Why Catholics should contemplate the four last things during Advent
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 20, 2021 / 14:10 pm
Catholics should contemplate death in preparation for Baby Jesus’ birth, according to Sr. Danielle Victoria.
“Baby Jesus came to die for us,” she told CNA of the temptation to over-sentimentalize him. Even in art – as a baby in crèche nativity scenes – Christ frequently appears with his feet “on top of each other and his hands are outstretched.”
He is, in other words, already placed in the shape of the cross.
Sr. Danielle Victoria of the Daughters of St. Paul would know. An artist in her own right, she designed the logo and covers for the popular “memento mori” book series by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble. The series has renewed interest in the ancient Christian practice of “memento mori” or “remember (that you have) to die” in the light of Christ.
For the latest book, Memento Mori: An Advent Companion on the Last Things, Sr. Danielle Victoria served as artistic director. Published in October, it encourages readers to reflect on death, judgement, heaven, and hell – topics traditionally associated with Advent.
“It really just fits kind of hand-in-glove with the four weeks [of Advent] and with the reality of Christmas,” Sr. Danielle Victoria said. Advent, she added, is a time of preparation and “the four last things are really about preparing for heaven.”
“You are going to die,” the book’s trailer, tackles the core of memento mori. “At the moment of your death, how will you have wanted to live your life?”
Both Sr. Danielle Victoria and Sr. Theresa Aletheia belong to the Daughters of St. Paul, a religious order of more than 2,000 sisters worldwide that started in 1915. Known as the “Media Nuns,” they dedicate their lives to communicating Christ’s love with their own lives and through the media. In the U.S. and Canada, where they run 12 Pauline Books and Media stores, the sisters pursue their mission in the spirit of St. Paul through technology, publishing, outreach, and media education. This includes the memento mori books.
According to Sr. Danielle Victoria, “memento mori really is woven all throughout the season of Christmas and Advent.”
She pointed to the classic Christmas song, “What Child Is This?” At one point, the lyrics read, “Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through / The Cross, be borne for me, for you.”
“It’s right there in the hymns we sing, but we don’t even realize it,” she stressed.
An Advent companion
The new book emphasizes this symbiotic relationship between death and life: That Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection, brought us life. We die with the hope of eternal life, and, by reflecting on death, live our lives on Earth more fully.
“Advent would mean nothing if Jesus did not come to save us from death, humanity’s most intimidating enemy and impossible adversary,” Sr. Theresa Aletheia writes.
For each day of Advent, the book offers a reflection based on the Mass readings, an examen (review of the day) featuring saintly quotes, and a journal and prayer exercise. Interrupting the text, colorful memento mori imagery floods the book’s pages. More than 20 artists, coordinated by Sr. Danielle Victoria, donated their work. Paintings of Mother Mary embracing a Baby Jesus intermingle with haunting imagery of skeletons, skulls, and hourglasses.
The memento mori logo, designed by Sr. Danielle Victoria, graces the front cover. It consists of a skull surrounded by laurels and a butterfly fluttering above. The fallen laurels represents humanity, the skull represents death, the upward laurels represents victory, and the butterfly symbolizes resurrection.
“We wanted to have that sense of life that’s being born out of meditating your death because that really is the point: That we do not need to be afraid of our death,” she said.
The skull-themed logo, she said, incorporated “symbolism that was kind of being co-opted in culture and different subcultures” to return it to its roots.
“The Catholic Church is more goth than even the goth scene,” Sr. Danielle Victoria stressed.
Catholics as the original ‘goths’
In 2019, Sr. Theresa Aletheia tweeted to her tens of thousands of followers that “We’re the original goths,” next to a skull and crossbones emoji. It’s a topic she’s familiar with: In a profile by the New York Times earlier this year, she shared her journey of going from a punk rock atheist teenager to a Catholic sister.
“Even in the most simple and concrete form, [Catholics] had the catacombs,” or underground cemeteries, Sr. Danielle Victoria explained the tweet. At another point, she added, “You really can’t find a saint who doesn’t talk about meditating on their death.”
Today, she said, “the Goth” has evolved into a subculture where “the light is kind of snuffed out and the dark is overemphasized.”
That distorted its original meaning, she said.
“The whole concept of goth is really like fighting against the dark with the light,” she explained. “Even thinking about punk rock, you know what I mean, kind of being a disruptor.”
According to Sr. Danielle Victoria, Catholics fit this description.
“We are so countercultural in the sense that we don’t just lay down in front of death, we don’t just pacify ourselves in the face of struggle and difficulty in suffering,” she said. “No, we embrace the difficulty to discover the greater truth of how Christ is alive in that moment because we believe that God can bring a miracle out of the most horrific horrendous story or situation or event that is occurring.”
