Friday, December 19, 2014

Zechariah's Doubt



Today’s Gospel is the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. When the priest read it this morning at Mass, this phrase jumped out at me: “your prayer has been heard.” This is a key phrase to understanding Zechariah’s doubt.

Imagine if you had been praying for something for years and years, and suddenly you see an angel standing before you telling you that finally, after all this time, God is going to grant your prayer. Wouldn’t you be overwhelmed with joy and happiness, and maybe even jump up and down? I would!

But not Zechariah. For some reason not told to us, he wouldn’t believe it and raised objections. We don’t know what was in his heart, but because he was punished, something in his heart must have gone awry. Was God just being vindictive here? No, because the punishment had a purpose. It was to teach him something. What?

This gospel passage plays off the ideas of speaking and listening in a quite interesting way. First, Zechariah’s prayer was heard, so he had already spoken to God about what was in his heart. But then Zechariah couldn’t hear God’s response. So Gabriel—who obviously is a pretty tough angel—says “I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place.”

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the punishments of people always match their sin. So it is for Zechariah. Because he wouldn’t listen, he will get to know what it’s like to have people not listen to him because now he can’t speak. Perhaps God wanted to teach Zechariah—and us—that prayer is a relationship. It’s not about us making demands of God to be fulfilled in exactly the way we want. That would turn God into some kind of big vending machine in the sky.

In prayer, instead, we bring our needs to God and make our requests. But then we need to hold that request before the Lord, and talk to him about it. We can even use our imagination to picture what the response to our request might be and hold that picture before God, but in a way that allows him to change it.

We hear no more from Zechariah until John was born. But we do hear in this gospel from Elizabeth, who praised God, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”And what of John himself? Luke later describes him, quoting Isaiah, as "the voice of one crying in the desert..." The son of a speechless father became a mighty voice to prepare the way of the Lord. Such are the ways of God.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Novena Day 2

This is a sung version of the novena from Sr Anne Joan's blog.


Here's an interesting tidbit about the O antiphons. If you take the first letter of each antiphon in Latin and put them in reverse order, you get ERO CRAS. In Latin, it means "tomorrow I will be." (ero = I will be; cras = tomorrow, from which we get the word procrastinate)

E Emmanuel
R Rex (king)
O Orient (radiant dawn)

C Key of David (clavis)
R Root of Jesse (radix)
A Lord (adonai)
S Wisdom (sapientia)


Come, Lord, do not delay!



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A quick guide to the Vatican report on American nuns

A few years ago my community hosted two sisters doing the apostolic visitation, and I spoke to one of them privately.  They were very kind and it was an enjoyable visit. Now we have the report which has finally come out, and here is what I noticed about it:

1. It uses positive language and the authors seem to want to go out of their way to praise the sisters, probably because of all the negative publicity that had been generated earlier.

2. Under the heading “empirical findings” it notes what everybody knows, that religious life in the United States is in deep trouble. The numbers have plummeted from around 175,000 in the mid-60s to less than 50,000 sisters today, with a median age in the mid-to-late 70s. The report, however, does not try to analyze the reasons for the decline.

3. Rather than telling communities what to do, the report focuses on certain areas and asks religious communities to evaluate their own lives and practices in these areas. I think that is really all it could do, since such great variety exists among all the congregations. And that approach also respects the sisters themselves as the persons they are, called by God to an important vocation in the Church.

4. Reading between the lines, however, one can see that there is concern about certain areas in particular. The one that I most noticed comes in the section “Called to a Life Centered on Christ.” The report states:
The Church is continually challenged to a fresh understanding and experience of this mystical encounter. However, caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith. Truly, the Word of God is the one through whom the cosmos is created and sustained in being since "all things have been created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things have their being (cf. Col. 1:16f).
This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.
Those are some very basic teachings—God, Jesus Christ, Redemption—the very cornerstones of the Catholic faith. The very fact that there is concern about those areas indicates all is not well. This is reflected in certain types of practices among some religious sisters (ie. certain New Age, earth-centered spiritualities that seem to have little connection with actual Catholic teachings).

