Christian saints were often portrayed contemplating a human skull. They knew, and apparently were determined never to forget, that before long they too would be nothing but dry bones. Death awaits us all. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” ? Not at all ! On the contrary, their message was “walk the line”, “clean up your act”, “stick to the straight and narrow”. Before you know it, you’ll be facing your Judge. Put your life in order. Sin no more. We will soon be the ones for whom the bell tolls. More importantly, here come da Judge ! Johnny Cash said it best in “Riders in the Sky” : “Cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride, a-tryin’ to catch the Devil’s herd, across these endless skies”.
“Pilgrims and strangers on this earth” is the way Paul of Tarsus and the Poverello of Assisi put it. And they were dead right. Four score and ten, max. For Francis, a lot less. But then he was never kind to Brother Ass, his own body, aged prematurely and weakened by constant “mortification”. Of course, he was dead wrong about death, “Sister Death” as he quaintly called it, her. That skull was meant to remind us of the folly of wasting our lives in wastrel ways. “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his immortal soul ?” Is life worth living? Of course it is, so long as you use it to ensure beatitude in the next life, after our brief sojourn in this ante-chamber which we call, contrasted with the eternal bliss that awaits us, a vale of tears.
Most people believe in the immortality of something they call the soul. All our religions are sources of consolation precisely because they would have us believe that though our body will rot, our soul will not. Make the most of the short time you’ve got to make sure that your eternal life is spent in Heaven and not in Hell.
Faith in eternal life is an illusion we can understand, up to a point. It would be wonderful, if it were true (a trifle long, perhaps ?). The Faithful Departed are in the bosom of Abraham (frankly, I’d prefer not), or at least up there behind the Pearly Gates. We know that our Redeemer liveth, and that our deceased loved ones are in His hands, living in one of His many mansions (Netflixing day and night ?). We ourselves will one day join them, after this short pilgrimage and brief life in the foreign land we call Planet Earth. Pilgrims and strangers, on our way home ! Believe it if you like. I cannot.