The Lenten Practice of Memento Mori | feat. Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble

The Lenten Practice of Memento Mori | feat. Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble


You are listening to the Catholic
Exchange Podcast. hello and welcome to the Catholic exchange podcast this is
your editor and host Michael lichens here with sister Teresa Aletheia. She is a
media nun I follow her on Twitter and have pretty much since I got on that
website and it’s she’s one of the bright spots of Twitter and that really is
saying something she’s a media non ex atheist and
recently a memento mori’ celebrity self sister Teresa thank you so much for
joining us today thank you so much for having me on
Michael it’s my pleasure and I kind of gave away the game at our short intro
we’re talking about memento mori’ and I think the best definition I could
come to this was an example from your Twitter feed this morning where he said
st. Philip Neri spent his last days on earth hearing confessions and saying
mass as he went to bed that night he said something he had said so many times
throughout his life last of all we must die that kind of gives you a context for
this really ancient wonderful Catholic tradition that is sort of forgotten by
now so sister Theresa to kind of get that people an idea what exactly in the
best summation you can what is memento mori’ and how do you get interested in
promoting it so it kind of all started when I read that our founder of my
religious order which is the daughters of st. Paul Blessed James L Barrie own a
kept a skull in his desk and I read that when I am right before I entered the
convent and I thought at the time I thought that’s super metal I’m gonna do
that at some point but then I just forgot about it and I didn’t make fun
but then last fall I just felt by God to consider doing it again and I actually
saw a priest who carries our carried around a little skull with him too as a
memento mori and I thought to myself wow that’s unusual and it reminded me of our
founder blessed James and so I mentioned it at table to the sisters and one of
the sisters says oh I have a little ceramic skull you could use to put on
your desk and so I put it on my desk and the first day I treated it
out it I just thought the reason I did that was honestly because I thought I’m
going to put this on my desk and I’m going to forget about it so I probably
should just tweet about it like every day for a couple weeks
Oh mom and a couple weeks turned into you know over 500 days but as I was in
that journey I learned a lot a lot more about this tradition in the church and
it’s a beautiful beautiful tradition that you know people point to medieval
times in the memento mori you know you would find a mental Morrison and
paintings and just some symbols of death on skulls and you’d see the word memento
mori all over medieval churches but this really goes back to the beginning of
salvation history when God says to Adam and Eve you’re dust and to dust you
shall return and on Ash Wednesday we hear that phrase remember you are dust
and to dust you shall return and there are these exhortations to remember our
deaths all throughout scripture really I it it never really hit me until I
started to meditate on death and I was reading the daily readings in for mass
and and it’s almost every day I find something in the psalms and the gospel
that are a reminder to think about your your own mortality or about the fact
that our lives end that we are finite creatures and that Jesus has saved us
from death through the cross but really meditation on death helps us to enter
into that mystery and help has helped me to enter into that mystery and really
for it to hit home and enter into my spiritual life and make a difference in
my daily concrete action like in what way do you think memento mori helps us
to focus more on our daily prayers or meditations exactly I well first of all
I think I think a lot of people do not think of their death and I know that I
didn’t either because it’s an unpleasant thought so we like we like to keep that
thought out of our mind but but really it’s kind of
I think it’s running under the surface of a lot of things that we do and and
it’s a fear you know when I started to meditate on death I felt some anxiety
when I first started because thinking about death is quite unpleasant and
thinking about your death is extremely unpleasant and so thinking about that
every single day was a it was a little jarring at first but but as I as I
didn’t I I realized that it was helping me to make make better decisions in view
of holiness and you know saying neisha he he says in his exercises he
encourages people to think about them on on to think if you’re if you’re going to
make a decision he says think of yourself on your deathbed and and just
imagine yourself there and then and then make the decision based on that they
sound like the end of your life what would you want to have done on your
deathbed what would you want to have done in this situation and that really
it really hones your choices and it helps me to be more focused on
unholiness right now because of what a lot of the church fathers many of them
over and over they say death is inevitable and unpredictable we do not
know when it’s going to come so we can imagine ourselves on our deathbed when
were 80 years old but that won’t help if we die in a car accident tomorrow and so
that’s something that we have to really be prepared for so preparation for death
is not something that you you say oh I’ll just wait until I’m retired and
I’ll start doing that something that we all have to do because we never know
when it’s gonna come and I think that’s the bluntest way we can put it and it’s
something many many Saints bring up over and over again and I my favorite
painters Caravaggio as many of our listeners know and it’s something that