5. About vocations, the report also notes that while candidates today often have more education and professional backgrounds than previously, they have “less prior theological and spiritual formation.” This is certainly true. And that, I think, points to the real problem with religious life today. It is not an isolated problem but one that reflects problems of the wider Church: lack of a basic Catholic understanding, the falling away from Catholic prayer practices, falling participation in the Mass, the breakup of Catholic family life. And that is something that concerns all of us. If we want more sisters, if we want a more vibrant and powerfully effective witness in the consecrated life, all Catholics need to take their faith more seriously, practice it, live it, and pass it on to others.

Finally, just to note, this report is not about the LCWR. This report is from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and has to do with the way religious communities actually live their lives. The investigation of the LCWR is being done by the CDF and that report is still awaited. It will certainly say more about doctrinal issues.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

St Nicholas, St Thomas, and divine Mercy

St Thomas seems to have been devoted to St Nicholas, who was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. The Dominican Church of St Dominic in Naples has a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. Thomas would offer his morning Mass in that chapel and pray there for long hours.

It was in that chapel on the feast of St Nicholas in 1273 that Thomas had a mysterious mystical experience that changed his life. Something happened while he was offering Mass, as if he was caught up in an ecstatic state. Afterward he was profoundly changed. Up to then Thomas had spent many, many hours writing. But after that day, this great Doctor of the Church put down his pen and stopped writing.

He had not finished his crowning achievement, the Summa Theologiae. His secretary Friar Reginald begged him to keep on writing. But Thomas simply replied, "Reginald, I cannot. All I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen." Three months later, on March 7, 1274, St Thomas died.


A few years earlier, when Thomas was still in Paris, he had preached a beautiful homily on St Nicholas, in which he emphasizes mercy. As a pastor, the works of the saint especially focused on mercy. The stories that have been passed on about him show this, as for example the time that Nicholas secretly provided the dowries for three young women. Some quotes:

"The principal work of the Lord is mercy, as the Psalmist says, 'His tender mercies are over all his works' (Ps 144:9). The Lord's servant is one who exercises mercy toward the poor."

"We use oil to heal a wound, through which we understand healing grace... And since blessed Nicholas was anointed with the oil of healing grace, because he had full soundness of spiritual health and was equipped to anoint others, we are told that wine and oil were poured--that is, the wine of stern correction and the oil of mercy and comfort."


"We use oil to soften, and this signifies mercy and kindness of heart, both of which blessed Nicholas possessed, since he was utterly filled with mercy and devotion.. . . Just as oil spreads over things, mercy spreads over every good work. Unless you have mercy, your labors are nothing."




Monday, December 01, 2014

Mary and Advent

I did a guest post on Sr Theresa Aletheia's blog:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pursuedbytruth/2014/12/how-to-have-a-marian-advent.html#disqus_thread


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Scapular: A Biblical View







Today’s feast, commonly associated with the scapular, can help us reflect on the Biblical theme concerning garments of salvation. The German word for scapular, Gnadenkleid, literally means “grace-garment.” Many references to garments and clothes are scattered throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). In their original state of innocence, they had no need for clothes. They were naked but not ashamed—this is what Pope John Paul called “original nakedness.”
But after their sin, our first parents lost their innocence and needed to be clothed. God’s tender action of making clothes for them can perhaps be seen as symbolizing the garments of grace that God would bestow through Jesus Christ.

Pure and clean garments came to symbolize grace and salvation, as the prophet Isaiah sang:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)

This imagery blends the spousal theme with that of garments of salvation. This text is used in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Garments signify the gifts of grace that God adorns us with inwardly.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, picks up the theme of white garments to express the holiness of the saints, of those who have been through great trials and held fast to their faith: “Yet you still have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels” (Rev 3:4–5).
Among the several “blessings” in the book of Revelation, we find this one: “Blessed are those who wash their robes [in the blood of the Lamb] so that they will have the right to the tree of life” (22:14).


Perhaps today the scapular devotion is not as popular as it once was. But Catholicism, as a sacramental religion, uses such material symbols as signs of the deeper underlying inner reality of grace. The scapular is not meant to be something superstitious, like a talisman or a good luck charm. Wearing it expresses in a silent yet eloquent way our love for Mary and our confidence in her intercession and help.

Prayer

The following prayer, called Flower of Carmel, is attributed to St. Simon Stock:

O Beautiful Flower of Carmel, most fruitful vine, splendor of heaven, holy and singular, who brought forth the Son of God, still ever remaining a pure virgin, assist us in our necessity! O Star of the Sea, help and protect us! Show us that you are our Mother! Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Holiness in consecrated life: what role do the vows play?

