Young Nun, Former Atheist Says: “Remember Your Death”

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP is a Daughter of Saint Paul, a religious order commonly referred to as the Media Nuns.  A former atheist, she now works to evangelize through social media. You can find her writings at Aleteia or follow her on twitter, where she tweets daily about the Christian practice of #mementomori.

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For almost a year you’ve been chronicling insights sprung from keeping a plastic skull on your desk. Can you talk about this?

Memento mori, meaning “Remember your death”, was a Christian practice popular in medieval times. But remembering one’s death in order to live well is an ancient tradition that stretches back for millennia, to before the coming of Christ. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of reminders to remember one’s mortality and to keep the end of life in mind. The Book of Sirach urges, “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (7:38). The Rule of Saint Benedict, written for monks in the 6th century, includes the imperative to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” Stoic philosophers also speak of the importance of remembering death in order to live well. So, there is a long non-Christian and Christian tradition of the value of remembering one’s death. The practice can be valuable for non-Christians but for Christians, it is entirely different. For us, death is illuminated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Remembering death is more about remembering that Christ has saved us from the death of sin.

Before I entered the Daughters of Saint Paul, I didn’t know anything about this tradition in the Church. But I read that Bl. James Alberione, the founder of our order, kept a skull on his desk to remind him of death. When I read this, I thought, “That’s so punk rock. Definitely going to do that at some point.” Then I forgot about it. But the idea kept coming back to me. Last summer, while I was on my annual 8-day silent retreat, I was struggling (as usual) with the problem of suffering, especially death. One of the spiritual directors at the retreat just happened to bring a skull with him and a sister showed it to me. I took that as a sign that I should finally get a skull for my desk.

I knew that I needed to meditate on death and to ask for the grace to see death more as God does. Another sister kindly donated a ceramic skull to me from her Halloween supplies and I began meditating on death every day. The first day I tweeted “Day 1 with a skull on my desk” and then a random thought. I thought nothing of it. But there was a huge response so I decided that I would continue. I never imagined it would turn into more than a couple weeks worth of tweets but I am now close to 400 days of tweeting about memento mori.

Hundreds of people have bought skulls for their desks and sent me pictures. I wrote a journal and a Lenten devotional for Pauline Books about memento mori that are coming out this fall. Most importantly, people have told me that this practice has changed their lives and helped them to become holier. Memento mori also has helped me to put my entire life in the perspective of eternal life. I can truly say that it has changed how I make decisions and what I prioritize. Remembering death is a dusty practice that needs to be dusted off and used by Catholics—it makes a concrete difference in the spiritual life.

 

You had an experience that is quite common today among people today. You left the Church at a young age, stopped believing in God, and became conscious of many problems and inconsistencies within the Church. What do you think are some questions young people leaving religion and faith today are not asking?

One question that spiritual but not religious young people are not asking is, “What happens when I die?” Some might consider the question but then they brush it off, assuming there are no answers. But a wealth of answers is out there and part of what it means to be human is to ask the difficult questions and to at least to be familiar with the answers that have captured hearts and minds for centuries.

When I was an atheist, the death of a friend helped me to begin to explore questions of an afterlife with more seriousness. Despite the fact that I studied a lot of philosophy in college, I spent absolutely no time considering what I thought happened in the afterlife. Obviously, because I was an atheist, I assumed nothing happened except the rotting of the body as I did not believe in the immortal soul. But I had spent almost no time researching what other traditions and philosophers thought about the question and I realized that it was incumbent upon me as a person who sought truth to at least think about it. Eventually, prompted by what I found in answers to these questions and also by an experience of God that I had, I converted to theism and then to Catholicism.

 

The number of adults leaving the Church today is large and growing. You recently published a book on inviting loved ones back into the Church. As a young person who left the Church and returned, what would you say to those who are spiritual but not religious?

If we want to change the world we have to change ourselves first. And we cannot do this by ourselves. God gave humans the gift of reason which can lead us to a certain degree of virtue but sin impedes our best efforts. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we need help to become not just mediocre but heroically good people. God, who gave us our being and who has saved us from the darkest part of ourselves, wants to help us become people who can bring change to the world. This help is found in the grace of Jesus Christ through the power of his death and resurrection.

The Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ, has the presence of God in every church. Not in some ethereal way, but in a concrete in-your-face way. In every tabernacle, Jesus Christ is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. And, like the early Christians who came before us, Catholics consume Christ’s Body and Blood at every Mass. I can imagine this sounds intense to people unfamiliar with Catholicism but that’s what our faith is, it’s intense, radical, earthy, and divinely inspired. Nothing else would have the power to change us.

 

One struggle many young people have with the Church today is what they see as an unequal treatment of women. What would you say to young women who are frustrated with what they see as a lack of leadership opportunities for women within the Church?

Women’s ordination has never been an issue for me because I believe that the gospels clearly point to a delineation between the twelve apostles and the other disciples. I can think of no other reason for this aside from the establishment of the priesthood. It certainly is not because Jesus thought women were inferior in any way. And when people argue that Jesus was just conforming to sexist standards of the time, I usually respond, “The Jesus I know is not sexist. Further than that, Jesus was sinless and sexism is a sin.” I also find the focus on that issue among some feminists to reek of clericalism. I am not a second-class citizen of the Church simply because I do not administer the sacraments. That is a very limited view of the Church, faith, and vocation.

That being said, I definitely see a lot of room for growth in women’s leadership in the Church. Sexism and clericalism are not things of the past, especially in other parts of the world. I hear of and have witnessed women and religious sisters being treated as if they were on the bottom rung of the Church’s totem pole, unworthy of respect and equal treatment. There is a need for women to be integrated more fully into the administration of parishes and dioceses. I often wonder if the abuse scandals would have been as serious if women had been more involved in those decisions. The Church needs women’s wisdom, strength, and holiness. And as long as we are not fully integrated, the Church will suffer.

 

You went from being an atheist to a nun. Can you talk about why you entered the Daughters of St. Paul? Some people may find it odd that so many young Catholic sisters are so present on social media. How does this fit with the charism of the Daughters of St. Paul?

Honestly, I had no real appreciation for our charism when I first began visiting the Daughters of Saint Paul. The Daughters of Saint Paul are called to spread the Gospel using all forms of modern media and I was a bit of a Luddite. I hated technology. But I loved communication, writing, and evangelization. So, these interests helped me to begin to understand how I had a place in this order. However, more than anything God led me here. God knew where I belonged and revealed it to me. I entered on that trust, hoping that God would come through. Every day the Pauline charism unfolds in my life and in my sisters’ lives and it is a beautiful thing to behold and to learn more about.

 

Why would a young woman in today’s world and Church want to become a nun? What are some words you would give to young women discerning religious life?

I hear from young women all the time who are interested in religious life. Any woman who wants to live a life of radical dedication to God should discern religious life. Whether you end up joining a convent or not, the discernment process will help you become holier, happier, and more mature.

If you are discerning, it is important to remember your death. Not just once, not a few times, but every day. This practice will help you to put your life in the wider context of eternal life and it will help you to prioritize and discern more clearly. Also, be willing to risk everything for Jesus, he is worth it.

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Image courtesy Jill Simons.

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