That hope, she said, is the “true goth.” At the same time, she encouraged Catholics not to be afraid.
“We should not be afraid of the messiness of our lives, of the things that are not lasting, how they decay,” she said. “But what we should care about are the loftier things or the deeper, the weightier things of the soul.”
A skull is not scary, she concluded. “What’s scary is a dead soul.”
The four last things
While the last things are traditionally listed as “death, judgement, heaven, and hell,” the book switches the order to end with heaven instead, so that it comes right before Christmas. The four last things acknowledge what Catholics know: that each person will die, face judgement, and then go either to heaven or hell.
Sr. Danielle Victoria stressed the value of contemplating death now, in order to live life well.
“All of our decisions and how we live our life every day is creating a bond in our heart to our actions and our will with heaven or hell,” she said. “We can be living hell on Earth now because that’s what we’re preparing for. Or we can be living heaven on Earth now, even in the midst of difficulty, because that’s what we’re preparing for.”
The book, she says, leaves readers feeling “invited and encouraged and kind of emboldened to want the good and to face the difficulty.”
“I do think that that’s a big point of the practice of looking at the last things and then to have that leading up to receiving this great gift of Christ and the joy of Christmas,” she said. “It’s kind of like you’re preparing your own gift, yourself for Christ, during that time.”
Fear of hell
Sr. Danielle Victoria acknowledged that there are incorrect ways of approaching memento mori and the last things.
“I think many people can identify with the fact that hell was weighted over them in certain ways,” Sr. Danielle Victoria said, even by their parents. Instead, Sr. Theresa Aletheia invites readers to contemplate death and the last things “through the loving gaze of the Father” while becoming aware of God “inviting you into who you are called to be and how he loves you.”
In a November video message about the new book, Sr. Theresa Aletheia defined memento mori.
“It might be true that we’re mortal and that we are nothing [without God] and that we are sinners and that one day we will die,” she said from Italy, where she is preparing for her final vows. “But it’s also true that we have a savior who loves us deeply and who has saved us.”
Christ “wants to pour that saving grace into our hearts every single day,” she added. “One of the ways that he can do that is when we remember our death and when we go to him and say, ‘Jesus, I am scared of death. Jesus, I am scared of hell. Jesus, I want to go to heaven. Jesus, please help me to become the best person, the person that you want me to be, a person who is full of grace who is close to you, who walks close to you, who grows in holiness.’”
“That’s really what memento mori is about,” she concluded.
The role of art in faith
Sr. Danielle Victoria and Sr. Theresa Aletheia wanted the book itself to be “a reminder, visually, to contemplate their death in light of Christ.”
Sr. Danielle Victoria identified art as one of the fruits of the memento mori books, created by people who reflected on the theme. The book emphasizes this by including the contributions of nearly 30 artists worldwide.
“I feel like artists have a special call to be able to synthesize their own experience so that others can kind of sit in that in a profound way,” she said. “To be able to invite artists to articulate that side of what I feel like memento mori can do for people, this is so exciting.”
In her video message, Sr. Theresa Aletheia revealed that she is most proud of this book, compared to her other memento mori projects. One reason, she said, is the involvement of her fellow sisters, particularly Sr. Danielle Victoria.
Sr. Danielle Victoria’s story
Sr. Danielle Victoria’s hometown is Battle Creek, Michigan, or, as she puts it, “where Kellogg’s cereal is made.” She left to study photography and film at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she also did design work.
“I was a cradle Catholic but I lost my faith through college and had a reversion experience that … radically changed the trajectory of my life,” she told CNA.
She graduated, moved back home, and started attending retreats, where she learned about religious sisters. While she had previously envisioned dedicating her life to her art, she now placed her “gifts on the altar.”
“I just was like, ‘God, you hand those back to me when I can use them for your glory alone.’” she said. “I was like, ‘I’ll scrub toilets and just whatever, I don’t ever have to do anything creative again. I just, I want to be able to sit at your feet, Lord.’”
In the meantime, she worked as a waitress to pay off her student loans. When she met the Daughters of Saint Paul – at the end of a 30-day silent retreat – she said their spirituality captivated her heart.
She entered the Daughters of Saint Paul in 2013 at the age of 30, and made her first vows in 2017. While she spoke from Boston, where the publishing house and motherhouse of the Daughters of Saint Paul is located, she’s hoping to travel to Rome in two years to make her final vows.
During her conversion experience, she said she found that “I couldn’t give what I didn’t have and that I was going to give whatever I am.”
“If I’m filled with myself, I’m going to give myself, if I’m filled with, I don’t know, just distortion, confusion, then that’s what I’m going to propagate,” she explained. “But if I’m filled with Christ…then that is who I’m going to give.”
Right now, as an artist and as a Catholic sister, that means gifting the world with memento mori – just in time for Christmas.