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This online photo caught my attention.

Mortar joins long slabs of rock probably hewn from a nearby quarry, and fashioned the cellar room of an ancient house or fortress. Dried grasses and a piece of tree bark litter the earthen floor toward the exit. Mosses, of varying species teeming with critters, seem to climb the steps toward the light.

Centuries of feet, shod in soft leather, fabrics, sandals, boots, and rags, conceivably used these steps, days and nights, to respond to the needs of those living on upper floors, whether prince or peasant. Such cellars were often divided into sections according to their use: bins of root vegetables and fruits, slabs of smoked and preserved meat, stacked drums of grains, vats for grapes, and deeper cellars for wine. Other cellars jailed enemies, with implements of torture still attached to the stone walls.

Interest in this photo joggled memories of having been in such places while traveling abroad. Such exposure to other times and cultures broadened my sense of life—Nothing much has changed.

Yet, on a deeper level, cycles of darkness follow those of light and pattern our life journey: both bear fruit if willing to learn.

As death … is the true goal of our existence, I have formed a close relationship with the best and truest friend of mankind: Death’s image is no longer terrifying but soothing and consoling. So wrote Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his father in 1788 when exhausted with chronic illness and tormented by fears of having been poisoned.

In my perception, Mozart endured a conflicted life: the compulsion to explore and amplify the then known genres of classical music and create his own—he composed six hundred pieces, still enjoyed today—with the limits of his slight body, dead at thirty-five.

As others had composed Requiems, dating from the beginnings of the Christian Mass, and as Mozart awoke to his mortality, his passion to compose his own Requiem consumed him. But the work only began in 1791, the year of his death. Completed were the Introit, Kyrie, and the first eight bars of Lacrimosa, tears that shagged my own, as found within the sequence, Dies irai, all in the key of D minor, symbolic of music of the afterlife.

Assembling Mozart’s drafts of the other six parts awaited another’s hand, composer Franz Xavier Sussmayr.

For those who grieve—and they’re everywhere—there is balm in Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (1791). His psyche experienced the full majesty of God’s mercy and gave expression, symphonically and chorally, to this phenomenon. We’ve only to listen with humble hearts and rejoice and be renewed. There is another way to view life’s hardships.

I seldom know when a critical message will pounce upon me like a rambunctious toddler gripping my knees with gummy hands. One such message, “Be fiercely authentic,” was printed on the underside of an aluminum foil wrapper of a Dove milk chocolate. The sweetness quickly dissolved upon my tongue, but not the message, delivered in the imperative voice.

Such rigorous self-discipline is not new to us. Only girded with honesty and humility is it possible to unearth shadow material—instincts gone amuck—lodged in our unconscious and distorting our thoughts and choices, leaving mayhem in our wake. Instead, it’s about learning who we really are, and with this self-knowledge serving our God, others, and ourselves. But few bother to go there, especially today—too arduous. Yet past cultures deemed otherwise.

The ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself” was one of three maxims inscribed on the forecourt of the third site of the Apollo Temple in Delphi Greece (mid fifth century BCE), the god of music, light, healing, harmony, and oracles. Such was also incorporated in Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound (424 BCE), in Socrates’s history Memorabilia (371 BCE), in the Dialogues of Plato (347 BCE). Numerous poets, authors and playwrights, including William Shakespeare referenced this self-knowledge, essential to our humanness. Theologians Heidegger and Thomas Merton also spoke eloquently of authenticity.

I still marvel at my 1998 Grecian tour to Apollo’s Temple with its discovery of the maxim, “Know Thyself,” shadowed in the afternoon sun—a maxim that under-girds the practice of the Twelve Steps. I’m still practicing …

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