How an eerie Twitter trend became the perfect Lenten reflection on mortality
Kathryn Jean Lopez March 1, 2019
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is with the Daughters of St. Paul — the sisters with the bookstores. She’s a Boston-based editor for their Pauline Books and Media. She’s active on Twitter, most frequently seen using the “#mementomori” hashtag, trying to help people focus on our eternal destination on a more daily basis.
Lent is the most obvious time for this, ushered in as it is with Ash Wednesday, and remembering our weakness and the inescapable truth of our mortality.
And for Lent, Sister Theresa has a devotional to help. She also has a journal that can help you chronicle your prayer, a good way to review and revisit what Jesus is doing in your soul. Be generous with your time with God and there will be fruit, there will be spiritual progress, which will make a difference in your lives and your encounters with others.
In an interview, she talks about the journal, Lent, death, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What gave you the idea for the journal?
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP: Both projects, “Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal” and “Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional,” evolved out of my own journey of remembering my death.
So many people were responding to my tweets about “memento mori” (“remember that you must die”) that I realized that this was an opportunity to help people to live this practice more concretely. People were buying skulls for their desks and reading my tweets, but I wanted to help them really integrate this practice into their lives.
Our sisters, The Daughters of St. Paul, work with modern media. At the time of our founding, modern media was books, so we continue to publish books. I brainstormed with my sisters and we came up with a journal with an introduction to “memento mori,” lined pages with quotes, and an appendix of prayers.
Each page in the journal has a quote that is drawn from my tweets as well as quotes from the saints, Church Fathers, and Scripture.
The journal is a short catechesis of sorts that lays out how Christians are called to view death. It also provides the space for [people] to actually write down their thoughts and their journey with the thought of death.
Lopez: What exactly should people be doing with it?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: The journal can be used as a companion to the Lenten devotional, which contains journaling prompts. It can also be used to journal about the journey of meditation on death, any anxiety and fear one is experiencing, or as a prayer journal. It can be used as an “examen journal” in which a person reviews the day in the light of Christ and asks for grace for the next day.
The quotes on each page can be used as a writing prompt or just something to inspire meditation. Ultimately, the journal is meant to prompt a person to really “chew on” the idea of death, not just think about it for a moment and then repress it, as most of us do.
Lopez: How can a daily examen make a difference in life?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: The examen is a review of the day in light of God’s love and mercy. St. Ignatius of Loyola promoted the use of the examen to offer God praise and gratitude, identify areas of weakness in which God’s help is needed, and to ask for grace for the future.
This valuable spiritual practice has been encouraged in the Church for centuries because it is a concrete help to holiness.
The examen is a perfect way to incorporate “memento mori” into daily life, since making an examen already implicitly evaluates the day in view of heaven. In the Lenten devotional, I wrote an examen that people can pray that explicitly incorporates “memento mori” as a step so that one can review the day in the context of death and one’s final moments.
Lopez: What is distinct about the Daughters of St. Paul?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: We do what our founder Blessed James Alberione insisted Saint Paul would do if he were alive today. We spread the Gospel using the most modern and efficacious means.
People expect religious sisters to teach, work in hospitals, or work with the poor, but they don’t expect to find religious in bookstores or on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram as part of their mission. Our sisters still publish books and work in bookstores, but you can find the “media nuns” everywhere the Gospel needs to be preached.
Lopez: How did you wind up with the Daughters of St. Paul?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: In short — the Holy Spirit.
Honestly, I had no real appreciation for our charism when I first began visiting the Daughters of St. Paul. I was a bit of a Luddite. I worked in IT as a systems engineer for the website Stubhub, but I hated technology and did not associate religious life with it at all.
But I loved communication, writing, and evangelization. These interests helped me to begin to understand how I had a place in this order.
God knew where I belonged and revealed it to me over time. I entered on that trust, hoping that God would come through. Every day the Pauline charism unfolds in my life and in my sisters’ lives, and it is a beautiful thing to behold and to learn more about.
Lopez: Who was Alberione and why exactly did he keep a skull on his desk?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: Alberione, the founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, kept a skull on his desk as a “memento mori” to remind him of his death. He wrote that meditation on death was an integral part of his formation in seminary. (A practice that really needs to make a comeback, in my opinion!)
Undoubtedly, Alberione knew about the rich tradition of meditating on death in the Church and had experienced personally how it can transform one’s life.
In 1954, he gave a talk to our sisters in which he noted that meditation on death and the Last Things was considered outdated and unneeded. In response to this trend he said to our sisters, “Do not let yourselves be taken in by this bad habit.”
Lopez: What’s the most significant lesson you’ve learned from your founder?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: I think what I have learned from Alberione goes beyond lessons. He was entrusted with the Pauline charism by the Holy Spirit, and I believe that he has helped me to identify this charism in myself and has nurtured it from heaven.
He is a mentor and a model for me of living our faith boldly and without shame in imitation of our father Paul. There really are no words for who he is to me and what he has done in my life.
Lopez: How will the “Memento Mori Lenten Devotional” help people?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: For me, meditation on death brings out the true meaning of the Gospel like nothing else I have ever experienced. The “Memento Mori Lenten Devotional” is a guided walk through Lent by way of meditation on death that brings people to a deeper understanding of the Easter message.
Each day contains a reflection that I wrote based on the liturgy of the day for all of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter day. The devotional also includes a “memento mori” examen or review of the day, a daily moment of intercessory prayer, and daily reflections on death from the tradition, including the Church Fathers and many of the saints.
I also wrote prompts for journaling that can be used along with the journal. The Lent devotional is really a treasure trove of more extended meditations on death in the Christian context, and it provides a powerful way for people to meditate on their own mortality and the incredible gift of salvation.
Lopez: What do you think Pope Benedict XVI means by this: “To die, in fact, is part of life and not only of its end, but, if we pay attention, of every instant”?
Sister Theresa Aletheia: I think Pope Benedict XVI is paraphrasing St. Augustine, who wrote several similar things, including, “One begins to die as soon as one begins to live.”
This thought has been reiterated throughout salvation history. Death is a part of life. We die every moment that we live. We can ignore this fact. Or we can face it. But we can only live authentically when we face it.
Lopez: What are the “habitual infidelities” Saint John Vianney talks about in one of the quotes you have from him? And how to let go of them? (“Let us prepare ourselves for a good death, for eternity. Let us not lose our time in lukewarmness, in negligence, in our habitual infidelities.”)
Sister Theresa Aletheia: I think that phrase probably resonates with most people who read it. We all want to be holy, but we also don’t want to let go of our comforts, the little things that help us to numb the pain of living and the knowledge that we are doing to die.
Meditation on death helps us to accept death so that we do not need these little comforts in our lives that keep us from giving everything to Jesus.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus, and editor-at-large of National Review Online.
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