In the Rule of Saint Benedict we read, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” This single verse offers spiritual wisdom about bodily death. Yet, when you read through the Rule, you will also have a sense of what can be called “death to self,” as part of St. Benedict’s spiritual doctrine for imitating and following Jesus
At the moment we pass from our mother’s womb into the waiting world, our life moves toward death. To some, that thought may sound foreboding or morbid, yet it is a fact of life. This fact of life gives us perspective on how we choose to live (and sometimes how we choose to die), and how basic death is to the process of nature. It surrounds us each day. Light dies and gives way to darkness and sleep. Autumn shows us the process of dying and ushers in the winter when the death or deep slumber of so many things in nature reveals itself in stark landscapes.
However, we cannot forget that the darkness of night then gives way to the glories of a sunrise and fresh morning breezes. Likewise, the bitter cold and shorter days of winter pass to longer, warmer, and brighter days in spring, with signs of new life popping up everywhere. Nature teaches us that death is a passageway directing us to new life.
There is no one who has shown us this better than Jesus
the wisdom of God. His words and deeds were a message of life and hope to those
who first heard them and to those who hear them today. He approached his own
ignominious death with the truth that sets a person free, and without fear of
what lies ahead, trusting in the goodness of God.
Throughout our lives, every one of us faces the call at numerous times to “let go” of our plans, our hopes, our wishes, and our will. These entail a death to self which enables us to let go of what we had hoped for so that something else (and not always something material!) may take its place.
How often should we bite our tongue rather than show annoyance with another over something of little concern? How often does patience invite us to overlook the idiosyncrasies of someone at work to keep peace in the office? How often do I have to jettison my plan for a project in a church group because another’s is better—or, another’s is equally as good?
Willingness to act in these ways is death to self, which then brings life, peace, and well-being—to others, and hopefully to us.
The single goal in life for the
Christian is to
become like Christ. Our experiences
of death to self and of bodily death find special meaning in a passage from St.
Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. There St. Paul writes, “All of us,
gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into
the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians
When he writes of “glory,” St. Paul refers to the paschal mystery of Jesus into which we are all incorporated—that is how our own life, suffering, and death are now sharing in the resurrection of Jesus. But for St. Paul, our glory includes not only the promise of resurrection, but all the experiences of our life that are united to Jesus’ own life, suffering, and death.
There is a little “sacrament” in nature that reminds us that our death to self is beautiful in the eyes of God. In the autumn of the year, the leaves that are turning brilliant yellow, bright orange, and deep red are actually in the process of dying. Their colors are deepest, brightest, and most brilliant as they are “in the process” of their death. That is also true for us. Our lives mirror the beauty of God’s plan for us as we die to self, and as we prepare to enter the eternal life for which we were created. This is the paschal mystery—new life through death!
--Rt. Rev. Gregory Polan, O.S.B.
Abbot of Conception Abbey, Missouri
Adapted from Sacred Rhythms
© 2011, Abbey Press