I've been working on a project related to Vita Consecrata in view of the upcoming year for consecrated life. It's been a while since I had read this document, and re-reading it has been very enriching. It's an incredibly beautiful document.
It also got me thinking about the discussion that went on a few months ago in relation to the article by Br Justin Hannegan on the religious life. I had offered some critical observations on it. John Paul's document has helped me see some things more clearly.

One thing I disagree with in Br Justin's article was that he seemed to present the vows in a way that made them merely a means to holiness. Presenting them as the most difficult way to live, he said they are the best means to holiness. This led him to the odd conclusion that everyone should desire to be in the religious life!

In this approach, the vows are only a means to some generic kind of holiness. But John Paul presents the vows quite differently. In no. 18 of Vita Consecrata, he has a remarkable statement that made a big light bulb go off in my head. I think it's the theological core of the document and of our whole understanding of religious life. The pope said that Jesus' "way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine, for it was embraced by him, God and man, as the expression of his relationship as the Only-Begotten Son with the Father and with the Holy Spirit."

Wow, that's theological dynamite, because it puts us squarely in front of the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus lived in chastity, poverty, and obedience precisely as the Son, in his filial relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. So the vows are not just some means to a generic holiness, but to a particular configuration with Christ precisely as he is chaste, poor, and obedient. And that puts us in relation to the Trinity in a unique way. In other words, the vows are not just a means but the essence of the holiness that those in consecrated life are called to because they make us configured to Christ--not just in general, but precisely in that way.

In the next paragraph of the document, John Paul goes on to speak of Mary as the model because of her total gift of self. Love is involved in that. We live chaste, poor, and obedient because of a total gift of self inspired by love, following Mary's example.

There's a lot to think about here, and I need to deepen it. Doing so would also help to understand better why the consecrated life is a different vocation from the lay life and  from the ordained ministry. John Paul says that consecrated life is essential to the Church, integral to its very nature. It is not just lay life lived at some more intense degree. It is something different. I think understanding this better would help to avoid the vexed arguments about what sort of life is "better." That's not really the point. They are different and reflect different facets of the whole mystery of Christ. All are called to holiness, as Vatican II stressed, but in their own unique way. Lay life is marked by the secular nature of that vocation, "ensuring that the Gospel message is proclaimed in the temporal sphere" (no. 32), and the ordained have their particular ministry. The unique contribution of the consecrated life is that it is a particular way of "showing forth the Church's holiness" because it "mirrors Christ's own way of life" as he was chaste, poor, and obedient (no. 32).

The vows are indispensable for doing that. So to see them merely as a means to some generic kind of holiness is very inadequate. That's the main point I wish to make.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Translation errors in papal documents: Vita Consecrata

When Pope Francis' Joy of the Gospel came out, there was some discussion about parts of it being badly translated. But this is not a new problem. I don't know who does translations at the Vatican, but some of the English translations have had mistakes and this has been going on for some time.

Take Vita Consecrata for example. It is a document on the consecrated life put out by Pope John Paul in 1996. In no. 26 he speaks of the eschatological sign value of this life, and says it is such "above all by means of the vow of virginity, which tradition has always understood as an anticipation of the world to come."

The reference to the "vow of virginity" puzzled me, since we don't make a vow of virginity but a vow of chastity. There's a difference. So I looked up the official Latin, which has virginalis electio. This means the "choice of virginity." Electio does not mean vow (which would be votum in Latin) but it means "choice or selection" (reflected in our English word "election.")

The other languages on the Vatican website use the phrase "choice of virginity", not "vow":
le choix de la virginité (French),
la scelta verginale (Italian),
and opción por la virginidad (Spanish).

This ties in better with the way John Paul spoke in TOB about those who are called to this vocation. He said that they do so “in view of the particular value which is connected with this choice and which one must discover and welcome as one’s own vocation” (TOB 73.3).

But why does the Vatican not give more care to the English translation of papal documents? Vita Consecrata was an important document, a post-synodal document and a major statement on the subject in quite some time. Perhaps this particular error doesn't change anything doctrinal in the document, but still it is misleading and inaccurate. The pope is not speaking of the vows in that section. He is speaking in a wider sense, of the choice of a way of life. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

St Thomas sometimes had a bad day at the office

When writing, St Thomas would usually dictate to his secretaries. It's an established fact that he could dictate to two or even three secretaries at the same time. He had an amazing capacity for such work.

