WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, of the Daughters of St. Paul, has had an interesting Twitter project for the last year and a half: She has kept a small (ceramic) skull on her desk, and has been tweeting daily meditations on death with the hashtag #MementoMori.
The project has now grown to include two forthcoming books: a journal titled “Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal,” as well as a Lenten devotional titled “Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional.”
What makes a relatively young religious sister, certainly not one expecting to die soon, so eager to focus on death?
Sister Theresa told CNA that she was first inspired by the example of the founder of her order, even before she entered religious life.
Blessed James Alberione kept a skull on his desk to remind him of his eventual death.
“Before I entered the Daughters of Saint Paul I read this and I thought, ‘That is so metal. Definitely going to do that at some point,” she said.
While she later forgot about the intention, it came back to her during a spiritual retreat in 2017. One of the priests at the retreat had a small skull with him. She took this as a sign to take up the meditation and borrowed a ceramic skull from one of her sister’s Halloween decorations. She created the hashtag campaign shortly thereafter.
The practice of meditating upon one’s death has been common in the church for centuries, and daily prayers for the dead are routine for many religious orders. In Catholic art, many saints are depicted holding a skull as a reminder of their death and the importance of preparing for a final encounter with God.
While death can be an uncomfortable topic to think about, it is far from a morbid subject in the mind of the church. Sister Theresa said that she believes that as Christians, “we are not just meditating on the reality of death but on Christ’s victory over death.”
With this in mind, she said meditating about death is actually a “hope-filled practice.”
“St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that ‘Christ died so that by dying he might deliver us from the fear of death,’” she said. The practice of memento mori, she said, “helps us to make that journey from fear to hope.”
Since starting her tweets, Sister Theresa said, hundreds of people have sent her pictures of their own memento mori skulls, and many people have seen the spiritual fruits that come along with meditating on their own death.
“One man told me that he had been suffering from insomnia and serious anxiety and had stopped going to church,” she said.
“But one Sunday he decided to go after seeing one of my tweets. As he walked into the church, the priest was saying an exact phrase from a Bible passage that I had tweeted earlier. The man felt God speaking to him in that moment through that ‘coincidence.’ He started going to Mass and meditating on his death, and his insomnia disappeared. God can work powerfully in people’s lives through memento mori.”
With the journal and devotional, Sister Theresa says she wants to help people with the spiritual practice of meditating on one’s death “with something more substantive than my tweets.”
The journal contains an introduction to the practice of memento mori, as well as prayers and quotes from the church fathers, saints and Scripture. The journal, she said, is meant to be a companion to the Lenten devotional, which contains journaling prompts. It can, however, be used on its own.
Sister Theresa told CNA that “it would not be an exaggeration” to say that the practice of memento mori has changed her life and how she thinks about the world. In addition to thinking about death in a more Christian sense, she says she is less afraid of dying and more motivated to ask God for graces to change immediately rather than putting it off for the future.
“We all think we will live until old age, but death could come at any time,” she said.
“Holiness becomes more urgent in view of the fact that death is both inevitable and unpredictable.”