Meet the Nun Who Wants You to Remember You Will Die

BOSTON — Before she entered the Daughters of St. Paul convent in 2010, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble learn a biography of the order’s founder, an Italian priest who was born in the 1880s. He saved a ceramic cranium on his desk, as a reminder of the inevitability of dying. Sister Aletheia thought the morbid curio was “super punk rock,” she recalled just lately. She thought vaguely about buying a cranium for herself sometime.

These days, Sister Aletheia has no scarcity of skulls. People ship her cranium mugs and cranium rosaries in the mail, and share photographs of their cranium tattoos. A ceramic cranium from a Halloween retailer sits on her desk. Her Twitter title features a cranium and crossbones emoji.

That is as a result of since 2017, she has made it her mission to revive the follow of memento mori, a Latin phrase which means “Remember your death.” The idea is to deliberately take into consideration your personal dying day-after-day, as a method of appreciating the current and specializing in the future. It can appear radical in an period through which dying — till very just lately — has change into straightforward to ignore.

“My life is going to end, and I have a limited amount of time,” Sister Aletheia mentioned. “We naturally tend to think of our lives as kind of continuing and continuing.”

Sister Aletheia’s mission has reached Catholics throughout the nation, through social media, a memento mori prayer journal — even merchandise emblazoned with a signature cranium. Her followers have discovered surprising consolation in grappling with dying throughout the coronavirus pandemic. “Memento mori is: Where am I headed, where do I want to end up?” mentioned Becky Clements, who coordinates non secular schooling at her Catholic parish in Lake Charles, La., and has included the thought right into a curriculum utilized by different parishes in her diocese. “Memento mori works perfectly with what my students are facing, between the pandemic and the massive hurricanes.” Ms. Clements retains a big resin cranium on her personal desk, impressed by Sister Aletheia.

Sister Aletheia rejects any suggestion that the follow is morbid. Suffering and dying are information of life; focusing solely 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’s where we’ll find happiness,” she mentioned. “But it’s actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them.”

The follow of normal meditation on dying is a venerable one. Saint Benedict instructed his monks in the sixth century to “keep death daily before your eyes,” for instance. For Christians like Sister Aletheia, it’s inextricable from the promise of a greater life after dying. But the follow will not be uniquely Christian. Mindfulness of dying is a tradition within Buddhism, and Socrates and Seneca have been amongst the early thinkers who advisable “practicing” dying as a method to domesticate which means and focus. Skeletons, clocks and decaying meals are recurring motifs in artwork historical past.

For virtually all of humanity, folks died at youthful ages than we do now, extra ceaselessly died at house, and had much less medical management over their last days. Death was far much less predictable, and way more seen. “To us, death is exotic,” mentioned Joanna Ebenstein, founding father of Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based enterprise that gives occasions and books centered on dying, artwork and tradition. “But that’s a luxury particular to our time and place.”

The pandemic, in fact, has made dying not possible to overlook. Since final spring, Ms. Ebenstein has carried out a sequence of memento mori courses on-line, through which college students discover the world historical past of representations of dying, after which create their very own. Final projects have included a miniature coffin, a sequence of letters to be delivered autopsy, and a deck of tarot playing cards composed of images taken by a husband who just lately died. “For the first time in my lifetime, this is a topic not just interesting to a bunch of hipsters,” Ms. Ebenstein mentioned. “Death is actually relevant.”

The Daughters of St. Paul, Sister Aletheia’s order, was based in the early 20th century to use “the most modern and efficacious means of media” to preach the Christian message. A century in the past, that meant publishing books, which the group nonetheless does. But now, “modern and efficacious” means one thing extra, and lots of of the ladies are lively on social media, the place they use variations on the hashtag #MediaNuns. In December, Sister Aletheia appeared in a TikTok video created by the order, which posed cheeky Catholic matchups like night prayer vs. morning prayer, and St. Peter vs. St. Paul. The video, set to Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky,” was considered greater than 4.Four million occasions.

As an adolescent in Tulsa, Okla., Sister Aletheia, who’s now 40, listened to the Dead Kennedys and attended native punk exhibits along with her buddies. Her dad and mom have been dedicated Catholics; her father has a Ph.D. in theology and labored for a neighborhood Catholic diocese for some time. But she was a skeptical little one and declared herself an atheist as an adolescent, reasonably than undergo the formal strategy of becoming a member of the church.

At Bryn Mawr College, she was the chief of an animal rights membership. But she blanched at the animal rights motion’s arguments in opposition to “speciesism.” It appeared to her that there was an actual, if tough to outline, distinction between people and different animals. But “as a materialist atheist, I really couldn’t find a reason for that,” she recalled. “I had this intuitive sense that the soul existed.”

While engaged on an natural farm in Costa Rica after a stint with Teach for America, she had a sudden and dramatic conversion expertise: God was actual and she or he had to determine his plan for her life. When her longtime boyfriend picked her up from the airport after the journey, she broke up with him and canceled her plans to go to legislation faculty. Within 4 years, she was carrying a behavior at the convent, an unassuming blond-brick constructing that features a publishing home, gardens and a small free-standing burial chapel the place the nuns are entombed after they die.

Sister Aletheia started her memento mori mission on Twitter, the place she shared every day meditations for greater than 500 days in a row. In October 2018, on her 455th day with the cranium on her desk, she wrote, “Everyone dies, their bodies rot, and every face becomes a skull (unless you are incorrupt).”

At first, she had no specific objective past conserving herself dedicated to her personal every day follow. But the tweets have been a success, and the mission expanded. Now the order sells vinyl decals ($4.95, “great Christmas gifts!”) and hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with a cranium icon designed by Sister Danielle Victoria Lussier, one other Daughter of St. Paul. Sister Aletheia continues to promote the follow on social media, and she or he has revealed a memento mori prayer journal and a devotional that opens with the sentence, “You are going to die.”

The books have change into a few of the order’s best-sellers in recent times, a lift to the nuns, whose earnings as a nonprofit writer has declined sharply in current many years. Sister Aletheia is presently engaged on a brand new prayer guide for the Advent season, main up to Christmas.

“She has such a gift for talking about really difficult things with joy,” mentioned Christy Wilkens, a Catholic author and mom of six exterior Austin, Texas. “She’s so young and vibrant and joyful and is also reminding us all we’re going to die.” Ms. Wilkens credit memento mori with giving her the “spiritual tools” to grapple along with her 9-year-old son’s severe well being points. “It has allowed me, not exactly to cope, but to surrender everything to God,” she mentioned.

For Sister Aletheia, having spent the previous couple of years meditating on mortality helped put together her for the worry and isolation of the previous yr. The pandemic has been traumatic, she mentioned. But there have additionally been small moments of grace, like folks from the group knocking on the door to donate meals to the nuns in isolation. As she wrote in her devotional, “Remembering death keeps us awake, focused, and ready for whatever might happen — both the excruciatingly difficult and the breathtakingly beautiful.”

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