he plays around with especially with the Saints often looking at skulls and this
is actually leading me to a question that our readers ask us are the Saints
all depicted with skulls because so many of them thought of death or is that a
tradition that was really more introduced in the middle age
I don’t know the art history aspect of it but I do know from from investigating
the Saints writings that I have not found a saint who doesn’t talk about
this yeah it should be blunt I really have every you know it’s funny because I
for a while when I was tweeting every day I was like what am I going to tweet
today and I and so I’d look for the saint of the day and I’d look I’d look
into there was something that they had written and I tried to find a quote on
death and and really it was not difficult every single time so the
Saints and and I included in my Lenten devotional every single day has a
reflection for me on the readings of the day but then I included writings from
the Saints like throughout history you know the early church fathers talked
about it a lot but I have excerpts from Elizabeth Ann Seton she wrote wrote in
her letters about meditating on death Saint John Vianney Terez all of the
saints that I have found talked about this and I think I think it’s really
because it gets to the core of of what the gospel is about and I think they all
used it as a tool in their spiritual lives to really focus on the end and
focus on union with God st. Elizabeth’s at the Trinity she has a
letter where she says we see the true value of things by the light of eternity
and meditating on her death is what helps us to see our life by the light of
eternity I see that and going back to that devotional journal that we’re
having coming out of memento mori a Linton devotional coming out January
13th at Amazon what specifically about death allows us to enter into the Lenten
journey well like I mentioned on Ash Wednesday
you know when the priest traces the ashes on your forehead and he says
remember your dust and to dust you shall return I think that it’s you know it’s
what I say in the devotional of Lent is a momentum or a journey and and that’s
what what we’re reminded of on Ash Wednesday is so many people go to
Ash Wednesday Mass even though it’s not a holy day of obligation you know people
go to Ash Wednesday Mass you don’t go to holy days of obligations because there’s
something so so really intense about that moment of ashes on your forehead
and and I think it’s because it’s because we’re reminded of our death and
many of us don’t think about it many other days and so I think in that
journey that is it the beginning of it is remember that you tended towards
death and towards us through your sin you uh you your life could have ended in
death and that could have been the final end of your death of your life and but
Jesus has saved us from that so he has opened the doors to eternity for us but
in order to really understand what he has saved us from we have to understand
what death is and we have to meditate on what what was that practically what like
what does that mean it means I’m going to die at the end of my life and that’s
good news because Jesus died on the cross that would not have been good news
if Jesus had not died on the cross so it kind of brings the good news of Jesus’s
death on the cross and it kind of heightens it and magnifies it and so
when tis a perfect time for that because to meditate on it to to meditate on your
death throughout Lent and end with Easter I think I think people I’m really
hoping that people will make that journey and and see it make concrete
changes in their life like I have this also leads into the good news that I
know you’ve talked about this in writing but in thinking about death and then
thinking about what that means when our Lord endures death you talked a little
bit about that well how does thinking about death bring us closer to
understanding Christ’s death I think meditating on our own death is is
interlinked with meditation on death and one person once asked me in an interview
will sister why don’t you just look at a crucifix and I think that’s that that
is actually a beautiful memento mori’ part of the meant amore but for me
meditating on my own death has helped me to understand what Christ did for me
because I haven’t died and so I don’t know what that what that means really
but metates but meditating on my own death kind of brings home what Jesus did
for me because it’s easier for me to think about kind of about how that would
impact me because I’m me and I’m not Jesus so when I think about my own death
I’m able to enter into Jesus’s dying for me and realizing like what exactly that
was and also realizing that through my baptism I enter into Jesus’s death and
and through that I received the grace of eternal life so I think meditation on
our own death is very much intertwined with meditation on Jesus’s death which
is why why when tis a perfect time to do it because we’re doing both at the same
time really if we’re doing it in a Christian way that’s a great answer to
do both at the same time through Lent there’s going to be folks who will ask
I’m with you 100% I have pictures of the great ossuary in Rome right next to my
computer every day but some people have said to me well isn’t that kind of
morbid to be thinking about death to look at schools isn’t that just a little
unhealthy and morbid what’s your general response to that yeah you know I hear
that I I do hear that and people are disturbed by the symbolism of the skull
and I understand that it’s not everyone’s thing but for me the reason
first of all it’s we don’t see it very very much in our churches but in
churches in Europe they’re all over the place so that’s something that I remind
people who say who kind of raise concerns with me is that that this this
actually is part of the tradition of the church we just don’t see it in the u.s.
