It was a phase. When the novelty wore off, I put the skull away. But maybe that was a mistake. Notice that the saints are often depicted in art with skulls on their desks. Why is that? And what can we learn from them? These are good questions as we go into All Saints and All Souls this week.
I took the skull out of the box in my mother’s closet (she had it for anatomy study) and put it on my desk for display. I had to steel myself to do this, but I wanted to make a macabre statement–skulls were cool in middle school.
Saints are depicted with skulls because they were aware of their mortality. A rule of St. Benedict was to “keep death daily before your eyes” (4:47). That’s a good counter-balance in our modern culture in which we’re taught to put off any thought of death.
Some of us find death depressing, but our mortality points the saints to something more, and that something is what enables them to live like saints. The reality that all saints learn to grasp can be found in the Epistle reading from today’s Mass.
Set free from this world
First, saints are set free from this world. Saints are able to give of themselves in extraordinary ways because they embrace what Paul calls the “first fruits of the Spirit” (Rom 8:23). They are constantly aware that Jesus has defeated death, and that the Spirit is a downpayment of what they will receive in greater measure when this life is over.
Fixed in this world
Second, saints are committed to give themselves for this world. Paul tells us that “we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies,” and that all creation will be “set free from corruption” (Rom 8:21). Saints remember that Jesus took on our flesh because he will redeem our physical world. All creation will be made new, and that includes our bodies.
So the presence of a skull, the remnant of a body, reminds the saint of two things: 1) This is not all there is, and 2) What is left behind will be made new. If we, like the saints, are grounded in this hope, then like them, we will have the foundation to live extraordinary lives because we will not be overly attached to this world and can give ourselves for the world’s salvation.
For these reasons, death is a good thing to think about, and I kind of wish I still had that skull. Yeah, it would be a morbid thing to display in the house, but it would also force me to exercise my faith along the lines of the saints.
But that’s also why we have All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Let’s celebrate with the mind of the saints this week.