When Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, began keeping a ceramic skull on her desk and tweeting about it, she had no idea she'd be starting a movement. Her daily tweets about memento mori - Latin for "remember your death" -contained quotes and insights that have inspired others to remember death daily.
Many have found this ancient practice to provide an important perspective on their lives in view of Jesus' call to repentance, conversion, and the hope of resurrection.
And now Sr. Theresa Aletheia's series of tweets has led to a memento mori -inspired Lenten devotional. Each day contains a reflection written by Sr. Theresa Aletheia based on the liturgy of the day for all of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. The devotional also includes a memento mori examen or review of the day, a daily moment of intercessory prayer, and daily reflections on death from the tradition, including the Church Fathers and many of the saints. Prompts are provided for journaling that can be used along with the Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal, also available from Pauline Books.
Lent is a time when we remember the death of Christ and the sacrifice he made to give us eternal life. This devotional will help you to meditate on your own mortality and the incredible gift of salvation in preparation for Easter. Whether you get a skull for your desk, a memento mori journal, or a Lenten devotional, it is vitally important to the Christian life to remember the fragility of your life on earth-because one day you will die.
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By Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Noble, Theresa, author.
Title: Remember your death : Memento mori Lenten devotional / by Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP.
Description: Boston, MA : Pauline Books & Media, 2019.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018036691| ISBN 9780819865175 (pbk.) | ISBN 0819865176 (pbk.) | ISBN 9780819865182 (eBook)
Subjects: LCSH: Death--Religious aspects--Catholic Church--Prayers and devotions. | Lent--Prayers and devotions. | Memento mori--Miscellanea.
Classification: LCC BT825 .N63 2019 | DDC 236/.1--dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018036691
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Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Excerpts from Pope Francis’ magisterium texts copyright © Libreria Editrice Vaticana. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Cover art and design by Danielle Victoria Lussier, FSP
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Remember Your Death—Change Your Life
Live Memento Mori
The Memento Mori Daily Examen
The Lenten Journey Begins
Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Friday after Ash Wednesday
Saturday after Ash Wednesday
First Week of Lent
Second Week of Lent
Third Week of Lent
Fourth Week of Lent
Fifth Week of Lent
Monday of Holy Week
Tuesday of Holy Week
Wednesday of Holy Week
YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
The moment you are born you begin dying. You may die in fifty years, ten years, perhaps tomorrow—or even today. But whenever it happens, death awaits every person, whether rich or poor, young or old, believer or nonbeliever. In City of God, Saint Augustine described the startling reality of death as “the very violence with which body and soul are wrenched asunder.” A terrifying prospect. So, it’s no wonder most people try to ignore their impending death or assume it is far in the future. However, ignoring death will not make it go away. And it may even increase anxiety—because the fearsome truth is that death could come suddenly and forcefully for anyone at any time. Only God knows when each person will die, so preparation for death is an essential spiritual practice, regardless of age.
Memento mori or “remember your death” is a phrase that has been long associated with the practice of remembering the unpredictable and inevitable end of one’s life. The spiritual practice of memento mori and the symbols and sayings associated with it were particularly popular in the medieval Church. But the tradition of remembering one’s death stretches back to the very beginning of salvation history. After the first sin, God reminds Adam and Eve of their mortality: “You are dust, / and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). God’s words continue to echo throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, reminding readers of life’s brevity, while exhorting them to remember their death. The Book of Sirach urges, “In whatever you do, remember your last days, / and you will never sin.” (7:36). The psalmist prays, “Teach us to count our days aright, / that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). In the New Testament, Jesus exhorts his disciples to pick up their crosses daily and to remember their death as they follow him to the Place of the Skull: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
Remembering one’s death is a practice that philosophers and spiritual teachers, both inside and outside of the Christian tradition, have encouraged for centuries. While the practice certainly can improve the quality of one’s earthly life by providing focus and motivation to live well, it could never overcome death itself. Death—whether the natural death of the body or the death of the soul through sin—has always been humanity’s most intimidating enemy and its most impossible adversary. Only the Creator of the Universe—the One who first brought everything into existence and continues to maintain all living beings in existence—could overcome death. In the mystery of the incarnation, the Son of God humbled himself and took on human flesh in order to defeat death through his own death. Jesus has defeated humanity’s greatest foe—permanent death in sin. All that remains for us to endure is bodily death. And Jesus has transformed even this fearsome reality into the doorway to heaven.
