Written by Ruth Graham
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 within the 1880s. He saved a ceramic cranium on his desk as a reminder of the inevitability of demise. Aletheia, a punk fan as a youngster, thought the morbid curio was “super punk rock,” she recalled lately. She thought vaguely about buying a cranium for herself sometime.
These days, Aletheia has no scarcity of skulls. People ship her cranium mugs and cranium rosaries within the mail and share pictures of their cranium tattoos. A ceramic cranium from a Halloween retailer sits on her desk. Her Twitter identify features a skull-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 demise each day as a method of appreciating the current and specializing in the longer term. It can appear radical in an period wherein demise — till very lately — has develop into simple to disregard.
“My life is going to end, and I have a limited amount of time,” Aletheia mentioned. “We naturally tend to think of our lives as kind of continuing and continuing.”
Aletheia rejects any suggestion that the follow is morbid. Suffering and demise 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 demise is a venerable one. St. Benedict instructed his monks within the sixth century to “keep death daily before your eyes,” for instance. For Christians like Aletheia, it’s inextricable from the promise of a greater life after demise. But the follow isn’t uniquely Christian. Mindfulness of demise is a convention inside Buddhism, and Socrates and Seneca have been among the many early thinkers who beneficial “practicing” demise as a solution to domesticate which means and focus. Skeletons, clocks and decaying meals are recurring motifs in artwork historical past.
For nearly all of humanity, folks died at youthful ages than we do now, extra ceaselessly died at dwelling and had much less medical management over their remaining days. Death was far much less predictable and much more seen. “To us, death is exotic,” mentioned Joanna Ebenstein, founding father of Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based enterprise that provides occasions and books targeted on demise, artwork and tradition. “But that’s a luxury particular to our time and place.”
The pandemic, in fact, has made demise unimaginable to neglect. Since final spring, Ebenstein has performed a collection of memento mori lessons on-line, wherein college students discover the worldwide historical past of representations of demise after which create their very own. Final tasks have included a miniature coffin, a collection of letters to be delivered autopsy and a deck of tarot playing cards composed of pictures taken by a husband who lately died. “For the first time in my lifetime, this is a topic not just interesting to a bunch of hipsters,” Ebenstein mentioned. “Death is actually relevant.”
The Daughters of St. Paul, Aletheia’s order, was based within the early 20th century to make use of “the most modern and efficacious means of media” to evangelise 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 most of the girls are energetic on social media, the place they use variations on the hashtag #MediaNuns. In December, Aletheia appeared in a TikTookay 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 four.four million occasions.
As a youngster in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Aletheia, who’s now 40, listened to the Dead Kennedys and attended native punk reveals along with her pals. Her mother and father have been dedicated Catholics; her father has a doctorate in theology and labored for an area Catholic diocese for some time. But she was a skeptical little one and declared herself an atheist as a youngster, somewhat 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 on the animal rights motion’s arguments towards “speciesism.” It appeared to her that there was an actual, if troublesome 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 regulation college. Within 4 years, she was carrying a behavior on 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.
Aletheia started her memento mori venture 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 retaining herself dedicated to her personal every day follow. But the tweets have been a success, and the venture expanded. Now the order sells vinyl decals ($four.95, “great Christmas gifts!”) and hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with a cranium icon designed by Sister Danielle Victoria Lussier, one other Daughter of St. Paul. Aletheia continues to advertise the follow on social media, and she or he has printed a memento mori prayer journal and a devotional that opens with the sentence, “You are going to die.”
The books have develop into a number of the order’s bestsellers lately — a lift to the nuns, whose revenue as a nonprofit writer has declined sharply in latest a long time. Aletheia is at present engaged on a brand new prayer e-book for the Advent season, main as much as Christmas.