I don’t remember when it was that I first noticed the nun who keeps blogging about death, but it got my attention. Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is a former atheist–turned–religious sister with the Daughters of St. Paul, based in Boston, and an editor for Pauline Books and Media. I’m using her new Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal and look forward to her upcoming Memento Mori Lenten Devotional. I’m planning on making it an unconventional Christmas present, given that in many ways it is exactly what Christmas is about. She’s @pursuedbytruth on Twitter, and www.pursuedbytruth.com is her website. Below, she talks with me about her work. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You’ve written: “Death shakes us to the core and challenges even the deepest faith.” Why is that so universal? Is it about control?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP: In City of God, Saint Augustine described the startling reality of death as “the very violence with which body and soul are wrenched asunder.” Death is a scary prospect. I think fear of death is part of what it means to be human. If we have a healthy love for our life — and we should — fear of death is normal.
However, since Christ died on the cross for us and saved us from our sins, we are called to have a different relationship with death. In On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius describes Christ’s disciples as despising death and argues that this is a sign of the power of the resurrection. “Now that the Savior has raised his body,” he writes, “death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as naught and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ.” As Christians we are called to despise death as well and to face death without fear — a calling that is difficult and intimidating but nevertheless possible through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Lopez: Why is it healthy to remember your death every day? Some might think it morbid.
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: My experience of meditating on death over the past year has been anything but morbid. Remembering death, in the way that Scripture and the saints exhort us to, is a practice that brings life. Initially, thinking of death may bring up anxieties and fear, but ultimately it brings us to a greater faith if we meditate on the meaning of death in the light of the cross.
Lopez: “Because Jesus trampled death at the Place of the Skull one can gaze at a skull and see life,” you write. How do you see life when you look at a skull? Wouldn’t it be more fruitful and direct to look at a crucifix?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: For the Christian, meditation on a skull or another memento mori is always in conjunction with meditation on Christ’s death. The symbol of the skull, however, has been used for centuries in the Church to bring home the concrete message of the cross. We so easily lose sight of what the cross means. It can become “white noise” in our spiritual life rather than a stark symbol of what Christ did for us. A skull helps us to think of our own death — our own skull even — and it is a jolting reminder that as humans we tend toward death. And that death would be the end for us had Christ not died on the cross and saved us from the death of sin. So the symbol of a skull brings home the symbol of the crucifix, it makes it personal and real. But both symbols and realities are inextricably intertwined as well.
Lopez: One of the prompts you have in the journal is: “God already knows when you are going to die. Ask Him to help you to prepare.” How does one prepare?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: One cannot prepare for death without thinking about it. For this reason, Saint Benedict exhorts his monks in his Rule to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” People sometimes respond to what I am doing by protesting, “But Sister, I want to live and focus on life!” To that I respond, “You cannot really live unless you meditate on death.” The Book of Sirach urges, “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.” We are urged to remember death “in all we do,” not just occasionally. Death could come for us at any time. Regular meditation on death helps us to be ready.
Lopez: Why is it good to pray for “happy” death?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: Prayers for a good death used to be very popular in the Church and I think it is something that would benefit from being revived. When we pray for a good death, we implore Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to be present at our death and to prepare us for this moment throughout our lives. I don’t think these prayers are some kind of magical protection from tragedy. But by praying for a “happy” death, we pray more than anything that we might be prepared for our death. The very act of this prayer is a way to meditate on death.
Lopez: You used to be an atheist. How does one go from there to religious sister?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: That is quite the question and one to which I could respond with a book. However, I will simply say this: God is how one goes from an atheist to a religious sister. There is absolutely no other way. God’s action in my life planted a thirst for truth in my heart since the day I was born, and that search led me to God. And upon finding Him, I was delighted to realize that God had been pursuing me much more doggedly and determinedly than I had ever pursued Him.
Lopez: How can people join the #mementomori campaign in non-cheesy/non-annoying ways?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: As people integrate memento mori into their lives, they will find more fruit in the practice if they are also able to connect with those in the community of the Church who are on the same journey. People can share reflections and reactions with the wider online community with the hashtags #mementomori and #livemementomori. I really enjoy when people share quotes from the saints, pictures of gravestones, and memento mori in churches in Europe. There’s really so many ways, but the idea is to help others learn about this rich practice and to connect with and encourage others in the faith community. Because Jesus has provided salvation to everyone who accepts it, meditation on death is not an individual practice. It’s meant to be communal.
Lopez: You write that “death is not sinister or frightening if Jesus is on the other side.” What if that seems unknown and implausible?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: It seems implausible to not fear death only to those who have not meditated on death. I say that not to sound patronizing but based on my own experience meditating on death. I don’t think I really believed in heaven until I meditated on death. As a hardened skeptic — even in the convent! — I can say that this practice has helped me to strengthen my muscle of faith in order to really live for heaven. Meditation on death is powerful.
Lopez: Can media folks especially rely on your prayers?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: Yes, the Daughters of Saint Paul are called not only to work in and with the media but also to offer our lives in reparation for the sins of media and in prayer for those who work in the media. We pray for anyone who is led to sin through media and those who lead others to sin. We especially pray for Catholics who work in media, but we also pray for anyone who works with radio, TV, film, etc. If you ask our sisters, each of us has “adopted” people in the media to pray for, including celebrities. For instance, I regularly pray for a group of celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Jack White, Danielle Bregoli, Johnny Depp, Taylor Swift, Charlie Sheen — and that is just the start of my list.
Lopez: Is a memento mori journal an odd Christmas gift?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: Not at all. In fact, I am including a small photo of a painting of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross with a skull lying next to her in my Christmas cards. (Yes, I know everyone now wishes that they were on my Christmas list.) But seriously, Christmas is about death. Jesus came to die for us. It would be strange to limit Christmas to a God-child being born and not remember precisely why he was born. Jesus came to die for us. Christmas songs these days are all about snowflakes and hot chocolate but classic carols recognized the holiday’s connection with death. “What Child Is This” has this verse that is often skipped over:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made Flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!
The wood of the Infant Jesus’s manger foreshadows and contains with it the power of the cross. Christmas loses its depth when we forget that. So, long story short, I think a journal with skulls on it is a great gift for Christmas. Really, memento mori should be a part of everyone’s Christmas this year, and every year.
Lopez: As someone is finishing reading this interview, what might be a good initial memento mori exercise (besides considering purchasing the journal)?
Sr. Theresa Aletheia: Saint Ignatius encouraged people to imagine themselves on their deathbed before making a momentous decision. I often do this, with small and big decisions, and it is a good way to incorporate memento mori into one’s life. It plunges every decision into the context of eternity and it really has changed the way I live and make decisions.