The Cross changes everything. With the triumph of the Cross, remembering one’s death involves not only remembering one’s mortality but also remembering Christ’s victory over death: “Where, O death, is your victory? / Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). If we belong to the Lord, we need not fear bodily death. Through his passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made salvation available to those who choose to enter into Christ’s death, to be buried with him, and to rise with him to new life. Baptism banishes original sin and fills the soul with sanctifying grace—God’s own life—that can be renewed and invigorated through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At Mass, we consume the Eucharist, the Body of Christ. This Body is not the body of a corpse but, rather, the living, risen Body of our Savior who has vanquished death. The Eucharist is heavenly manna, and Jesus promised that it would lead us to heaven: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51).
Even if one does not believe the Christian message of salvation, the rich, ancient tradition of remembering death can bring joy, focus, and fruitfulness to anyone’s life. However, for the Christian, it is a practice that extends beyond the reality of earthly life and bodily death. In the power of Jesus Christ, the Christian practice of memento mori reaches past the horizon of this life and into the eternal happiness of heaven. The power of the Cross amplifies the benefits of memento mori because the practice is fueled not merely by personal discipline but by God’s abundant, living grace. As Christians, we remember our death in order to remember our Life: Jesus Christ. We remember our death in order that our lives may be filled with the Life of Christ, both now and when we enter into the joy of eternal life.
Remembering one’s death is an absolutely essential aspect of the Christian life not only because it helps us to live well but also because it helps us to remember what Christ has done for us. Jesus trampled death! Memento mori is not a momentary trend but an ancient practice encouraged by Scripture, Jesus, the Church Fathers, and many of the saints. With the grace of God, memento mori has the power to change your habits and lead you to holiness. I hope you embrace this ancient and revered practice and make it your own. And always bear in mind: the practice of memento mori is more about living than it is about dying.
As you use this devotional, you will be in my prayers.
Remember your death,
Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP
REMEMBERING YOUR DEATH IS a deeply personal practice that can bring complex emotions to the surface. For this reason, it is important to thoughtfully integrate memento mori into your spiritual life. To aid you in this journey, this devotional has daily prompts for reflection activities and journaling. Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal is an available companion resource that you can use to respond to these prompts. The journal includes inspiring, original memento mori quotes as well as quotes from Scripture, Church Fathers, and the saints. The companion journal also contains a section of prayers related to memento mori. Whether you use the companion journal or not, it would be helpful to respond to the daily prompts in order to truly welcome the practice of memento mori into both your head and heart.
As you integrate memento mori into your life, you will find more fruit in the practice if you are also able to connect with those in the community of the Church who are on the same journey. Talk with family and close friends. Share some of your reflections and reactions with the wider online community with the hashtags #mementomori and #livemementomori. Death is the fate of every human being, but as Christians we also share the same hope of eternal life. Together on life’s journey, we can help one another both to keep our death in mind and our eyes on Jesus.
At least once daily, cast your mind ahead to the moment of death so that you can consider the events of each day in this light.
—Saint Josemaría Escrivá
IN HIS RULE, SAINT BENEDICT urged his monks to “keep death daily before your eyes.” Benedict urged the remembrance of death so that his monks would live better in this life and keep their eyes on Jesus. Benedict also knew that the practice of remembering death is most effective when observed daily. This Lenten devotional will help you to begin the practice of remembering death daily, if you don’t already. But Lent will eventually end, and then you will have to find another way to remember death every day. For this reason, each meditation in this devotional includes an examen, a time-honored practice that can be used to incorporate memento mori into your daily life.
For those new to it, the examen is a review of the day in light of God’s love and mercy. Saint Ignatius of Loyola promoted the use of the examen to offer God praise and gratitude, identify areas of weakness in which God’s help is needed, and to ask for grace for the future. This valuable spiritual practice has been encouraged in the Church for centuries because it has many benefits. The examen is a perfect way to incorporate memento mori into daily life since making an examen already implicitly evaluates the day in view of heaven. However, the version of the examen found below explicitly incorporates memento mori as a step in which you review the day in the context of your final hours.
Close your eyes and become present to God dwelling within you through your Baptism. Imagine yourself as a child under God’s omniscient, compassionate gaze. Try to visualize yourself stepping out your self-centeredness in order to see reality through the loving eyes of God. This step is a crucial beginning to the examen as God’s perspective on our lives is the only important one.
Offer a short prayer asking the Holy Spirit to help you to see the day in the light of God’s grace.
Ask the questions: “How has God loved me today?” and “How have I loved God and my neighbor today?” Sometimes an obvious moment in the day will jump out—positive or negative—and you can sit with it. However, this step is not like the examination of conscience before confession. Focusing on the negative may come more naturally, but try to note both the positive and negative events of the day and bring them before God in sorrow and thanksgiving.
