BOSTON – Before Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble entered the Convent of the Daughters of St. Paul in 2010, she read a biography of the order's founder, an Italian priest who was born in the 1880s. He kept a ceramic skull on his desk as a reminder of the inevitability of death. Sister Aletheia thought the morbid curiosity was “super punk rock,” she recently recalled. She thought vaguely about buying a skull for herself one day.
These days, Sister Aletheia has no shortage of skulls. People send their skull mugs and skull rose wreaths in the mail and share photos of their skull tattoos. A ceramic skull from a Halloween shop sits on her desk. Your Twitter name contains a skull emoji.
That's because, since 2017, she has made it her mission to revive the practice of Memento Mori, a Latin phrase that means "remember your death". The concept is to deliberately think about your own death each day in order to appreciate the present and focus on the future. It can seem radical at a time when death – until recently – is easy to ignore.
"My life will end and I have a limited time," said Sister Aletheia. "We tend, of course, to think of our life as a kind of persistence and persistence."
Sister Aletheia's project has reached Catholics across the country through social media, a Memento Mori prayer diary – even merchandise adorned with a signature skull. Her followers have found unexpected solace in grappling with death during the coronavirus pandemic. "Memento mori is: where do I go, where do I want to land?" said Becky Clements, who coordinated religious education in her Catholic ward in Lake Charles, La., and included the idea in a curriculum used by other wards in her diocese. "Memento mori works perfectly with what my students see between the pandemic and the massive hurricanes." Ms. Clements holds a large resin skull on her own desk, inspired by Sister Aletheia.
Sister Aletheia rejects any suggestion that the practice is abnormal. Suffering and death are facts of life; To concentrate only on the "bright and shiny" is superficial and inauthentic. "We try to suppress the thought of death, to escape from it or to run from it because we believe that we will find happiness there," she said. "But we actually find light in them when we face the darkest realities of life."
The practice of regular meditation on death is venerable. St. Benedict instructed his monks in the sixth century, for example, "to have death in front of their eyes". For Christians like Sister Aletheia, it is inseparable from the promise of a better life after death. But the practice is not entirely Christian. Mindfulness for death is a tradition in Buddhism, and Socrates and Seneca were among the early thinkers who recommended "practicing" death in order to cultivate mind and focus. Skeletons, clocks and decaying food are recurring motifs in art history.
For almost all of humanity, people died younger than they do today, more often at home, and had less medical control over their last days. Death was far less predictable and far more visible. "Death is exotic to us," said Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based company that offers events and books about death, art, and culture. "But that is a luxury that is special for our time and our place."
The pandemic, of course, made it impossible to forget about death. Since last spring, Ms. Ebenstein has hosted a series of memento mori courses online where students explore the global history of representations of death and then create their own. Final projects included a miniature coffin, a series of letters to be delivered post mortem, and a deck of tarot cards made up of photos taken of a husband who had recently passed away. "For the first time in my life this is a topic that is not only interesting for a number of hipsters," said Ms. Ebenstein. "Death is indeed relevant."
The Daughters of St. Paul, the Order of Sister Aletheia, were founded in the early 20th century to use "the most modern and effective media" to preach the Christian message. A century ago that meant publishing books, which the group is still doing. But now “modern and effective” means something more, and a lot of the women are active on social media using variations of the hashtag #MediaNuns. In December, Sister Aletheia appeared in a TikTok video created by the Order showing cheeky Catholic matchups such as evening prayer versus morning prayer and St. Peter versus St. Paul. The video, which is set on Run-DMC's "It's Tricky", has been viewed more than 4.4 million times.
As a teenager in Tulsa, Okla., Sister Aletheia, now 40, listened to the Dead Kennedys and went to local punk shows with her friends. Her parents were dedicated Catholics; her father has a Ph.D. in theology and worked for a local Catholic diocese for a while. But she was a skeptical child and declared herself an atheist as a teenager instead of going through the formal process of joining the Church.
At Bryn Mawr College, she was the head of an animal rights club. But she turned pale in the arguments of the animal rights movement against "speciesism". It seemed to her that there was a real, if difficult to define, difference between humans and other animals. But "as a materialistic atheist, I really couldn't find a reason for it," she recalled. "I had the intuitive feeling that the soul existed."
While working on an organic farm in Costa Rica after a stint at Teach for America, she had a sudden and dramatic conversion experience: God was real and she had to figure out His plan for her life. When her longtime boyfriend picked her up from the airport after the trip, she broke away from him and canceled her plans to study law. Within four years she had a habit in the monastery, a modest blond-brick building that includes a publishing house, gardens, and a small free-standing burial chapel where the nuns are buried after their deaths.
Sister Aletheia started her Memento Mori project on Twitter, where she meditated for more than 500 days in a row every day. In October 2018, on her 455th day with the skull on her desk, she wrote: "Everyone dies, their body rots and every face becomes a skull (unless you are incorruptible)."
Initially, she had no specific goal other than to commit to her own daily practice. But the tweets were a hit and the project expanded. It now sells vinyl decals ($ 4.95, “Great Christmas presents!”) And hoodies adorned with an iconic skull designed by Sister Danielle Victoria Lussier, another daughter of St. Paul. Sister Aletheia continues to promote the practice on social media and has published a Memento Mori prayer diary and devotional that begins with the phrase “You will die”.
The books have become some of the Order's bestsellers in recent years, boosting the nuns whose income as a nonprofit publisher has plummeted over the past few decades. Sister Aletheia is currently working on a new prayer book for the Advent season before Christmas.
"She has a gift to talk about really difficult things with joy," said Christy Wilkens, a Catholic writer and mother of six outside Austin, Texas. "She is so young and alive and happy and also reminds us that we are all going to die." Ms. Wilkens credits Memento Mori for giving her the "spiritual tools" to deal with the serious health problems of her 9 year old son. "It allowed me not to deal with it exactly, but to leave everything to God," she said.
Sister Aletheia has meditated on mortality for the past few years, preparing her for the fear and isolation of the past year. The pandemic was traumatic, she said. But there were also little moments of grace, like people from the community knocking on the door to donate food to the nuns in isolation. In her devotion she wrote: "When we remember death, we stay awake, focused and ready for anything that might happen – both the excruciatingly difficult and the breathtakingly beautiful."