But I think he too probably had his bad days at the office. Recently I came across something in the Summa that I found humorous.

In answering the question "Can angels work miracles?" Thomas says no, they cannot, because such power belongs only to God.
In responding to the objection that St Gregory said some angelic spirits can work wonders, Thomas replies that they could be said to work miracles only in the sense that either God works miracles at their request, or because they act in a ministerial role with respect to the miracles that occur. Then he gives the example that I find humorous: "for example, collecting the dust (of the dead) at the General Resurrecction or doing something of that sort."

For me it conjured up a funny picture of angels going around with little baskets collecting dust and trying to reassemble it into bodies. I don't know how the general resurrection will work, but however God does it through his power, I don't think it would mean physically putting dust back together. So maybe Thomas just had a hard time coming up with a good example, especially if he was dictating to more than one secretary, which explains his further comment, "or doing something of that sort."

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What would Aquinas say?

There have been some media reports that Cardinal Kasper downplayed the assessment by Cardinal Muller about the LCWR. Kasper said, "St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian now considered one of the greatest minds in the church, was condemned by his bishop and lived under a shadow for years. So she is in good company!" Kasper said of Johnson." [the theologian criticized by Cardinal Muller.]

Two points for clarification:

1. Aquinas was never condemned by his bishop while he was alive. Kasper is probably referring to the condemnation of 1277, which was issued by Stephen Tempier, the bishop of Paris. Thomas had died 3 years earlier, in March 1274.
The story of this condemnation is rather involved, but the bottom line is that it doesn't mention Thomas by name, some of his teachings are likely included, and the bishop got some things wrong. St Albert the Great went to Paris at the time to defend Thomas from his detractors. Fr Torrell has a detailed discussion of this in his book on St. Thomas, (pp. 298-303). During his life, Thomas was certainly involved in disputes at the university, but his teaching was entirely orthodox.

2. On his deathbed Thomas said, “I have written and taught much about this very holy Body [ie. the Eucharist] and about the Holy Roman Church, to whose correction I expose and submit everything I have written.”

Thomas was a saint because he was humble. I don't see any statements like this coming from today's dissenting theologians. Until that happens, I don't see how they could really be compared to each other.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Cardinal Muller and the LCWR

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith posted the remarks of Cardinal Muller at a meeting with the LCWR. It's a remarkably clear statement that gets to the real heart of the issue: doctrinal matters. Teachings such as the Incarnation and the role of Christ are fundamental to the Catholic faith. It's incomprehensible to me why anyone who doesn't believe those teachings would even want to remain in the religious life. What's the point, if not Christ?
Here is an excerpt of Muller's statement:


Again, I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language. The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.. . .


I do not think I overstate the point when I say that the futuristic ideas advanced by the proponents of Conscious Evolution are not actually new. The Gnostic tradition is filled with similar affirmations and we have seen again and again in the history of the Church the tragic results of partaking of this bitter fruit. Conscious Evolution does not offer anything which will nourish religious life as a privileged and prophetic witness rooted in Christ revealing divine love to a wounded world. It does not present the treasure beyond price for which new generations of young women will leave all to follow Christ. The Gospel does! Selfless service to the poor and marginalized in the name of Jesus Christ does!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Annunciation -- What's your name of grace?

The Gospel of the Annunciation is full of names--7 in the first sentence alone. The angel Gabriel gives Mary a new name: "full of grace." The word translated as "hail" (kaire) literally means "rejoice." The new name God gives Mary is a reason for her to rejoice, because God has gifted her with so much grace.
Later in that Gospel, Gabriel says of Elizabeth that "she who was called barren is now in her sixth month." In those days, for a woman to be called "barren" was a sign of disgrace. But because "nothing is impossible with God," God changed that disgrace into a gift. The barren woman was now a mother.

All of us have been called names in our lives, some of them bad ones. But those names that others call us don't have the power to define us. Still, they can sting. God offers us a remedy, however, so that we can find our true identity in the name God bestows on us with love.

