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Memento Mori: an Interview With Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble

This is the first in a new series of interviews with the Daughters of St. Paul, a religious order devoted to media evangelism and sanctifying the media. They share the gift of Jesus Christ through print, film, music, and digital and are known to many Catholics as the #medianuns. Our mission at Verbum is to “use technology to equip the Church to grow in the light of the Bible,” so the Pauline Charism is close to our hearts.

Sister, you came back to the Church after becoming an atheist as a teenager. What led you back to the Church and to your vocation with the Daughters of Saint Paul?

I first doubted whether God really existed at the age of five. My natural skepticism, coupled 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 different religions and worldviews. I still didn’t believe in God, but I was investigating, searching for truth. Then, in one Damascus-like moment in Costa Rica, I had what Jacques Maritain would call “a metaphysical experience” in which God made clear to me that he existed, that he was a person, 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.

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble
Photograph by Jill Simons

You’ve written two books on the theme of Memento Mori. Can you tell us how these projects came about?

I was inspired by the founder of my religious order, Blessed James Alberione— who kept a skull on his desk to remember his inevitable death—to begin meditating every day on my death. Over two years ago, I also got a skull for my desk and started to meditate on death every day. I shared my journey on Twitter, and before I knew it, thousands of other people were getting excited about memento mori and meditating on their death. People were buying skulls for their desks and reading my tweets, but I wanted to help people really integrate this practice into their lives. So that’s where the idea for my memento mori projects came from. I worked with my sisters at the Daughters of Saint Paul to create a memento mori journal, a Lenten devotional, and an upcoming prayer book, Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things. It’s been exciting to see peoples’ responses to these projects because I know that the Holy Spirit is using them to help people to grow in the spiritual life. The practice of remembering death and living for heaven is so vitally important in the Christian life.

Why ought we meditate about death?

Death is inevitable. We are closer to death every moment of our lives. We can ignore this fact. Or we can face it. But we can only live authentically when we face it. Saint John Vianney wrote in a sermon once, “If we were required to die twice, we could jettison one death. But man dies once only, and upon his death depends his eternity. . . . If we desire to die a good death, we must lead a Christian life. And the way for us to prepare for a good death is to model our deaths upon the death of Jesus Christ.” In order to model our death on the death of Jesus Christ, we must live in preparation for it. Jesus knew that he would die. He spent his life preparing himself and his disciples for the moment of ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Jesus was not surprised by the cross. He was not sentenced by Pilate and then shocked that he was going to die young and in such terrible circumstances. Rather, he knew that he was going to die for us and he began dying for us the very moment he was born. We are called to the same dynamic. It sounds depressing, but it’s the secret paradox of the Christian life. In dying we find life.

What Bible verse speaks to you right now?

I love the verse in the book of Sirach that urges, “In all you do, remember the end of your life, / and then you will never sin” (7:36).  As Christians, we are urged to remember the last things—death, judgment, hell, and heaven— “in all we do,” not just occasionally. I’ve found this practice to be hope-filled and energizing, and it’s why I try to share it with others. When we live for God, everything changes.

Do you have any prayer requests for our readers?

The Daughters of Saint Paul are called to evangelize using all forms of modern media, (books, radio, TV, film, digital media, etc). Our founder, Blessed James Alberione, also encouraged us to make sacrifices and to live in reparation for the many evils that happen through media. So, I would invite readers to join us in praying for everyone who uses media. We pray especially for people who sin using media and for people who lead others to sin.

Photograph by Nick Staresinic.

Want to learn more about Pauline spirituality? Pray and study Scripture with the Daughters of St. Paul’s Daily Gospel Readings.

All Roads Lead to Rome: How Verbum Met the Pope

Verbum co-sponsored the Pontifical Biblical Institute’s Jesus and the Pharisees conference in Rome this May. The conference brought together Catholic and Jewish scholars from around the world to discuss the role of the Pharisees in the life of Christ and the Church and how some portrayals of the Pharisees have contributed to anti-Semitism. At its close, we had an audience with the pope in the Clementine Hall of the Papal Palace and presented him with an iPad loaded with the Verbum package used by students and faculty at the Institute.

