A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times featured a story by journalist Ruth Graham about a young religious sister who spends her days encouraging people to remember not just the dead, but to remember death itself. Sr. Teresa Aletheia, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, has developed a huge online following by encouraging people to cultivate the daily habit of reflecting on their mortality. Memento mori, in Latin, was a practice of ancient pagan philosophers but has also been part of Christian life since the early centuries of the Church. Sr. Aletheia notes that this ancient practice has fallen out of favor in our day and she believes that this has had a profoundly negative effect on our culture’s approach to death. “We try to suppress the thought of death, or escape it, or run away from it,” she says in the article. But she argues that seeking comfort by refusing to consider death is completely misguided. Instead, she says, “it’s actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them.”
Sr. Aletheia said that she made the decision to practice memento mori back in 2017, when she began to share brief daily meditations about death on her Twitter account. She credits this discipline with helping prepare her for the traumatic experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. It allowed her to notice more clearly the small moments of grace that were happening all around her. Cultivating an awareness that death could come for her or for anyone around her at any moment has helped her be more grateful for the gift of life, and more intentional in the way she spends her days preparing for eternal life. There is great wisdom in this, for when we neglect to consider the fact of our own mortality the days and the years can slip away without us ever having really thought about what life was about in the first place. The habit of memento mori is especially important for those who follow Christ. In one of her meditations on death, Sr. Aletheia writes: “If we don’t understand that Jesus has saved us from death, then we won’t understand the Gospel message. We have to understand what death is before we can understand what Jesus has saved us from.”
This weekend, we commemorate all those who died in defense of our country. Memorial Day is a holiday in which we enjoy spending time with our families and friends, but it is also an opportunity to consider the reality of human fragility and the fact that death comes for us all. For us who believe in the Resurrection and hope in the promise of eternal life in Christ, this is not a morbid habit but one that instills in us greater appreciation for the love that God has for us in giving us Our Savior. Another opportunity to remember our deceased loved ones will take place in our parish on Friday, June 11, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At 7pm at St. Gabriel Church will we have a Vespers Service at which we will remember those who died during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the service we will recite aloud the names of deceased family members and friends. If you or someone you know lost a loved one to Coronavirus, please forward the names of the deceased to the Parish Office so that we can included them on the list and remember to entrust them to the care of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Memento mori – we remember death so that we might remember that life is a gift that Christ wants to share with us forever.