very much and honestly because we may have done that because we didn’t want to
weird out the Protestants more than necessary and now now I’m like I don’t
I’m not worried about that I showed my Protestant family bones all over Rome
when we went I could was so excited like hey let’s go see st. Catherine of
Siena’s how about that initially they were weirded out but they thought it was
actually kind of beautiful when you look at it and that’s what I always try to
tell people because when I went to Rome back when I was like 22 I went to the
gap you know ossuary in Rome the most famous of the bone churches and I was
expected a freak show but I found it to be a deeply spiritual moment I was
seeing people pray in the rosaries I was getting this reminder from these skull
monks reminding me that one day I was going to join them and in a strange way
that’s a beautiful moment and I was glad to share that with the family and I’m
glad to share that with anyone and it’s why I’m so excited for this Lenten
journal yeah I think there’s something you know when people tell me that the
skulls are scary to them and upsetting and I think that that’s because a lot of
the schools that we see in our culture kind of Halloween skulls or you know
horror musicals but but as I have meditated on my desk the symbol of a
skull when I look at it on my desk it’s not something scary it’s something
beautiful because it starts to to remind me of in a really concrete way of the
resurrection of the Dead which i think is something that people miss when
they’re creeped out by skulls because because I remind them that that our
skulls our bodies are going to physically be raised from the dead and
sometimes people don’t realize that they really don’t believe I think or even
know that we believe that our bodies will be raised and United with our souls
at the end of time and so the skull is not something that is representative of
something that we leave behind and never see again you know our bodies will be
raised and transformed into resurrected bodies so that these physical things are
kind of a beautiful symbol of what Jesus has won for us and bones you know it’s
just the tradition of relics in the church and
generating relics it’s it’s beautiful we have this kind of really concrete earthy
incarnation ‘el st. we absolutely do and actually it’s impressive how much of the
memento mori’ tradition that we have in the church has begun to spread into the
secular realm like cocoa of course has something to do with that I know but I
don’t know if you’re familiar with the order of the good death or the death
pause and mostly yeah and there’s a lot of parallel I see but I’m fascinated
that so many of them write about Saints and our tradition and trying to talk
about their own culture yeah it is it is really fascinating when I when I started
this I kind of I didn’t really know how many secular people were into it but
there’s even modern-day Stoics who are really into memento mori and I recently
did an interview with one of them and so I yeah and I I think that meditating on
death is really useful for anyone it can help you to think my life even you know
I used to be an atheist mint and I would have thought that meditating on death
would have been helpful to me then because you think your life is is short
and it’s going to end at a certain time and so it helps to motivate you towards
hopefully virtue and then the Stoics are definitely that’s that’s the purpose of
meditating on death so that’s that’s good you know that’s good for anyone but
for a Christian it’s different and you know it’s just it’s just it totally has
a different perspective and Jerome talks about this in one of his sermons he
talks about you know the Philosopher’s they meditate on death and that’s you
know that’s good but for the Christian death has been transformed so we’re not
just meditating on the physical reality of death we’re meditating on what Jesus
has done for for us as well as the physical reality of death and that
completely changes it yeah so when I talk to I definitely can connect with
people who are you know thinking about death and you know using it in a
positive way to motivate themselves but I think
Christian meditation on death is just it’s a different thing in many ways yes
you know what are some of the key differences you find in how a Christian
meditates on death say a modern-day stoic or just somebody who believes in
their job as a mortician is to be more death positive what’s the key difference
I think for the stoic and I think for for some secular death positive things
it’s very focused on that is a reality we have to accept it and for for the
Christian that’s part of it that is a real reality we have to accept it but
the fact that that that we’re going to die is it’s just the beginning of our
meditation on death we that that’s a very necessary and important part of it
and I think a lot of Christians in this that part so they kind of skip right to
the resurrection though and I’ve heard this from people to criticisms where
they say sister you know you’re so focused on death you need to focus on
life and and I say to them you have to understand in order to understand life
and resurrection you have to understand that and so a lot of us like to skip
that you know you even see it in in some churches where they have a resurrected