Consider the day in view of the last moments of your life. Envision your deathbed scene and reflect on whatever arose in the previous step in the context of eternal life. In this step, thank God for everything in the day that prepared you for heaven. Ask God for the graces you need to better prepare for the moment of your death, which remains unknown. Consider the question: “If I were to die tomorrow, what graces would I need from God?”
End by looking forward to the next day. In this step, thank God for the gift of another day of life, should it be God’s will. Think of the specific events of the following day, especially those for which you need particular graces. Visualize yourself trusting and acting in God’s grace as you live both the trying and joyful moments of the next day. This step, if done faithfully, will lead to concrete behavioral and emotional changes in your life.
Note: At first, the examen may take about ten minutes, but once you get used to the practice it can be done in less time. Do not get caught up in doing the steps precisely; there are many different ways to do the examen. All that matters is that you get into the rhythm and spirit of the practice and see it bearing fruit.
Hopefully, by the end of Lent, remembering your death and making a regular examen will have become almost second nature and a powerful way to grow in holiness!
Let us prepare ourselves for a good death, for eternity. Let us not lose our time in lukewarmness, in negligence, in our habitual infidelities.
—Saint John Vianney
Saint Paul the Hermit, José de Ribera.
READINGS: JL 2:12–18 / PS 51:3–4, 5–6AB, 12–13, 14, 17 / 2 COR 5:20–6:2 / MT 6:1–6, 16–18
A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.
MEMENTO MORIILLUMINES THE entire penitential season of Lent. Ash Wednesday begins the season by immediately focusing our attention on the theme of remembering death. The Cross—the tool of death that became the tool of our salvation—is traced on Mass-goers foreheads in ash. The priest or minister says the words that God spoke to Adam and Eve as they left the Garden of Eden, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return” (see Gn 3:19)—in Latin: Memento, homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. This sentiment could be shortened to memento mori or “Remember your death.”
Remember your death. From the very beginning of salvation history, these words ring out as bells toll before a funeral Mass. Humans are but mortals, mere creatures. God is not some being in the universe that comes into existence, but Existence itself. Every person has life only because God is Life. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that humanity needs a Savior because we are but dust and ashes. We need a Savior because the only person who could save us from death is the one who gave us life in the first place. Jesus Christ, who is Life itself, was our last and our only hope.
When we remember death, we meditate on the central mystery of our faith: that death has been transformed by Jesus Christ. Not just a vague and general death but our own personal death. Jesus’ death and resurrection can have a direct impact on every person’s life and death if we accept his saving grace. Therefore, memento mori is not an abstract idea, it’s personal and concrete. Remembering death for the Christian is absolutely inseparable from remembering what Jesus has done for each one of us.
Meditation on death, however, is not easy. The three traditional practices of Lent are fasting, penance, and almsgiving. And the practice of memento mori is definitely a penance. Remembering death is a form of self-denial that leads to conversion. Nonetheless in today’s readings—and in fact throughout Scripture—we are encouraged to embrace this practice because it leads to the joy experienced by countless saints. Remembering death in order to truly live cleanses our hearts and renews in us a hopeful, steadfast spirit. Memento mori does not remain in Lent but leads us through Lent to Easter joy.
Review your day (see the Memento Mori Daily Examen, p. 8).
Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart this Lent as you meditate on your death and the mysteries of the faith. Pray a Hail Mary for this intention.*
Death is not to be mourned over. First, because it is common and due to all. Next, because it frees us from the miseries of this life. And, lastly, because in the likeness of sleep we are at rest from the toils of this world … What grief is there that the grace of the Resurrection does not console? What sorrow is not excluded by the belief that nothing perishes in death? … Death is a gain and life a penalty, so that Paul says: “To me to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]. What is Christ but the death of the body, the breath of life? And so let us die with him, so that we may live with him. Let there be in us a daily practice and inclination to dying. By this separation from bodily desires … our soul will learn to withdraw itself and to be “placed on high” where earthly lusts cannot approach and attach themselves. Our soul takes the likeness of death upon herself so she may not incur the penalty of death.
—Saint Ambrose, On the Death of Satyrus
Take some time to journal on your goals, hopes, and expectations for this season of Lent.
Draw a cross made of ash or write a prayer asking for God’s abundant graces on your Lenten journey.
READINGS: DT 30:15–20 / PS 1:1–2, 3, 4, 6 / LK 9:22–25
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
MEMENTO MORIIS NOT only a practice of the Church Fathers and the saints; Jesus remembered his death his whole life long. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that in order to follow him we need to take up our cross daily. What does he mean? Is he just speaking metaphorically, urging us to accept life’s suffering? Or is he referring to something more literal? Of course, Jesus is not telling us to drag a wooden cross with us to work, social outings, and around the house. But perhaps he is speaking more literally than we might imagine.