When the audience began, Fr. Michael Kolarcik, S.J., rector of the Institute, offered some opening remarks and introduced us.  Pope Francis thanked Fr. Kolarcik for his remarks and proceeded, as is often the custom of the Holy Father, to dispense with his own prepared address: “You’ve got the paper in front of you and can read it later.  Why don’t you all come forward, and I will greet you.”

Read the full story on the blog of our product manager, Craig St. Clair.

Do you want to study like a student at the Pontifical Biblical Institute? The Biblicum package we gave to the Holy Father is now available to the public.

How to Analyze Art, Part 2: Encountering Beauty

Virgin and Child with Sts. Dominic and Catherine of Alexandria – Fra Angelico, c. 1435

By Eva Marie Haine

In April, I explained some basic principles of how to look at art from a purely formal point of view—that is, an analysis of how an object of art looks in terms of elements of design. These elements are line, shape, form, color, value, texture, and space.

Any good appreciation of a work of art begins and constantly returns to its form. Why? Because how it looks is inseparable from what it shows or expresses —the visual is the conduit of expression which makes art distinctive from every other form of expression. Thus art cannot be reduced to its subject matter, historical background, or facts of an artist’s biography, which might aid in our understanding of the work, but will never amount to its whole meaning, and in fact, are many times a distraction from it.

Art is not a historical record, nor is it mere imitation and representation. Indeed, realism in art can make art a slave to the literal. Instead, art is a way in which the human act of making distills and soaks the visual world with ideas, feelings, and spiritual realities. These are things that words cannot express adequately and reason cannot grasp. Our intellect delights in the masterful marriage of form and content. In his Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, the philosopher Roger Scruton describes how good art appeals to the imagination and comes to us “soaked in thought.”

The truth is that it is perfectly good and even right to feel a sense of wonder and mystery about a work of art. The French Thomist Jacques Maritain writes in Art and Scholasticism, “In the presence of a beautiful work… the intellect rejoices without discourse […] It is thus that it signifies without properly making known, and that it expresses that which our ideas cannot signify.” To experience speechlessness is indeed the telling effect of great art.

Sadly, many times we do not allow ourselves to linger in that space of wordless wonder, but immediately want to resolve our questions by appealing to information. It is easy, especially in our hyper-informed age, to jump immediately from looking at a work of art to explaining it. If you go to a museum and observe visitors there, you will see that most of them glance briefly at a work of art, read the text alongside it, and then walk on. Sometimes they don’t even look at it, they just take a picture of it! The internet-surfing equivalent is to see an image of art and immediately read about it on Wikipedia.

For this reason, I suggest in my first article that when you encounter a work of art that strikes you, do not read about it. Instead, enter into the painting by means of close analysis. Find an entrance point that interests you—perhaps the color or the composition—and then allow your eyes and your mind to wander through the painting. You will discover all sorts of distinct details that lend themselves to the overall beauty and impression that it gives you.

By doing this, you will begin to have a sense of the meaning—what the work communicates. This is true even for abstract art, which still conveys and communicates, although more vaguely than figurative art that tells a story or represents a particular scene or person.

Maritain notes that in order to have this experience, there must be something legible to us–something that we recognize and can understand what it signifies. Deeper truths sometimes require deeper knowledge, and I think that this is true of much religious art. To an observer with very little knowledge of Scripture or theology, there may be little that is legible in a painting of the Crucifixion; the full significance of the details may be lost on them. On the other hand, such a person may be more receptive to the affective power and mystery of the scene, whereas those who are very familiar with the story and with the common artistic tropes of it might be desensitized to the potency of the truth expressed.

Thus, knowledge is certainly helpful in apprehending the content of a work of art, and of the recognition of its essential truth, but we also must be careful, especially with religious art, not to reduce it to a mere code of symbols for us to interpret either rightly or wrongly. Let us try to always retain that wonder at the mystery of good artistry and the unique marriage of form and content that each work contains.

