You learn not only from life, but also from death. It is the old professor for you, and for many others. Many of the fathers have learned from death the lessons of being detached, of the transitoriness of the world and the futility of all desires. The depth of this feeling has led some of them to monastic life and to renouncing the world altogether.
An example of such people was the great St Antony. He looked at his father when the latter lay motionless on his deathbed, and addressed him saying: ‘Where is your strength, your greatness and your wealth? You have departed from the world against your will. But I shall willingly depart from it, before they can take me away reluctantly’. Thus St. Antony resolved to lead a monastic life, and with this feeling in his heart, he was moved by the verse which he had heard in church; “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”(Matt. 19:21)
And St Paul, the first of the anchorites, was also affected by death. He had been on his way to the court to carry out a lawsuit against his brother over a matter of inheritance, when on the way he had seen a funeral procession. He was so deeply affected by it, that he left the money and the lawsuit, and went to the desert to try and save his soul.
Then there is the story of the advice which a brother heard from St Macarius the Great. St Macarius had said to the young man: ‘Go and praise the dead’. And the young man had gone and said to them: ‘O righteous ones, O faithful saints…’ and then returned and the saint had asked him: ‘Did they make any reply to you?’ To which the young man replied, ‘No, not at all’. So the saint said to him: ‘Then go and criticise them’, which the young man duly did. The saint then asked: ‘And did they make any reply to you this time? Were they upset by your condemnation of them?’ To which the young man replied, ‘No, not at all.’ At which point the saint said: ‘This is how you must be, then, if you wish to be a monk. Be like these dead souls. Do not rejoice at praise and do not be sad at being disapproved of.’
And there is the story of how St Macarius once went to sleep having placed a skull under his head. Some of the saints used to benefit spiritually from the sight of skulls, from seeing the dead, and from visiting tombs. In fact, merely the mention of death used to benefit them. And to meditate upon it was a spiritual lesson for them. It was said about Alexander the Great, the most outstanding leader and emperor of his times, that he had commissioned a servant of his to say to him every day: ‘Remember that you are a human being, and that one day you must die. ’I wish that you too would benefit every time you hear of a death, and from every funeral you attend, and that you would learn from those upon whom death has had a deep effect, and take from them a useful lesson in setting your priorities in life.