We’re all going to die.
It’s an unavoidable fate that affects us all — those who believe in God and those who don’t.
And it certainly makes a lot of people uncomfortable to think about it. But Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble has made it her mission to motivate others to reflect on their death not every now and then, but frequently. She also wants others to know that the goal of remembering our death involves not just considering one’s own mortality, but ultimately to view it from a Christian context, that our hope lies in life everlasting — made possible through Christ’s victory over sin and death through His Resurrection.
“The practice of memento mori helps us to understand our faith in a real way,” she said. “The mystery of death is the central mystery of our life. Entering into that mystery of death and what Jesus has done for us is the whole dynamic of the Christian life. If we’re scared of death and not open to thinking about it, it can keep our understanding of the faith on a superficial level.”
Sister Theresa Aletheia has gained a large following on social media for reviving the ancient practice of memento mori in recent years. The Daughter of St. Paul, who is living with her community in St. Louis for several months, began reflecting on her death regularly about three years ago, when another sister in her community gave her a small ceramic skull to place on her desk.
Inspired by the Daughters’ founder, Blessed James Alberione, who also kept a skull on his desk, Sister Theresa Aletheia kept a promise to reflect on death, sharing her reflections on Twitter — more than 550 tweets over the period of about a year — and using the hashtag
#mementomori. She’s since written a Lenten devotional and a prayer book on The Last Things, both published by Pauline Books & Media, and has amassed more than 40,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 14,000 on Instagram.
At a discussion and book signing Feb. 27 at Pauline Books and Media in Crestwood, Sister Theresa Aletheia shared how the practice of memento mori was popularized during medieval times (when the black plague killed roughly a third of Europe), but the reality is that the practice has been around much longer. “This is something that has been around since the beginning of salvation history — God exhorts us to think about our mortality and our death,” she said. “This is fundamentally Catholic.”
She cited numerous examples of Christian artwork, Scripture passages and quotes from the saints relating to death, as well as an image of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, which is adorned with thousands of human bones. After reflecting on her death regularly for a year and a half, she said she began to see the image of the crypt in different way.
“Now when I look at this, I just think those bones are going to rise!” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “On the last day, those bones are going to fly off the wall! It’s really exciting, right?”
She cautioned that the practice of reflecting on death should not be done occasionally. (“You’re just kind of freaking yourself out for no reason,” she said.) Rather, it’s a regular opportunity to enter into prayer, share our deepest doubts and fears with the Lord and ultimately draw closer to Him.
Sister Theresa Aletheia also shared her personal vocation story, from her declaration at 14 years old that she was an atheist, to her entrance into the convent in 2010. A book that she penned in 2014, “The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church,” details more about her return to the Church and how to approach others who have left the Church.
She encouraged others not to run away from the cross, but to face our inevitable death square in the face, and to understand that there is life after death if we remain close to the Lord. “We can run away from Jesus, because deep down we have a belief that ‘I believe this, but do I really believe this? Am I 100% in?’ We do that in our lives a lot — we dream about not doing what God is asking us to do. And the root of that is the fear of death. When we squelch our fear of death, we’re also squelching all the doubts that we have around our faith, and we’re not bringing them to Jesus.”
Memento Mori reading resources
• “Remember Your Death:
Memento Mori,” written by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is a
Lenten devotional to help others meditate on the moments of their lives
and ultimately remember our Christian hope in the Resurrection — made
possible through Christ’s victory over sin and death. The devotional
includes daily reflections and journal prompts.
• “Remember Your
Death: Memento Mori Journal” features an introduction to the concept of
memento mori, reflection quotes and a compilation of prayers. The
journal may be used as a companion to the devotional.
Mori: Prayers on the Last Things,” by Sister Theresa Aletheia, is a
prayer book to help meditate on death and all the last things — death,
judgment, hell and heaven — in order to live for heaven.
Books may be purchased at Pauline Books & Media, 9804 Watson Road in Crestwood, or online at pursuedbytruth.com.
• “Life out of Death: Meditations on the Paschal Mystery,” by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
• “The Defence of Skeletons,” an essay by G.K. Chesterton, which is included in “The Defendant,” a collection of his essays
>> Reflecting on death
We’re not meant to be mediocre saints. We’re meant to become saints, said Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble.
Thomas Aquinas once said that Christ died to free us from the fear of
death. Frequently engaging in the ancient practice of memento mori — or
remembering one’s own inevitable death — is important, she said, as long
as we keep in mind the Christian context. Sister Theresa Aletheia gave
several tips to keep in mind when reflecting on death:
• Aids in making good decisions:
Close your eyes and imagine yourself on your death bed. Doing this
“puts life in the context of eternity,” she said. If you were to die
tomorrow, how important is the thing that you’re doing right now?
• Helps combat mediocrity:
We tend to put off seeking holiness, but that’s the devil at work,
Sister Theresa Aletheia said. Thinking about our inevitable death on a
regular basis helps us to live for holiness.
• Imagine the possibility of dying suddenly:
Generally speaking, we do not know when we will die or how we will die.
But imagine the possibility of dying suddenly. This is why it’s
important to make good decisions in life and to live in relationship
with the Lord, she said.