Jesus but they don’t have a crucifix in it I I don’t agree with that I think
it’s very important that we that we begin with death and because that’s what
Jesus did he said take up your cross daily and follow me you know we have to
follow Jesus to the cross in order to really understand the resurrection so I
don’t know if that answers your question but it very much does no I think that’s
exactly it when we’re focusing on death as Christians when I say I don’t have an
actual skull I’m not a school just yet but I keep images of death around me
namely the Oscars and famous pictures of saints with they’re holding their school
or a few incorruptible bodies and I think it’s important because we know
this isn’t the end that school will one day have flesh again and will be brought
back to life and one of the things I that really impress my family was how
many of the great memento mori images in Rome connect
to Ezekiel that someday these bones will rise again and that I think is the
greatest of Christian hopes that was probably me talking a little too much
not answering a question but yeah that’s beautiful yeah going back to your
journal obviously you’ve gone through LED meditating on death
what was your Easter like after doing that for Lent I think it just helps me
to see Easter in a different way because before you know I really love when I’ve
loved it since I was a little kid so I I would volleying south islands and do
kind of extreme things you know that little kids do but but I’ve always
enjoyed the the feeling of Lent of like the penitential feeling and the Chi and
the feeling that you get when at the end of Lent
I would always give out candy when I was little and so at the end of Lent I I
would be really strict about it and and then and then I’d eat all this candy and
so it was like this kind of penance and then joy and I think people experience
that like like we we enter into this time of penance and then we exit into
this time of joy but I think for me the memento mori’ has kind of helped it to
become more than just this practice that brings me joy and and and you know I
would think about the resurrection and Jesus’s death but I think memento mori
brought it home for me it brought it closer and it helped me to
really like enter into it in a personal way you know like I always knew that
Jesus died for me but when I think about my own death I realized why he died for
me and so it really just helped me to enter into the joy of Easter in a less
superficial way it’s not just oh I can do that thing that I gave up now or or
even just oh Jesus died for me thank God it’s more like I I know why Jesus died
for me and that it brings me this this intense kind of light-filled joy
have helped me to understand the mystery of the cross and the resurrection and
what Jesus has done for me personally that’s beautiful and one question I
always loved ask authors with a book coming out what do you think was the
most surprising or delightful thing you learned in writing this book I think I
realized how momentum Ori is really at the core of our faith and I began I
began to see it everywhere you know not just in Scripture because I meditate on
the readings of the day and and I I never had trouble finding a momentum or
a theme for any of the days and and then entering into all of the Saints writings
just just realizing and I think that’s really every great you know every great
idea that people have that they that they write about really any idea that we
write a book about when it has to do with our faith it’s it’s just one like
facet of the diamond of truth that were entering into and so memento mori really
is just one of those facets that just helps helped me to enter into the
Christian mystery and I think it’s it’s so helpful in the spiritual life so I’m
really hoping that people will not just kind of think of this as a sad get ass
goal for the desk and stop thinking about it but really use this as a tool
in their spiritual lives to grow closer to God and to become Saints that is a
great goal to have for any book absolutely and final question before we
end of if people want to find your book or learn more about you where can they
go yes so they can find me on most forms of social media at pursued by truth and
then my website is also pursued by truth calm and we’ll put links to all that as
well as to your book in our show notes as well on catholics change calm as
always please if you’re driving don’t start looking now wait till you get home
those in the notes but this country so this has been a fantastic conversation
and I really appreciate that you’ve done so much
work to bring back memento mori into this culture and a guest talking about
it again it’s been a joy to follow you on social media and I can’t wait for
this book thank you so much for having me on the show and thank you and to all
you listeners you can go to pursued by truth comm again those links will be in
the show notes follow her on Twitter Instagram it’s well worth your time and
it’s a great introduction to memento mori I’ll put links to the books and if
you have any other questions editor at catholics change comm we might do a few
more episodes on memento mori i certainly hope we can talk about it but
once again thank you all have a lovely week god love you

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