The Book of Revelation says, "To the victor . . . I shall also give a white stone upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it" (2:17). Just as God gave Mary and Elizabeth new names, he gives us our own special names of grace. White stones were used in the ancient world in elections, to vote for someone, to show confidence in a person. We can ask in prayer for God to show us what our special name of grace is. And the name carries a power; we can do what we are named. If anyone calls you a bad name, don't accept it but instead recall that name of grace, the name from God, who loves you and calls you to greatness.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Baptismal character is a spiritual power

In article 2 of question 63 (part 3 of the Summa), Thomas investigates what the baptismal character actually is. He relates it to our ability to participate in divine worship. "Divine worship consists either in receiving some divine things or in handing them on to others. And a certain power is needed for both of these activities...this is why character connotes a certain spiritual power ordered to those things which pertain to divine worship."

He goes on to specify that the power is a certain type of instrumental power. By that he is referring to the idea of instrumental causality. For example, if I write with a pen, the pen is the instrument I use, so it is an instrumental cause of my writing. This principle of instrumental causality is an important one in Thomas' theology of the sacraments. He sees the divinity of Christ working through the humanity of Christ as the cause of the power of the sacraments. The sacraments themselves are an instrumental cause, but one that is separate, not conjoined, to Christ.

So the character is a kind of spiritual power. Baptism is the doorway to the other sacraments because it enables us to receive them, through the baptismal character.

We could also note that the character in itself, like any power, can be used well or badly. It is used well by those of the baptized who take seriously their Christian commitment. It is used badly by those who, instead, lead a sinful life, a life apart from God. But once we have the baptismal character, we can never lose it, not even by the gravest sin, not even by renouncing faith.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sacramental character: St Thomas' view

I'd like to explore more what St Thomas means by character in reference to the sacraments. This is from part III of the Summa, q. 63, a. 1.

First he says that the sacraments have two purposes:
1. They are a remedy for sin
2. They "bring the soul to its fullness in things pertaining to the worship of God in terms of the Christian life as a ritual expression of this."

He uses a comparison, saying that soldiers are marked off by some physical sign  when they are deputed for a certain function. Similarly, "Since by the sacraments men are deputed to a spiritual service pertaining to the worship of God, it follows that by their means the faithful receive a certain spiritual character."

"God imprints his own character on us" through the sacraments, through this spiritual sign.

In this first article Thomas is simply saying that some sacraments imprint a character. He cites St. Paul: "He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come" (2 Cor 1:22). 

Here I would just like to note the interesting reference to the second purpose of the sacraments. It has to do with offering worship of God. It seems that Thomas is thinking primarily of worship in the sense of liturgy. It might be possible, though, to extend that meaning a little in terms of how the baptized live their lives in the world.  

"You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Pet 2:5). These spiritual sacrifices can be anything in our life, all that we do and suffer for God. The traditional prayer of the morning offering expresses that reality. Our whole lives, offered to God in all their details, form a sort of liturgy of life. In that sense, life becomes liturgy, and I think it can be said that the character of baptism is very much involved with this.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Religious consecration and baptism

In thinking about some questions related to the nature of religious life, I started to ask myself how religious consecration is specifically related to the character of baptism.

A couple preliminary points:

1. Religious consecration is a deepening of one's baptismal consecration. It is not a new sacrament but is a flowering of baptismal grace.

2. What is the character imprinted by baptism?  St Thomas explains that this character is a certain configuration to Christ the High Priest, which enables us to take part in Christian worship. Further, this character is indelible; nothing can ever take it away.

3. St. Thomas also says that the religious life itself is ordered to a deeper, fuller worship of God, so much so that one's whole life becomes an act of worship:
"Religion is a virtue whereby a man offers something to the service and worship of God. Therefore, those are called religious by antonomasia, who consecrate themselves totally to the divine service, as offering a holocaust to God" (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 186, a. 1).

 So:
      Baptism imprints a character,
      The character is ordered to Christian worship,
      Religious consecration is a deepening of baptism,
      And it makes one's whole life an act of worship.

This may be speculation on my part, but it looks like it would be a pretty solid conclusion to say that in some way, religious profession has to be involved specifically with the baptismal character.  Does it intensify the character in some way?

Most of us probably don't think a lot about the baptismal character, but it's important. Thomas says:

Each of the faithful is deputed to receive, or to bestow on others, things pertaining to the worship of God. And this, properly speaking, is the purpose of the sacramental character. Now the whole rite of the Christian religion is derived from Christ's priesthood. Consequently, it is clear that the sacramental character is specially the character of Christ, to Whose character the faithful are likened by reason of the sacramental characters, which are nothing else than certain participations of Christ's Priesthood, flowing from Christ Himself

 This character is where the priesthood of the laity flows from (which differs not only in degree but in essence from the priesthood conferred by Orders). 

