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New book urges reflections on ‘last things’ during Advent

[Editor’s Note: Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble is a religious sister with the Daughters of Saint Paul, a congregation founded by Blessed James Alberione to spread the Gospel using modern media. She is the author of several books on memento mori, the Christian practice of meditating on one’s death to prepare for heaven; and is featured in https://pursuedbytruth.com. She spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Caomsy: Many of us who have encountered you on social media know a bit about your story, but let’s begin here: how did you go from an atheist to a Catholic nun?

I grew up in a Catholic family, but I had a natural skepticism that led me at the age of five to first doubt whether God really existed. My skepticism coupled with my wrestling with the problem of suffering led me to turn to atheism at the age of fourteen. I was a materialist atheist for over a decade.

Eventually, I began to realize that my worldview had unsatisfying answers to some of life’s most important questions. So I began to explore the answers to these questions in different religions and worldviews. I still didn’t believe in God but I began to investigate and search for the truth. Then, in one Damascus-like moment in Costa Rica, I had what the philosopher Jacques Maritain calls “a metaphysical experience” in which God made clear to me that he existed, that he was a personal God, that he loved me, and that he had a plan for my life. I would have never imagined it as an atheist, but my experience of God in that moment eventually led me back to the Church and later into the convent as a religious sister with the Daughters of St. Paul.

Can you connect this journey to the writing of your new book, titled Memento Mori?

Death has always played a role in my search for the truth. When I was an atheist, the death of a friend prompted me to begin to explore questions of an afterlife with more seriousness. My friend’s death and the questions it prompted in my heart eventually led me to theism and then to Catholicism.

Though I have a philosophical bent to my personality that helped me to follow this road, I think this focus on death is within us all. We are beings hurtling toward death and this frightening reality is at the back of our minds from the moment we begin to comprehend it as children. Because death is always lurking in our awareness, our Catholic tradition has emphasized bringing it into the light through meditation on our mortality. This meditation helps us to truly absorb the powerful message of the Gospel: Jesus has saved us from death.

The book is a journey through Advent, right? Why do you think a book like this is important to read during Advent?

A few years ago, I read that it used to be common during Advent for pastors to preach on the Four Last Things — death, judgment, hell, and heaven. Upon hearing that, I was impressed by how much our celebration of Advent has changed. This solemn liturgical season is so often swallowed up by our preliminary preparations for Christmas. We can easily lose the thread of Christianity around this time of year.

Also, unfortunately, today Christmas celebrations, more so than at Easter, are filled with sentimentality. Few people recognize the danger of sentimentality in the spiritual life but it’s a real and very present pitfall that can center us on ourselves. When we are lost in sentimentality, we forget the otherness of God — and this is precisely the mystery that makes the message of Christianity and the Incarnation so powerful.

Advent means nothing without recognizing that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, came to save us from death, humanity’s most intimidating enemy and impossible adversary. Jesus was born to die so that we may live. Holding the paradox of these mysteries of our faith together can be difficult and challenging but it’s far more rewarding than skimming the surface. Our sisters hope that the art and the reflections in Memento Mori: An Advent Companion on the Last Things will help people to break through the superficiality and sentimentality that can surround Christmas to enter more deeply into the profound mysteries of our faith.

Your publisher also sent me a Memento Mori desk calendar. So we can keep up this kind of spiritual practice for over a year! 

Saint Benedict exhorts his monks in his Rule to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” The Book of Sirach also urges, “In all you do, remember the end of your life, / and then you will never sin” (7:36). Inspired by these exhortations in our faith tradition, our sisters at Pauline Books and Media worked with the wonderful people at Word Among Us to publish a perpetual, daily memento mori desk calendar with quotes from Scripture, Church Fathers, saints, and other contemporary thinkers about the importance of remembering our death. Our sisters produce resources like this because death could come for any of us at any time. But we cannot prepare for death without thinking about it regularly.

Why do you think your own witness to this kind of spiritual practice has caught fire? In my own book series I’ve been trying to convince folks who will listen that thinking about one’s death, for lack of a better way of saying it, is a hot topic right now. Why do you think that is?

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the practice of memento mori has changed my life. I began meditating on my death daily in 2017 and sharing online about how my journey was impacting me. I never imagined how much interest this would generate both within the Catholic faith community and beyond. People began asking me and my sisters for resources to meditate on death regularly. And since the Daughters of St. Paul’s charism is to use the media to spread the Gospel, we were well-equipped to publish resources on memento mori for people.

Then we were immersed in a world-wide pandemic. Unfortunately, our simultaneously death-averse and death-obsessed culture left people very ill-prepared for this reality. And even within the Church, for many years people have not received formation in meditation on death and the last things. That’s why I have been so grateful that the Holy Spirit inspired interest in memento mori before the pandemic because it helped our sisters to be prepared to respond to the current reality and to people’s needs.

So in short, I would say the interest in the topic of death is one that comes from several things including our current circumstances and a thirst for the truth present in all hearts. But most importantly, I believe the Holy Spirit is inspiring in many peoples’ hearts a desire to think about death because meditation on death can help us to enter more fully into the Gospel message and relationship with Jesus Christ.

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