As Jesus made his way to the Place of the Skull with the wood of the Cross bearing down on his strong shoulders, what was on his mind? His future success among the Jewish elite? How much money he had saved from carpentry work? His past popularity with the people? No, Jesus was thinking about his death. Jesus did not just begin carrying his Cross on that fateful day. He began the moment he was laid on the wood of the manger. In his divinity, Jesus always knew that his life would end on the Cross. In this way, his entire life was lived in the spirit of memento mori. In imitation of Jesus, we too are called to live in this same spirit: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph 5:1).
When Jesus tells us to pick up our cross daily, he urges us to envision ourselves with him on the road to the Place of the Skull. Like Christ, we look ahead to death not just sometimes but daily. However unlike him, we don’t possess the power to save ourselves from death. But we follow a Savior who does—Jesus has power over life and death. For this reason, we don’t just see death at the end of our journey but also what is beyond it. When Jesus invites us to carry our cross, he invites us to follow his entire journey—to the Cross but also to the resurrection. Daily remembrance of death leads us through the Cross to eternal life. The practice is not so much a meditation on death but on the Conqueror of death. Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, will lead us through the corridors of death to new life.
Review your day (see the Memento Mori Daily Examen, p. 8).
Everyone is asked to carry their cross daily but people with terminal illnesses, those in war-torn countries, and those with dangerous jobs face the possibility of death every day. Pray a Hail Mary for all who face the horizon of death in a more intense way.
No sooner do we begin to live in this dying body than we begin to move ceaselessly toward death. For the whole course of this life (if life we must call it), tends toward death in its mutability. There is certainly no one who is not nearer to death this year than last year, and tomorrow than today, and today than yesterday, and a short time from now than now…. For whatever time we live is deducted from our whole term of life, and what remains daily becomes less and less. Our whole life becomes nothing but a race toward death, in which no one is allowed to stand still for a moment, or to go more slowly. Rather, all are driven forward with an impartial momentum and with equal speed. For the one whose life is short spends a day no more swiftly than one whose life is longer. But while the equal moments are impartially snatched from both, the one has a nearer and the other a more remote goal to reach with their equal speed. It is one thing to make a longer journey, and another to walk more slowly. The one, therefore, who spends longer time on the way to death does not proceed at a more leisurely pace, but goes over more ground. Further, if every person begins to die, that is, is in death, as soon as death has begun to show itself … then he begins to die so soon as he begins to live. For what else is going on in all his days, hours, and moments, until this slow-working death is fully consummated? … A person, then, is never in life from the moment he dwells in this dying rather than living body.
—Saint Augustine, City of God
Imagine following Jesus for a time to the Place of the Skull. Do you consider running away? If so, to what places, possessions, or attachments do you want to run? Reflect on your resistance to following Jesus.
Draw the Place of the Skull and include symbols of hope and everlasting life. Or write a prayer asking Jesus to help you to overcome your fears and resistance as you follow him.
READINGS: IS 58:1–9A / PS 51:3–4, 5–6AB, 18–19 / MT 9:14–15
They seek me day after day,
and desire to know my ways …
You shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: “Here I am!”
—Isaiah 58:2, 9
THE ANGUISHED CRY OF a humanity that cannot save itself echoes throughout salvation history. And God’s response echoes back: “Here I am!” The two cries ring out together. Like children unable to cure our own illness or to rise from a fall without help, humanity seeks help, desperately pleading for mercy. And like a mother who rushes to the bed of a sick child or a father who scoops up his child who falls, God stoops down and saves us (see Ps 113:6). God never ceases to respond to our cries for help even if he seems deaf. God’s love is like his nature: firm, unchangeable, and enduring as rock. Similarly, God’s salvific will is eternal and immutable. In other words, God does not change his mind. God foresaw humanity’s rejection before time began and was always going to save us.
While God’s love never changes, we, however, are fickle. We forget our need for God and live as if we do not need a Savior. We might begin a prayer for God’s help and then think, “I can do this by myself.” Or we might never even consider prayer unless we are really frantic, and then it is more an act of superstitious desperation than faith. The sad truth is that sometimes we believe more in our self-sufficiency than we do in God’s goodness. But self-sufficiency is a myth. We are not self-sufficient. We are sinners in need of a Savior. No one else but God can provide us with the grace to conquer our sin and make our way to heaven.
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