So: to bestow on others things pertaining to the worship of God.
In some way, religious act like a leaven in the world, taking the things of the world that they deal in, day in and day out, and making an offering of them to God. This is something to explore a bit more. 

What prompted this is John Paul's statement that continence "for the sake of the kingdom" imprints a certain likeness to Christ. In what way exactly?


Happy feast of Saint Thomas!

Happy feast of Saint Thomas! A thought for the day, on kindness:

"Kindness is the fruit of love.... since the love of charity reaches out to embrace everybody, kindness, too, must go out to everybody, given, of course, the right place and the right time, for acts of the virtues must all be subject to the limits set by due circumstances." (Summa, II-II, q. 31, a. 2)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

St. Edith Stein on her vocation

Edith Stein was a Jewish convert to Catholicism. Raised in a devout Jewish home, she became an atheist for quite a few years. In her quest for faith, a decisive moment came when she stayed with friends and found the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila in their library. She stayed up that night to read it, and when she finished, she said, "This is truth!" She became a Catholic not long after that.

In an essay "How I Came to the Cologne Carmel"* she describes the events leading up to her actual entrance into Carmel. However she doesn't say a lot about her interior experience. I don't know if there are other places in her writings where she goes into it more. But this is what she says:
"For almost 12 years, Carmel had been my goal; since summer 1921, when the Life  of our Holy Mother Teresa had happened to fall into my hands and had put an end to my long search for the true Faith."

Then she narrates the external difficulties that prevented her from entering earlier.  A lot of it had to do with not wanting to make things too painful for her ailing and elderly mother. It was hard enough for Frau Stein to accept that her daughter became a Catholic. For her, to see Edith enter Carmel was a great suffering.
Finally Edith felt God moving her to take the step. She narrates the painful talk with her mother. Edith reflected on the tearful scene as she rode on the train: "I could not feel any wild joy. The scene I had just left behind was too terrible for that. But I felt a deep peace, in the harbor of the divine will." Finally she arrived at the door of Carmel. "At last it opened, and in deep peace I crossed the threshold into the House of the Lord."

Her vocation to the religious life seems to have been born at the same time as her conversion to the Catholic faith. She simply states it had been her goal. Yet she also makes clear that she believed this was God's will for her.

It doesn't seem that she had any thought of entering the religious life simply because it was difficult, or because she thought it was a higher calling. She entered out of love for God, a search for the truth, and the desire to be deeply united to God by doing his will.

In his homily for her canonization, Pope John Paul said:
Aware of what her Jewish origins implied, Edith Stein spoke eloquently about them: “Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s People.... Indeed, today I know far better what it means to be the Lord’s bride under the sign of the Cross. But since it is a mystery, it can never be understood by reason alone.”


So it seems that Saint Edith Stein can especially shed light on the religious life insofar as it means being the bride of Christ standing at the foot of the Cross. This certainly has a Marian connection, for Mary actually stood there and saw Jesus die.
Mary, our Mother, Teacher, and Queen, obtain for us the grace to understand and better live the vocation God has called us to, just as you lived yours.


* In Edith Stein: Selected Writings, Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1990.

Friday, January 24, 2014

St Catherine of Bologna

Pope Benedict gave a catechesis on this saint; she wasn't familiar to me. She lived in the 1400's and was a Poor Clare. Catherine wrote a treatise called The Seven Spiritual Weapons. It was something she had written to help in the formation of the novices of her community. So far I haven't found information about her own experience of being drawn to religious life, but the work starts out like this:
In the name of the eternal Father and of his only begotten Son Christ Jesus,
of the splendor of the Father’s glory, for love of whom,
with jubilation of heart, I cry, saying to his most refined servants and spouses:
 
    Let every lover who loves the Lord 
    Come to the dance singing of love, 
    Let her come dancing all afire 
    Desiring only him who created her 
    And separated her from the dangerous worldly state. 
 
