostered by this preparation for death is one of humble resignation and poverty of spirit, spoken of by St. James and the Psalmist today, and exemplified by the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, whose feast we celebrate today.
If we know death is coming and seek to prepare in hope of spending eternity with the Lord, we will strive to accept everything that comes our way, no matter how difficult, as something that God permits for our holiness. We will understand, as the Psalmist does, that we cannot take riches with us beyond the grave, but we can take the divine life of grace given to those who live a life of virtue and frequent the Sacraments.
Reading the brief account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, a direct disciple of John the Apostle and Bishop of Smyrna, we can see how this plays out when we are face to face with death. Polycarp did not panic when he heard of his martyrdom: he initially stayed put and prayed. When questioned by the Roman official, he firmly defended Christianity and declined to be nailed in place, explaining that he would not try to run from the fire prepared for him.
St. Polycarp completed his life at the age of eighty-six, stabbed after glowing gold and smelling of baked bread in the fire that was supposed to kill him. His holy resignation to the will of God, even when expressed through martyrdom, is an inspiration for all of us. We may not have to face what he did, but we all must face death, and the more we prepare to meet Our Lord the better off we will be when that day comes. Memento mori!
David Dashiell is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader based in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. His writing has been featured in Crisis Magazine and The Imaginative Conservative, and his editing is done for a variety of publishers, such as Sophia Institute and Scepter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature Image Credit: Einar Storsul, https://unsplash.com/photos/hw2wB-Sqg0k