I turn a corner on my next birthday, when I’ll celebrate – if that’s the right word – my 70th birthday. The body remains in good shape, although there are. . .ravages. Surgeons keep taking things out or putting things in, yet I’m blessed with overall good health and a passion for fitness. My mental faculties are okay.
But when my PCP pronounced me remarkably fit for “a middle-aged man,” I had to laugh.
“I’m a bit more than half way,” I said. “The middle in my case would mean the end will come when I’m about 140 – give or take.”
“Okay,” she said, “then you’ll only live to be 100. But that’s my final offer.”
I keep in my office a print of an anonymous Italian “memento mori” from 1750 that bears the inscription INGREDIMVR CVNCTI, DIVES CVM PAVPERE MIXTVS, which being translated is basically, “All Enter [into death], the Rich and Poor Alike.” It’s a reminder that the art of living well ought necessarily become the art of dying well.
The whole business of memento mori is said to have begun as a part of the ritual of welcome given to Roman military leaders upon their return from victory in battle. Amid the cheers of adoring crowds, a slave was designated to approach the great general and intone: “Respice post te, hominem te memento” (“Look around! Remember you’re only a man!”). Mortal like the rest of us.
We have a bit of this, of course, every Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The reminder is a good one, and sometimes an impetus to head to Confession, because, as our Lord reminds us. “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” A certain amount of procrastination in life is okay, but not in this regard.
These thoughts bring to mind William Marshal (1146-1219), the “flower of chivalry,” because a part of his remarkable life story is the good death he made.
William had always lived a charmed life. When he was barely six years old, he was taken hostage during the civil war between England and Normandy in the middle of the 12th century. William’s father, John Marshal, fought for Empress Matilda against King Stephen.
Stephen laid siege to John’s castle and threatened to place little William in the sling of a trebuchet and hurl the boy against the castle wall unless John surrendered. John refused. Standing, as we imagine, on the parapet, he shouted down at the king: “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge more and better sons!”
It must have been a curious memory for the boy as he grew up. He was not the eldest Marshal son, so he was forced as a youth to become a knight-errant, which he did at 20. In the knighting ceremony, there was a moment, called the collée, in which the postulant received a slap across the face – another reminder of mortality – a part of the ritual William may have considered unnecessary. He already knew he was expendable.
But he would become indispensable to several kings: Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and the impious John Lackland. He rose to become the Earl of Pembroke, and, in 1216, Regent of England, watching over the minority of John’s son, Henry III.
In 1189, he married Isabel de Clare, one of the richest women in England. She was 16 and he was 42. They were married for thirty years until his death and had ten children, every one of whom lived into adulthood. By all accounts, it was a very happy marriage.
When William died, the Archbishop of Canterbury eulogized him as “the best knight who ever lived,” as well he may have been.
Marshal lay upon his deathbed dressed in the white cloak with a red cross that is the habit of the Knights Templar. This is the first time he has ever worn the garment. He had pledged himself to the semi-monastic Templars thirty years before, and now he is fulfilling both his promise to their order and to the order of life itself. Leaving the earthly plane he is no longer a knight or a baron or a husband or a father. He has become a warrior-monk.
We’re familiar with Christ’s admonition to be “in the world but not of it,” but we are unaccustomed to the claim that we ought to be in the Church but not of it. As he lay dying, William complained that churchmen “shave us too close,” and when the priests gathered around his bedside urge him to give his expensive wardrobe to their religious communities the old warrior stirs himself long enough to snarl at them to get the hell out.
He gives his fine garments to his comrades-in-arms. And if there aren’t enough of William’s outfits to go around, the dying knight tells his seneschal, “Send again to London to buy what is lacking.”
Brave as he is, Marshal still shivers for the transition that’s coming. The spirit is willing, but. . .
The warrior’s way is the way of the joust: he spars with Death, brother against brother. When death wins, the knight graciously bows in defeat. The monk’s way is the way of the cloister, where Death walks the corridors and sits at table and works in the gardens along side his living brothers. When death takes a brother, it is as if the dead monk has entered a room in the monastery from which the living are prohibited, but he remains in the community awaiting his brothers, who will join him one by one.
We cannot know the exact moment of our dying, but we can live in recognition of that moment, in readiness.
Marshal was 72 when he died. Not much older than I am now.