This is intriguing; I must admit that when I come across hymns about dancing, etc.,
I usually roll my eyes and sigh. They remind me of those occasions I had to endure
being at some conference or meeting that had plenty of bad liturgical music. 
I  can't imagine St. Thomas writing hymns about dancing.
His Eucharistic hymns are more my style. 
But this poetic beginning of St. Catherine's work is so evocative and beautiful--dancing all afire. 
This Catherine is another saint worth getting to know.
 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Saints on the religious life: Louise de Marillac

St Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) is an interesting case. She had family troubles (born out of wedlock, she never knew her mother. Her father acknowledged her but not as his legal heir, and she suffered from rejection by her father's second wife.)
When she was young she applied to the Capuchin nuns but was not accepted. This disturbed her greatly but she accepted it and went on to get married. Still, her heart always had a desire for the religious life. When she was 32 she wrote:

On the feast of Pentecost during Holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was completely freed of all doubt. I was advised that I should remain with my husband and that the time would come when I would be in the position to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that I would be in a small community where others would do the same. . . . I felt that it was God who was teaching me these things and that, believing there is a God; I should not doubt the rest.

She had guidance because up to about that time she had St Francis de Sales as her spiritual director. She made a vow that she would not remarry if her husband died before her. Three years later, he did die. They loved each other and Louise grieved his loss. Meanwhile Louise had met St Vincent de Paul and began to assist with some of his charitable works. In 1630 as she was thinking about what to do with her life, she records this incident:

I left on St Agatha's day, the 5th of February, to go to Saint-Cloud. At Holy Communion it seemed to me that Our Lord gave me the thought to receive him as the Spouse of my soul, and more, that this would be for me a form of espousal; and I felt myself most strongly united to God in this consideration which struck me as extraordinary, and I had the thought to leave everything to follow my Spouse, henceforth to consisder him such, and to support the difficulties I would encounter as receiving them out of the community of his goods.*

This is quite interesting because of several points.
1. She specifically says that the thought of espousal came from Jesus himself.
2. It was connected with her receiving Holy Communion.
3. She felt very strongly united to God.
4. It struck her as something extraordinary.
5. She knew that difficulties would come, but she looked on them almost as if they were gifts.

Louise continued to collaborate with St Vincent and together they founded the Sisters of Charity.

My point in looking at the spiritual experiences of these saints as they were drawn to religious life, is to examine what it meant to them. The idea of espousal is very clear here with Louise de Marillac. She was drawn to Jesus as her Spouse, and according to her testimony here, it came to her most clearly in a prayer experience at Mass and Communion. This is how the Holy Spirit has worked in the lives of the saints. Any theoretical treatment of religious life needs to take this data into account.


*p. 55, Louise de Marillac, by Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M., New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How the saints saw religious life: Madeleine Sophie Barat

Today it occurred to me that in discussing if the religious life is repulsive or not (see previous post), we have actual models of how the saints have seen it. So I went to our community library and at random picked out a volume on a saint, to see if I could find anything in this regard. The book was on St Madeleine Sophie Barat, the foundress of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. She lived in France from 1779 to 1865. I found this in the first chapter, in her own words:

There was never a time when I did not want to belong to God... I was from four to six years old when a priest came to call on my mother. He said: "I have just come from a convent where I witnessed a real scene between two religious...." I was playing in a corner of the room and seemed not to hear the conversation, but I lost none of it. It became fixed in my memory, and as I already had a religious vocation I said to myself that I would never enter that convent.*

That's grace. She always knew she was going to be a nun, and she evidently wasn't thinking of it as "the hardest, most fearsome way to live" as Br. Justin said in his article. She even knew which convents to steer clear of! For her, it meant that she would always "belong to God."

God works differently with each person, and not everyone called to religious life has such a clear intuition at such a young age. But it is possible, and my point here is that she was drawn to religious life by seeing it as a positive good, as a belonging to God. That's quite far from being repulsive! It's truly amazing how the Holy Spirit works. Madeleine Sophie never heard of TOB, but she lived it, and was one of a long line of holy people whom John Paul refers to here:

"In this call to continence 'for the kingdom of heaven,' first the disciples and then the whole living tradition of the Church quickly discovered the love for Christ himself as the Bridegroom of the Church, Bridegroom of souls, to whom he has given himself to the end... "[TOB 80:1]




* p. 15, in St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, by Margaret Williams, RCSJ, New York: Herder and Herder, 1965.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TOB rescues religious life from being repulsive!



