Among the many beautiful and historical churches of Rome, there is the Church of Holy Mary of the Conception of the Capuchins. Among other spiritual treasures, the church holds the famous painting of Saint Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni and the tomb monument of the Polish prince, Alexander Sobieski.
In addition to these masterpieces, the church holds a powerful lesson for believers, especially in November when we traditionally remember and pray for our beloved dead. For us to find this helpful lesson, however, we have to explore a different part of this house of worship.
In spite of its other spiritual patrimony, the Church of the Conception is most known for its infamous Crypt Chapel of the Bones. To the surprise of many, the lower chapel is actually a “bone church,” meaning it is completely composed of human bones, hanging lanterns and all. While the chapel is some “weird Catholic stuff,” to say the least, it does present a pressing and unavoidable lesson.
As disturbing as they are, the chapel’s bones – from skulls to feet digits – are a stark reminder that our lives are short and that we are all going to die.
In case we miss the obvious, our skeletal friars of the chapel conclude our visit to their resting place with a simple sign, written in all the major languages, that basically reads: “We were once what you are now. You will one day be what we are now.”
Well, there it is. And there’s no distracting ourselves or avoiding the indisputable. Our mortality is looking us right in the face. What are we going to do about it?
There are many positive and encouraging things that believers and people of goodwill can do to accept and live out the ephemeral aspect of life. Death does not have to be a harsh reality or a feared guest at the end of our lives. Of the many things that can be done, here are only three:
1) In our lives, we can actively keep the memory and presence of our departed loved ones with us. We don’t let them disappear. We don’t treat them with an odd sense of shame or whispered silence. We talk about them, we spiritually converse with them, we keep their pictures on our walls, we recall stories from our lives together, we remind others about them, we laugh and cry as we remember them, and we continue to apply and cherish the good things we learned from them or with them.
Incidentally, this is what November is all about for believers. It’s the Church’s annual memo to us about remembering our beloved dead.
By living in communion with the dead, death loses its sting. It becomes a part of our lives. And our transition from life to death becomes less overwhelming and easier to think about as we actively share our lives now in spiritual solidarity with those who have already died.
2) In our lives, we can give mercy generously and seek to have compassionate hearts in our dealings with others. It is a time-tested, observable spiritual truth that nothing restricts or shocks the soul more than sustained unforgiveness.
The refusal to give mercy to others (or ourselves) is to choose to leave an open wound on our souls. Just as a closed door doesn’t stop a fight, so a closed heart doesn’t stop a hurt or an offense.
A burdened soul is a heavy soul. And such a soul finds transcendence and eternity as things far removed from its experience and context. Such souls become very insular and short-sighted. The reality of death, or possible ways of being at peace with it, are not even on the radar.
In such a state, an unexpected death of a loved one or a terminal diagnosis would be intensely abrupt and bring everything crashing down because death – which is a natural part of life – was not in the equation at all.
By giving mercy, we let our souls breathe. Such souls are healthy. And healthy souls push us and inspire us to seek transcendental and eternal things. They help us to understand and prepare for death.
3) In all our duties and responsibilities, we have to seize and cherish the present moment. Many of us struggle with dwelling on the past or obsessing about the future, but divine grace, other people, and opportunities are only found in the present moment, right here and right now.
If we want a happy death, we have to live happy lives. Happiness is found by claiming the grace, the love, and the opportunities of the present moment.
In these three simple ways, we can heed the sage advice of our Capuchin friars in the Bone Church. As their bones convict us, so their wisdom instructs us. We will be what they are now. It’s time to get ready.
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