The Descent from the Cross – Rembrandt, 1632

So, how exactly do we interpret those details that we see? Returning to the Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt that we analyzed in my first post, I’d like to guide us through a simple interpretation of it.

Looking back over the analysis based on our elements of design, a few key observations stand out. It seems that everything—from the color, the lighting, and composition—draws my eyes to Christ’s body and its lifelessness. Then, I can begin to ask myself what I know of this moment in Scripture: first, the dark background reminds me that there was an eclipse of the sun at the time of His death, and yet a pure light seems to be emanating from His body, piercing the darkness. Both of these aspects reveal His divinity to me, in that they make manifest His authority over and transcendence of the material, physical world. Meanwhile, His total limpness and lifelessness, accentuated by the contrast of his heavy, curving form with the straight, linear cross, and also the near-whiteness of His body, shock us with the truth of God’s death. Rembrandt is drawing out and inviting us to contemplate more deeply the mystery and scandal of this truth by depicting it with such concentrated attention. The painting holds in tension Christ’s divinity and His mortality with striking contrast.

This interpretation is what arises from my very personal and direct observation. I have not read about the painting at all. Granted, I am accustomed to looking at art, but the point of my example is not to set a standard, but to act as a guide for how to move from formal analysis to interpretation—an interpretation that is meaningful to you as a viewer. You must ask yourself: what is the painting communicating and how does it do it? Perhaps it will move you to a very simple truth, or you may find yourself following a fascinating chain of theological reflections.

If, in the end, you want to know more about the artist, the technique, the time period, and so on, feel free to read the museum placard or research it on your own. Especially in regards to religious art, the best way to lead yourself to a deeper appreciation is not necessarily to read about particular works, but to study the apposite Scripture and theology more closely. Another excellent way to grow in understanding of art is to learn how to make it yourself, if only for a greater sense of how artists use particular media and to what effects, and how they are moved to certain artistic choices for the sake of meaning. Above all, art is for delight and wonder, for understanding truths hard to express in words, so if you find yourself getting bogged down in facts, go back to looking!

All of the paintings featured on the blog are available in the Verbum Treasury of Sacred Art.

Painting of the Week: Apparition of St. Francis at Arles

This painting by Fra Angelico was part of the predella that belonged to a triptych of the Madonna and Child with Four Saints (known as the Compagnia di San Francesco Altarpiece), assigned to the convent of Santa Croce in Florence. [Read more…]

Run Toward the Fatherland

By Oliver Davies, excerpted from this month’s free Catholic book.

It is natural for travelers to hurry on to their homeland; it is natural too that they should experience anxiety on the roadway and peace when they arrive home. And so we too who are on the road should hasten on, for the whole of our life is like one day’s journey. Our first duty is to love nothing here, but to love the things above, to desire the things above, to relish the things above and to seek our home there, for the fatherland is where our Father is. [Read more…]

The Two Ways Christ Continues His Mission: A Reflection for Mass

Enjoy this reflection on John 14:15–16, part of the Gospel reading from this Sunday’s Mass, taken from The Navarre Bible: Saint John’s Gospel.

John 14:15–16

Jesus said to his disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.”

[Read more…]

Painting of the Week: Raphael–The Resurrection of Christ

The Resurrection of Christ, one of Raphael’s earliest known works, is packed with symbolic elements intended to communicate theological truths. Here are some highlights: [Read more…]

Sacraments, Modern Theology, More—4 New Resources Coming to Verbum

If you love Catholic theology and great book deals, you’ll love this month’s Pre-Pub highlights. (Pre-Pub is your opportunity to get books and collections at a discount before they publish. You can see the full list here.) [Read more…]

On Catholicity: A Reflection on This Sunday’s Gospel Reading

The Farewell Discourse, from the Maesta by Duccio, 1308–1311.

Enjoy this reflection on John 17:20–26, the Gospel reading from yesterday’s Mass, taken from The Navarre Bible: Saint John’s Gospel. [Read more…]

Verbum’s Free Book Goes Away Soon

You only have a few days left to get these resources on Mary and the Catholic tradition at a great discount. [Read more…]

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