Sr Theresa Noble, our novice, posted a thought-provoking article Is Religious Life Repulsive? It was prompted by an article by a Br. Justin, SacrificingReligious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism. I discussed this briefly with Theresa last night before the novices went off on the March for Life. It’s an intriguing topic.
Here is my own response to Br Justin’s article. While he makes some valid points, I think he basically misses the boat. He’s looking at religious life from a very reductionistic point of view, as if the vows are wholly a matter of renunciation. He says:


All forms of religious life have this repulsive effect.  All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive.  The vow of poverty means giving up money and property; the vow of chastity means giving up a spouse and children; and the vow of obedience means giving up one’s own will.  No one has an innate desire to sever himself from property, family, and his own will.  No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods.  Such a desire would be mere perversion. Everyone, however, has an innate desire to get married.  Religious life is a renunciation, but marriage is a positive good. 



That last line is very telling and shows that his basic outlook on religious life is essentially negative. He tries to rescue it by then proposing that because it is so, well, repulsive, the only way to save it is by proposing it as a higher calling and a surer road to holiness than, say, marriage.  That’s a big topic and raises a number of theological problems. It also sets up a basic opposition between consecrated life and marriage. In reality, both vocations are like two sides of the same coin. I’m going to sidestep that whole issue, though, and look at it from a completely different angle. (Also, just to note, marriage has its own set of sacrifices and renunciations.)

TOB – A New Angle on Religious Life

The theology of the body is like a refreshing breeze that can put this whole discussion on another level. In his TOB talks, John Paul focuses primarily on the sacrament of marriage. But he has a short, dense, and intriguing section on continence “for the sake of the kingdom.” It’s not an easy read. But I think it holds the key.

JP suggests that both marriage and religious life are rooted in the fundamental human vocation to love. For example, the call to continence “for the sake of the kingdom” is a call to an exclusive self-gift to God. The three elements are important: 1) exclusive 2) self-gift 3) to God. Married people also make an exclusive self-gift, but they make it to their spouse. God is involved in the sacrament of marriage, of course, but in a different way.

In the TOB talks, JP keeps speaking about the value contained in a life given over to God in continence “for the kingdom.” Ultimately it has to do with the fact that it puts the person in a unique, special relationship with Jesus Christ through the vow of chastity. What I’m trying to understand better myself is exactly what that relationship is and how to articulate it in such a way as to do it justice, without suggesting that people who haven’t made that vow are somehow in an inferior relationship to Jesus. That’s certainly not the case.  I’m now reading over those talks and pondering this. JP is very clear that consecrated chastity has a very special and important value, one essential to the life of the Church.

John Paul proposes that the spousal meaning of the body is at the basis of every person’s vocation. He says that each person has to live the spousal meaning of the body, and that the spousal meaning is at the basis of both vocations, marriage and consecrated life. Ultimately the spousal meaning of the body is not so much about sex as it is about love and self-gift. And in each vocation, the person is called to make that self-gift. Spouses make that self-gift to each other, and religious make it to God, and Jesus in particular. (Of course, that love spills over to others in mission. But right now I'm not focusing on that aspect.) And that self-gift to Jesus sets up a very particular relationship, one that is different from a person who does not make that exclusive self-gift to Jesus in that way. This is not to imply that a person who hasn’t made such a vow is less holy; not at all. It’s more like they’re taking two different paths to the same goal—holiness—and each path is unique and involves God’s call. Love and self-gift are the fundamentals in both vocations.
What bothers me about Br Justin’s article is that he seems to think that the essence of religious life is renunciation. But that is so wrong. It does indeed involve some renunciation, but the essence is love. The greatest virtue is love, not fortitude.

St. Thomas, in explaining why fortitude is not the greatest of the virtues, says, “Virtue essentially regards the good rather than the difficult. Hence the greatness of a virtue is measured according to its goodness rather than its difficulty.” (II-II, q. 123, a. 12, ad 2)

To see religious life and the vows solely in terms of renunciation misses that important truth. It would put fortitude over love. Br. Justin tries to overcome the negativity of seeing religious life wholly in terms of renunciation by proposing that if it’s presented as a higher state, people will put up with the renunciation because they’re getting something better. But notice—the emphasis is then on getting, not on giving, as in love, self-gift. That’s the TOB emphasis. And that’s why TOB is so important for the Church.



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