BOSTON – Before entering the Convent of the Daughters of St. Paul in 2010, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble read a biography of the founder of the order, an Italian priest born in the 1880s. He kept a ceramic skull on her office, as a reminder of the inevitability of death. Sister Aletheia, a teenage punk fan, thought morbid curiosity was “super punk rock,” she recalled recently. She vaguely thought about getting a skull for herself someday.
Today, Sister Aletheia has no shortage of skulls. People mail him skull mugs and skull rosaries and share photos of their skull tattoos. A ceramic skull from a Halloween store sits on his desk. His Twitter name features a skull and crossbones emoji.
Indeed, since 2017, it has given itself the mission of reviving the practice of memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning “Remember your death”. The concept is to intentionally think about your own death each day, as a way to appreciate the present and focus on the future. This may sound drastic at a time when death – until very recently – has become easy to ignore.
“My life is going to end and I have little time,” Sister Aletheia said. “We naturally tend to think that our lives go on and on.”
Sister Aletheia’s project reached Catholics across the country, via social media, un memento mori prayer journal – even merchandise featuring a signature skull. His supporters have found unexpected solace in battling death during the coronavirus pandemic. “Memento mori est: where am I going, where do I want to end?” said Becky Clements, who coordinates religious education in her Catholic parish in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and has incorporated the idea into a program used by other parishes in her diocese. “Memento mori works great with what my students face, between pandemic and massive hurricanes. Mrs. Clements keeps a large resin skull on her own desk, inspired by Sister Aletheia.
Sister Aletheia rejects any suggestion that the practice is morbid. Suffering and death are facts of life; focusing only on the “bright and shiny” is superficial and inauthentic. “We try to suppress the thought of death, or escape it, or run away from it because we think that is where we will find happiness,” she says. “But it is actually in the face of the darker realities of life that we find light there.”
The practice of regular meditation on death is venerable. Saint Benedict ordered his monks in the 6th century to “keep death daily before your eyes”, for example. For Christians like Sister Aletheia, it is inseparable from the promise of a better life after death. But the practice is not uniquely Christian. Mindfulness of death is a tradition in Buddhism, and Socrates and Seneca were among the early thinkers who recommended “practicing” death as a means of cultivating meaning and concentration. Skeletons, clocks and rotting food are recurring motifs in art history.
For almost all of humanity, people died at a younger age than we do now, more often died at home, and had less medical control over their last days. Death was much less predictable and much more visible. “To us, death is exotic,” said Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based company that offers events and books focused on death, art and culture. “But it is a luxury specific to our time and our place.”
The pandemic, of course, made death impossible to forget. Since last spring, Ms. Ebenstein has conducted a series of memento mori online course, in which students explore the global history of representations of death and then create their own. Final projects included a miniature casket, a series of post-mortem hand-out letters, and a tarot card deck consisting of photographs taken by a recently deceased husband. “For the first time in my life, this topic is not only interesting for a group of hipsters,” Ms. Ebenstein said. “Death is actually relevant.”
The Daughters of Saint Paul, the order of Sister Aletheia, were founded at the beginning of the 20th century to use “the most modern and effective means of communication” to preach the Christian message. A century ago that meant publishing books, which the group still does. But now “modern and efficient” means something more, and many women are active on social media, where they use variations of the #MediaNuns hashtag. In December, Sister Aletheia appeared in a TikTok video created by the order, which posed brazen Catholic clashes like evening prayer versus morning prayer and St. Peter versus St. Paul. The video, set to “It’s Tricky” by Run-DMC, has been viewed over 4.4 million times.
Teenage girl in Tulsa, Okla., Sister Aletheia, who is now 40, listened to the Dead Kennedys and attended local punk shows with her friends. His parents were committed Catholics; his father has a doctorate. in theology and worked for a local Catholic diocese for a time. But she was a skeptical child and declared herself an atheist as a teenager, rather than going through the formal church membership process.
At Bryn Mawr College, she ran an animal rights club. But she has blemished the arguments of the animal rights movement against “speciesism”. It seemed to him that there was a real, although difficult to define, difference between humans and other animals. But “as a materialistic atheist, I really couldn’t find a reason for this,” she recalls. “I had this intuitive feeling that the soul existed.”
While working on an organic farm in Costa Rica after a stint with Teach for America, she had a sudden and dramatic conversion experience: God was real and she had to make her plan for her life. When her longtime boyfriend picked her up from the airport after the trip, she broke up with him and canceled plans to go to law school. Within four years, she wore a habit at the convent, an unpretentious blond brick building that includes a publishing house, gardens and a small free-standing funeral chapel where nuns are buried after their deaths.
Sister Aletheia started her memento mori project on Twitter, where she shared daily meditations for over 500 consecutive days. In October 2018, on his 455th day with the skull on his desk, she wrote, “Everyone dies, their body rots and every face becomes a skull (unless you’re incorruptible).”
At first, she had no other particular goal than to stay engaged in her own daily practice. But the tweets were a success and the project grew. Now Order Sells Vinyl Decals ($ 4.95, “Great Christmas Gifts!”) And Skull Icon Hooded Sweatshirts designed by Sister Danielle Victoria Lussier, another daughter of Saint Paul . Sister Aletheia continues to promote the practice on social media, and she has posted a memento mori prayer journal and a devotion that begins with the phrase: “You are going to die.”
The books have become among the order’s bestsellers in recent years, a boost for nuns, whose income as a nonprofit publisher has declined sharply in recent decades. Sister Aletheia is currently working on a new prayer book for the Advent season, which will lead to Christmas.
“She’s such a gift for talking about really difficult things with joy,” said Christy Wilkens, Catholic writer and mother of six in Austin, Texas. “She is so young, vibrant and happy and she also reminds all of us that we are going to die.” Mrs Wilkens credits memento mori by giving him the “spiritual tools” to fight against the serious health problems of his 9 year old son. “It allowed me, not exactly to face it, but to surrender everything to God,” she said.
For Sister Aletheia, having spent the last few years meditating on mortality has helped her prepare for the fear and isolation of the past year. The pandemic has been traumatic, she said. But there were also small moments of grace, like people in the community knocking on the door to give food to isolated nuns. As she wrote in her devotion, “Remembering death keeps us awake, focused, and ready for whatever might happen – both terribly difficult and incredibly beautiful.”